Building a Foundation of Success: Lessons from Columbia College Chicago Online (Part 2)
Building out an online continuing education program can pose a challenge even to the largest higher education institutions. While many fledgling divisions turn to Online Program Management (OPM) vendors to ease their movement online, that pathway didn’t suit the ambitions or expectations of Columbia College Chicago and its new Columbia Online division. In the second half of this two-part series on the formation of Columbia College Chicago Online, Robert Green and Stanley Wearden discuss how Columbia Online aligns with the institution’s overall strategic growth plan, and share some insights into how the Destiny One Customer Lifecycle Management software platform is helping them build the back-end capabilities they need to be an industry leader.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How is Destiny One helping Columbia College Chicago deliver on the expectations and needs that non-traditional students bring to the table?
Robert Green (RG): It’s great to work with a business that understands the difference between continuing ed students and traditional learners. Destiny One’s platform includes many of the features we were looking for, while focusing on the lifelong learner market. It allows for easy enrollments, a simple-to-use catalog, and the ability to create certificates, while providing a great back-end student experience. Previously, we would have had to build those capabilities from scratch, or use a less-than-ideal solution.
That’s the main reason we went with Destiny One. There are always going to be some customizations, but 80 to 90 percent of what we needed was built into Destiny One, which was exciting.
Evo: How important is back-end efficiency and process effectiveness to serving an online student audience compared to on-campus learners?
RG: It’s huge. An online student is someone that’s shopping around for the best educational options. Once they see something that they feel will fulfill their career needs or individual goals, they want to enroll right away.
As soon as the student enrolls, we need to be ready. The student wants to feel welcomed into the online community, and not experience any glitches that make them second-guess their educational investment.
Back-end processes are central to this. Institutions need to set up the right communication tools to onboard new students, manage a student’s academic scheduling and progress towards a certificate or diploma, make sure that the student understands what it means to be a student for Columbia College Chicago Online, and provide them with ways to connect. Destiny One works with our CRM and LMS to make sure that we are providing that overall engaging experience to the student.
Evo: What are some of the processes or policies that you have in place to make sure that the programming that you’re developing and delivering online is responsive to what employers and the labour market requires?
RG: We spent a lot of time doing detailed and competitive analyses on job markets to make sure that our curriculum aligns with employer needs while remaining true to the nature of Columbia College Chicago.
We’re also working with quite a few partners who are helping make sure that our curriculum leads to employment. We’re working with industry practitioners, particularly in augmented reality and virtual reality, who are bringing practical, real-life experience to the table so that we can meet the needs of industry employers.
Stanley Wearden (SW): Our faculty is another invaluable source of industry knowledge. Because we are a practice-based institution, our faculty are really in touch with the professional community. They provide us with great feedback, particularly those who are in touch with working professionals in Hollywood, and give us a strong sense of what the industry needs moving forward.
Evo: Do you see boot-camps and other emerging education providers as competition? How are you differentiating yourself from those newer competitors?
RG: There’s a lot of competition from emerging providers. Depending on the subject area, there’s even competition on YouTube. Bootcamps certainly have their place, but I question the depth of education a student can get from bootcamps alone. How well equipped can you be as a programmer if you’ve been educated in such a short period of time?
Columbia has a solid reputation in the market. We are an accredited institution, working with an amazing faculty and subject matter experts, and our programming is very much instructor –led. That’s one of the biggest advantages we have: we connect students with industry professionals. In that, our instructors are providing not only the curriculum itself but also their personal experiences, leading to a strong all-around education.
We are also pairing our faculty with highly skilled instructional designers so that pedagogy and user experience are top of mind when developing these courses.
SW: There are different markets for different kinds of programs, but we believe that there is a strong market for coursework from a fully accredited, private non-profit institution. Because we’re an accredited, private non-profit, we have an education-based mission and a student success-based mission. The opportunities we offer in pursuit of those missions are important: We award degrees that mean something in the job market, and we provide students with an opportunity to build relationships with tenured faculty that will support them throughout their educational journey. Our library is part of the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI), so all of our students, including those taking courses through Columbia College Chicago Online, have access to almost the entire academic library in the state of Illinois. These are the sorts of things a student can’t get through a for-profit provider.
