Sarah Vanvooren is the director of events and outreach at Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale. She works with colleague Craig Engstrom and the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence to execute their continuing education offerings. Vanvooren and her team work on registration, website builds, marketing and costs. The Center for Teaching Excellence works with instructors to get them up to speed in using their learning management software, D2L Brightspace, and to create templates for continuing education courses.
In this article, Vanvooren discusses how SIU is starting to regrow their continuing education offerings post-pandemic and what others can glean from their discoveries. Here’s what she had to say.
How to Regrow Continuing Education Efforts
Prior to COVID-19, a lot of schools similar in size to SIU that were primarily state funded saw their continuing education units dissolved, reduced or moved to other departments. Many institutions didn’t see the importance of continuing ed because it’s nontraditional and noncredit.
The climate today is different. We’re in an environment where we’re looking at regrowing our continuing education offerings. But this brings up questions: What does that regrowth look like? How do departments need to be structured to facilitate growth?
The pandemic was an opportunity to capture people who were looking for upskilling or continuing education opportunities, primarily in online formats. It was a chance for us to build more courses in online portals and take advantage of the relationships we have with vendors like Ed2go and CareerStep to grow both our revenue and the availability of the courses we have.
Our noncredit continuing ed courses are primarily online. We’re using platforms like Brightspace to expand the reach of what we do so that anyone, anywhere can take a course at SIU. We don’t create continuing ed courses using the same strategies we use for for-credit courses. But what we can do is use some of the existing content and mold it into a noncredit course, specifically redesigning it to suit the needs of nontraditional learners. That’s a benefit of using D2L’s platform—our professors and those who create continuing ed courses have the ability to do that.
Gaining Institutional Support and Targeting Niche Audiences
My number one piece of advice for other institutions looking to get into continuing education is to find a department that can take the lead on it. Number two is getting support from the institution to be able to grow it.
Pre-COVID-19, a lot of higher ed institutions were continually taking away resources from continuing education units. What’s happened since is that everybody has realized that learners come to higher ed institutions in a variety of ways. Sometimes that’s a for-credit student who is there for four years getting their traditional bachelor’s. But sometimes it’s a student who just wants a certificate.
There’s value in recognizing a need for hosting certain types of courses. For example, our animal science and nutrition school does a lot of outreach nationally and internationally. This school hosting a continuing education course was a no-brainer because they knew there was an existing audience.
Getting Faculty Buy-In
Our faculty here have a lot of opportunities to do whatever outreach they want, which is actually an awesome thing about our campus. We’re able to do this because we have institutional support, but we also have instructors who are willing and want to do that.
We knew that there was an opportunity to grow our noncredit continuing ed courses utilizing Brightspace because we get a lot of educators coming to our team saying, “I have an idea. I have an existing audience and would like to build this course. Can you all walk me through how?” That’s where the Center for Teaching Excellence comes in. We’re going to have a resource site that faculty can go to if they want to create a noncredit continuing education course. It’s really going to be a one-stop shop. Faculty will start with the Center for Teaching Excellence, which [will] teach them how to create the course and where they can use Brightspace to create shells. Then my department will build them a budget and a website.
We’ve been very purposeful in designing a method for instructors to create continuing ed courses because so many of them are coming to us with great ideas. What they put out there is reflective of who we are as an institution. We want to make sure that the look and feel of the course from the time that you land a webpage to when you’re actually taking the course is seamless. It should be an easy experience for the learner.
Takeaways From SIU
The first thing you need before starting to grow your continuing education efforts is institutional support. Secondly, to help keep you organized and on track, you’ll want to define which department or teams will lead the expansion efforts.
If you’ve taken anything from this, I think having a good conversation with somebody who does what I do and learning about what we’re thinking, how we operate and how we create courses is a great starting point. I especially think talking to somebody who’s in the process of creating their continuing education courses is an important part of the process, because there are a lot of institutions like us out there who are trying to figure out how to grow what they do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Continuing Education: The Guide to Getting Started
Discover how to harness the demand and boost enrollment in this comprehensive guide to continuing education for postsecondary institutions.
Kari is a Content Marketing Manager at D2L who focuses on the world of corporate learning. She enjoys using her research, reporting, writing and multimedia skills to tell impactful stories.
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