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Podcast: The Future of Higher Education Enrollment with Dr. Thomas Cavanagh

  • 40 Min Read

Join us for the first episode of our newest podcast, where we discuss trends in higher education enrollment with Dr. Thomas Cavanagh

Calling all teachers and faculty: Episode 1 of Teach & Learn, D2L’s newest podcast for curious educators, is now live. Hosted by Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, the show features candid conversations with some of the sharpest minds in the K-20 education space. We discuss trending educational topics, teaching strategies and delve into the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today.

Episode Description

In today’s episode, we dig into enrollment trends in the higher education space. Student enrollment at universities and colleges has been declining for years. The problem was only hastened by the pandemic.

To discuss the topic further and offer strategies higher education institutions can deploy to address this growing concern, we welcomed Dr. Thomas Cavanagh, Vice Provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Dr. Cavanagh and Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, chatted about:

  • The difference between intentional and emergency online instruction
  • What the non-traditional student population means for course instruction
  • How UCF supports faculty to create intentional and strategic blended learning experiences
  • The value of a degree at a time when debt loads are high
  • What the rise of micro-credentials means for higher education institutions

Show Notes

  • 08:20: Why emergency remote learning isn’t the answer to online educational experiences—and thoughts on what is.
  • 10:12: What the growing non-traditional student population means for the future of online and blended learning models.
  • 15:51: Is hybrid learning is a viable long-term modality?
  • 17:24: Why giving students agency over when and how they learn can lead to increased retention
  • 19:25: How UCF’s enrollment management strategy has shifted post-pandemic
  • 24:35: What’s the true value of a degree at a time when students are unsure about taking on severe debt loads?
  • 29:45: The rise of sidecar certificates
  • 35:43: The role that micro-credentials, badges and non-credit courses can play in an institution’s enrollment strategy.
  • 41:22: The opportunity for students to be more in the driver’s seat of their own educational process.
  • 43:38: Final thoughts on whether the pandemic positively impacted online learning.

Resources Discussed

Listen to The Teaching Online Podcast (TOPcast), co-hosted by Dr. Cavanagh.

2022 CHLOE 7 Report – Online Learning.

Learn more about Dr. Thomas Cavanagh.

Learn more about Dr. Cristi Ford and the Teaching and Learning Studio.

About the Speakers

Thomas Cavanagh, Ph.D. is Vice Provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida. In this role, he oversees the distance learning strategy, policies and practices of one of the nation’s largest universities. A national leader in digital education and academic innovation, he has been recognized with numerous awards from organizations such as the Online Learning Consortium, the United States Distance Learning Association, the IMS Global Learning Consortium, and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology. He is active in the higher education community and serves on several national boards. He is also an award-winning author of several mystery novels.

Dr. Cristi Ford serves as the Vice President of Academic Affairs at D2L. She brings more than 20 years of cumulative experience in higher education, secondary education, project management, program evaluation, training and student services to her role. Dr. Ford holds a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Missouri-Columbia and undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of Psychology from Hampton University and University of Baltimore, respectively.

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Full Episode Transcript

Cristi (00:00):

Thanks so much for joining us today on Teach and Learn. I’m so excited to have our next guest joining us today. I’m your host, Dr. Cristi Ford, Chief Academic and VP of Academic Affairs, and I’m so excited to have a colleague and friend, Dr. Thomas Cavanagh joining us for our call today. Thanks for joining us, Tom.

Thomas (00:56):

Oh, it’s my pleasure to be here, Cristi.

Cristi (00:59):

So before we go ahead and jump in, Tom, I just want to give our listeners a sense of your background. Listeners today we have a real treat in our guest today in Dr. Thomas Cavanagh. Thomas Cavanagh is the Vice Provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida. He oversees digital learning strategies, policies, and practices in one of the nation’s largest universities. Tom’s also award-winning instructional designer, program manager and administrator. And I will tell you, I have known Dr. Cavanagh for many, many years, and his research interest including eLearning technical communication and the societal influences of technology and education, training, and culture and commerce are really passions of his.