Evo: What impact has this newly created continuing education online programming had on institutional revenues and enrollment growth?
RG: We launched our new courses two weeks ago, so it’s difficult for us to have that conversation in terms of concrete numbers, but we are expecting significant growth in enrollment and revenue. The institution is heavily investing in our efforts to make Online successful, and we are putting all the right pieces in place to give this initiative every chance to be a major component of the school’s strategic plan moving forward.
These efforts are already paying off. We’ve gotten a lot of interest from students who are particularly excited about our new media programs. We’ve had some productive open houses and online events where we’re really starting to attract interest.
SW: The quality of what we’re doing with Columbia College Chicago Online is already elevating the reputation of the entire institution—not just the online component, but the bricks and mortar as well.
RG: Additionally, our online program is helping to re-establish Columbia within the city of Chicago. We’re working with local agencies and non-profits to deliver education to new audiences in new ways.
SW: About 45 percent of our traditional undergraduate students come from the Chicago market, but we haven’t effectively reached out to adult learners in the past. We have a lot to offer to non-traditional students, and online is a way we can build those connections.
Evo: Do you have targets in mind for two-year enrollment and revenue goals?
RG: We do. You know, I wake up every day excited about the fact that we’re in it to win it. That may sound corny, but we are making Columbia a leader in the online space. That’s why I took this position; we aren’t looking to dabble in online because it’s the trendy thing to do. We have a plan and a strategy that has buy-in from our team, institutional faculty, the board and the president. At all levels of the institution, we’re committed to making this happen.
SW: We made a significant investment in online, starting with the candidate search itself. We were really happy to get Rob because, in his previous job, he had been so involved with building one of the most successful online arts-based programs in the country.
There’s significant investment allocated for building out Columbia College Chicago Online in alignment with our strategic plan. Our expectations are high. We are coming into this very aggressively and we expect to see significant results.
Evo: When you look at your strategic goals for the institution over the next five years, what role do you expect digital learning to play in helping to support and grow the rest of the institution?
SW: One of the most important pillars of our strategic plan has been a reimagining of our curriculum. Over the past two years, we’ve completely revised our core curriculum in every major and minor on campus to make it more relevant to students and employers. In some ways, the online environment is serving as our R&D area for curriculum, because online is a much more flexible environment. We can build things out and see how well they work.
Our first goal is to create a robust catalog of courses for lifelong learners in the continuing education arena. We are currently working on building out our offerings in data visualization and augmented and virtual reality. As we build the catalog, we will begin offering certificates in addition to standalone courses. Ultimately, we will examine the viability of fully online or low-residency degree programs.
Our mission at Columbia is always going to revolve around arts and media, but our future lies in understanding the nexus between arts and media and information technology. That’s our niche at Columbia College Chicago Online, and we will play a leadership role in helping to evolve our on-campus curriculum.
Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about what it has taken to develop the online learning platform thus far, and how you’d like to see it develop over the coming years?
RG: From the outset, we have been committed to moving as quickly as possible to get Columbia College Chicago Online off the ground, and that has required treating it like a start-up: We’ve rolled up our sleeves, staffed a team of industry leaders and brought in vendors, including Destiny Solutions, that can help us realize our goals.
At this point, we’re moving. Now we have a lot of the infrastructure in place that we need to be successful. Moving forward, we’re focused on building out the curriculum and strategically planning for the next three to five years of Columbia Chicago Online. We’re in a good position to be very strategic with building out a curriculum that makes sense for the institution as a whole. It’s amazing to be at an institution that allows these monumental changes to happen.
SW: As Provost, I’m committed to shared governance, but shared governance doesn’t mean things have to move slowly. This process has required a lot of conversation with faculty and faculty senate with regard to things like curriculum approval, streamlining, and making the process as a quick and nimble as possible. That takes a bit of time, but I think faculty and faculty senate are starting to understand that we need to be extremely responsive to the online market. We can’t take a year or two to approve a new certificate, or take a semester to approve a new course. We need to be able to move quickly. Online is a fast-moving world, and Columbia College Chicago Online will be setting the pace.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Administrator