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Leading the way in Online & Continuing Education: Top 5 Tips for Strategic Planning


Continuing education and online learning leaders gathered at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) 2019 SUPER Regional Conference in Denver, Colorado to discuss big-picture strategies and opportunities to lead the way in serving professional, continuing and online learners.

This post summarizes the ideas and best practices identified by institutional leaders at the workshop around a central theme, strategic planning, and the five key areas to address if your institution aspires to be positioned for growth.

1. Leadership & Structure within the Institution: Independent is Ideal

Where continuing education (CE) sits within an organization can be a key ingredient for success. Workshop participants agreed that it’s optimal to set up continuing and online educational units independently as their own division, providing services and leading innovation institution-wide.

Less ideally, CE can be centralized within a system or siloed within individual schools. In the case of units that are system-wide, CE teams find it challenging to effectively provide support, advocate for additional resources, and gain system-wide traction. In decentralized environments, leaders noted the duplication of resources and the sharing of best practices as challenges.

As CE moves to be centralized within a system or siloed within individual schools, it moves away from an optimal environment for success.

2. Stay Ahead of Market Demand

Online and continuing education leaders have paved the way to growth and new revenue streams for many institutions. Online learning has now matured into an established part of higher education and the student experience. Now, it is important for CE leaders to understand where the market is headed—where is the next opportunity for online, professional, and continuing education? Workshop participants cited micro-credentials and certificates (stackable for-credit or non-credit) as the next frontier for higher education. The growth of this smaller, bite-sized form of education is outpacing traditional forms and aligns directly with what both students’ and employers’ value. It’s important to understand the idiosyncratic needs and aspirations of each institution’s nontraditional and online students.

3. A Self-Funded Model has Many Advantages

The funding model for CE at the institution is an important factor in the ability to scale and be successful. Many leaders agreed that the self-funded model of many continuing education units gives leadership the flexibility to operate outside of the traditional models of education, develop new and innovative services to support this evolving modality with nontraditional learners, and flexibility with resourcing and reinvestment to fuel growth.

4. Use Empirical Data to Build a Case for Resources

The ability to invest in resources to achieve growth requires CE leaders make a compelling case to institutional leadership. Successfully building a case for added resources (e.g., staff, technology, marketing, support services) typically requires CE leaders to:

  • Demonstrate how added resources will lead to added revenue (and/or enrollments). Showing how revenue is generated from additional resources requires CE leaders to make an educated guess or rely on partners to help forecast the potential market size and demand and correlate investment with growth. At Student Services by Blackboard, we have helped institutions like Johns Hopkins Executive Education, Texas Tech University School of Continuing Studies, and Wichita State University Online build similar models and successfully secure resources that helped fuel growth.
  • Provide competitive insights into how other successful institutions are resourced (what is their marketing spend, how they are staffed, what technology do they use, which partners do they use to provide additional support?).
  • Conduct secret shopping and document findings to highlight opportunities to improve the student experience.

5. Internal Collaboration is Essential

Internal collaboration, just as much as autonomy, is a key determining factor of success. Successful CE divisions are often the innovation hub for most institutions and help pave the way for the future of education. Bring key stakeholders from across the institution together for an annual or biannual summit to:

  • Share mutual successes, resources, and learnings.
  • Demonstrate progress and shine a light on innovation.
  • Bring students or employers to the table to show other institutional leaders or constituents about their experiences and preferences.
  • Develop internal-facing marketing materials such as videos to highlight their approach, reinforce the value CE provides, and continue to get buy-in institution-wide.
  • Build relationships.

Interested in learning more? Blackboard Student Services offers a holistic framework for institutions to help students succeed while growing enrollment and improving return on investment. We host and attend industry-leading higher ed events and workshops around the country. Our next pre-conference workshop will be at the UPCEA 2019 Marketing and

Enrollment Seminar: Leading Change in the Evolving Landscape of Online and Continuing Education.