So before we jump in Tom, I just want to say this is a full circle moment for me. Listeners, we have the pleasure of talking to our guests today who also hosts a podcast called TOPcast. And TOPcast stands for the Teaching Online Podcast. And it’s a monthly podcast that allows listeners to be able to hear a little bit about guests and topics in online and blended learning professional spaces. And so I want to thank you for having me on your podcast and really a pleasure to have you joining us today.

Thomas (02:17):

Yeah, thanks, Cristi. It’s a pleasure to be here. You’re right. The turnabout is fair play, right? You were a guest on TOPcast and I’m happy to be here. We do it actually twice-a-month now. We used to be just monthly. Yeah, so you’re right. But since we had quite a few interviews in the can, we’ve gone to a twice a month kind of cadence where the second one every month is an interview. And the first one is, my co-host Kelvin Thompson and I kind of just blabbing away on various topics related to online and distance learning.

Cristi (02:55):

So I’d like to blab away with you a little bit today about enrollment trends. Tom, you and I have been in this higher education field for many, many years and really seeing some of the ebbs and flows as it’s resulted in different spaces. And so I just wanted to given your history and background and being that you’re at such a large institution, the pandemic has really certainly allowed you to put all of your expertise to the test. And so before we jump in, I actually want to ask you about a book chapter you recently wrote around some of this work.

Thomas (03:32):

Sure, yeah. I think you’re talking about the Online Learning Consortium Book, The Grassroots Book.

Cristi (03:39):

That’s right.

Thomas (03:41):

Yeah, that was fun to write. It was a pleasure to be included with a lot of other great leaders in the space. And yeah, my chapter was of Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic, and it’s not a typical sort of scholarly article, you might see it was much more of a, I don’t know, a personal reflection on here’s some stuff that I just observed that worked for me or that I learned worked through trial and error during the pandemic.

Cristi (04:11):

I loved reading it. I was and fortunate enough to have an advanced copy of that book and I enjoyed reading it and the authenticity about it. And so listeners, as that book comes out, I will urge you to take a moment to go ahead and pick that up. But today we want to talk a little bit more about these enrollment trends. And so, one of the things that you and I know is that the pandemic has really changed the landscape of higher education. And so as we think about how those pivots have happened in the higher education institutions, I actually was looking at the CHLOE 7 report that just recently came out that really talked about a couple of these key trends.

And so one of the things that I noted here is that in 2022, we really have an opportunity at colleges and institutions to really figure out how we’re going to demonstrate our value, be able to evolve some of our course offerings, and really meet the needs of our community. And so I just wondered for you, as you think about, as we are coming out of the peak post-pandemic, we’re not post-pandemic yet, what are some of the models around enrollment teaching and learning and the ROI that come from that that will forever be changed? I’d love to hear your take on this.

Thomas (05:28):

Yeah, well, it’s a big topic, right? And as you say, we’re not quite out of it yet. So I think it’s still a bit of speculation, but I’m happy to speculate with everybody else and we’ll see if we’re right. But I do think that what happened during the pandemic where online learning and remote instructional tools became just so ubiquitous and everybody used them that I don’t think we’re going back to the way things were prior to. Now people are going to go back and they’re going to teach in their physical classrooms and there will still be campuses and students sitting in classes. But what I’m starting to observe and what I suspect will continue is that the faculty who have taught through emergency remote instruction, whether it’s through Zoom or other tools or combination, they kind of liked it and they understood that maybe if they hadn’t even been exposed to it prior that this could work in certain circumstances.

They’re going to bring some of those tools and techniques back to their physical face-to-face classrooms. And we’re going to start to see, I think a much deeper integration of online and face-to-face where those lines are going to blur further and further. And that even showed up in the CHLOE report that you referenced that there seems to be an acknowledgment of the growing influence of blended learning across campuses where it’s not going to necessarily always be one or the other, but a combination. And that’s certainly been our experience here at UCF. We’ve always had a large blended learning initiative, but I think it’s only going to be exacerbated by post-pandemic trends.

Cristi (07:20):

Yes. You mentioned that. I have so many thoughts I want to share with you, but let me start with this one. I feel that historically we’ve always talked about the chasm that’s existed between face-to-face and online education. And we’ve always, even research has shown us that there are faculty and students where online education is a conduit and an opportunity, but there are also cases where we will have students and faculty who just will be really hesitant to make that shift. And so while the pandemic opens some of those doors, do you think that we’ll still have some of those naysayers? Are those that just really feel like even after having greater exposure, that being in the face-to-face classroom is going to be the space that’s important for them?

Thomas (08:08):

Oh yeah. I’m seeing it now, right? I mean, all you have to do is read some of the trades, right? The chronic or inside higher ed, and you see these articles, “Well, now we know. Online learning just isn’t any good.”

Cristi (08:20):

That’s right.

Thomas (08:21):

“Well, what? Wait, what did you say? I’m not sure I agree with that basic premise.” And I think it’s complicated because what happened during the pandemic as we know wasn’t necessarily online learning, right? Like we’ve done it for 20 years you and I. It was emergency, remote, synchronous instruction. And I’m not faulting faculty. They were thrown into the deep end of the pool. And I think in many cases they did an amazing job under really trying circumstances. But I’m not going to pretend that suddenly delivering your lectures on Zoom instead of in the classroom is the pinnacle of high-quality online learning. It’s not. It served its purpose and it kind of kept things open.

But that’s not what high-quality intentionally designed in many cases, asynchronous online learning is. And I think that stuff’s all getting conflated. And if that’s what you think online learning is, well, I guess I kind of don’t blame you for saying, see, and now we know online learning is not as good as face-to-face. Well, yeah, that version of it was because we were in a worldwide pandemic and everybody kind of got forced into a meeting technology for instructional purposes. It’s not an instructional tool, right? Whether it’s Zoom or anything else, nothing against them. But it’s a meeting technology, not a teaching tool. So I get it, but I think that just means that it’s more incumbent on us to try to continue to evangelize the high-quality aspect of online learning. The corpus of research that’s out there going back into the mid-’90s about no significant difference and things that are maybe even better online than they are face-to-face.

And just continue to try to educate people that when done well, online learning can be better. And then we have more non-traditional students in this country than we have traditional-age students. We have more people who are adult learners, who are working, who have families who need to access education than we have 18-year-olds and they need online learning. They need the flexibility of online learning. And if we’re going to meet our country’s educational objectives and goals, then we’re going to have to have a variety of different modalities. And I think that they can all kind of live side by side, but I don’t think it’s fair or even really honest to say that online learning is bad as a result of one anecdotal experience in a worldwide pandemic.

Cristi (11:06):

Yeah, totally agree with you, Tom. And I was thinking about, as you were talking, the CHLOE report also mentioned an increase in student demand and that increase of student demand was as a result of the pandemic. But to your point, all of the demand is really focusing on convenience. But some of those students didn’t experience intentional design that we talk about in the online spaces. And so they’re saying that demand it may not be positive because we really need to make sure that we’re thinking about learning spaces and opportunities less as transactional experiences and more transformational. And to your point, I wholeheartedly agree. Zoom is a meeting platform. It is an opportunity to close the chasm in terms of spaces, physical spaces, but it is not the way in which we are very thoughtful and intentional about online education and ways that we’ve done that.

And so I think we will have some ways to go in terms of how do we then pull people back to help them understand, “Hey, we’re glad you’re coming on the train now.” But how do you engage them and think about capacity building? And so for you and CF, what are you all doing to now trying to take those remote instructors who may have been very hesitant, that have now dipped their toe in the water and do want to take it the right direction? What are some things that you’re putting in place to make sure those faculty are going to be prepared for that?

Thomas (12:34):

Yeah. Well, as you may recall, we’ve had a really strong emphasis here for many years on faculty development, on training, preparing faculty to teach online and blended in a very structured format. We’ve got required training that they have to complete in order for them to teach in those modalities. And we didn’t necessarily waive that requirement during the pandemic, so we still required faculty to go through training. Now, we didn’t require them to go through the same program because we had too much demand for the way that was structured. We couldn’t deliver it. For example, our flagship faculty development program has a seat of about 40, and that’s because it’s designed in a way so that there’s a lot of high engagement with the instructional designer and works. It’s over a 10-week period and a semester. And we give them a stipend to complete it, and they build part of their course.

And it’s really intensive and really, I think an excellent program. But we had 350 requests in May of 2020 for a program that sits 40. It didn’t work. So we had to redesign it a little bit, but we still required training. It was just, we built a different training program that could handle that sort of scale. And of course, we continued that into the fall and beyond. And now we’re sort of back to our regular program. But that’s actually one of the lessons learned, right? That I put in my chapter was that kind of be flexible, but know your non-negotiables. And for us, quality was a non-negotiable. We were flexible on policies and other kinds of things, but nothing that would compromise compliance and accreditation or the quality of what students were getting.

We wanted to ensure as much as we possibly could under really trying circumstances that the quality of the education that students were getting was going to be the best that we could possibly deliver. And then it met our standards. And part of that is faculty development. So we’re trying to continue that with the faculty who were new to online learning through the pivot during the pandemic. And interestingly, there are programs that I’ve been working on for almost 14 years that I’ve been at UCF to try and get them to go online. And now they’re showing up at my door saying, hey-

Cristi (15:00):

I get it now.

Thomas (15:02):

Yeah, okay. I mean, in some cases there was a little bit of a leadership change and we had a worldwide pandemic where they were forced to do it online and they thought, “Oh, I guess you can, right?” In years past, it has always been, we can never do our program online. Like optics, UCF has one of the best optic schools in the country, and in some cases, they’re right because they’re shooting lasers at mirrors and things and you can’t do that online. But there are graduate programs that are a graduate certificate or even a master’s that are much more theoretical and you’ve already been through the labs and things as a undergraduate, so you don’t need access to the laboratory to get a specialized advanced degree. Those are the kinds of things we’re talking to them about doing online. And there are other examples as well.

Cristi (15:51):

So as you’re talking about that, I wonder, given your instructional design background, do you believe that hybrid is a solution? I mean, as I hear you talk even about that program there and we talk about hybrid models, it seems that we’re also hearing from the research and some of the trends that hybrid models may just be the sweet spot. So I’d love to hear what you think about that and how do you think this is going to impact enrollment going forward.

Thomas (16:19):

Well, I think it depends, right? Here’s a dodge of an answer, but I think it depends. If you have a program that you want to reach a national population with, then hybrid may not be the answer, right? You may need a fully distance program. If you’re trying to attract even a working population, I always use the example of my mom. So my mom is a nurse and she worked the graveyard shift in the intensive care unit. If she had wanted to go back to school and get a master’s degree, there’s no way she’s going to make a class Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 10 o’clock in the morning, right? So a lot of the nurses that we support through our programs, especially at an MSN or something like that, are fully online programs. And that’s because of the kinds of schedules that they work. And so in that regard, I’m not sure if a hybrid program works, but I do think that there are a lot of students where that is the sweet spot.

And it’s something that I think UCF has been something of a leader in for a long time even prior to my arrival. And we find that it helps with retention. So students can pick and choose their modalities to suit their specific needs in any given semester. For example, we have students who take a face-to-face and online and a blended course all in the same semester, and they might even take also a course in one of our regional campuses. So they might actually be out Cocoa Beach or something if they live out there. So that’s what one semester is. The next semester, maybe their work schedule changes or grandma gets sick or something and they have to go fully online. And so they do that. And then the semester after that, the work schedule changes and grandma is better now, thank God. And so they can come back on campus and take classes here, and they kind of swirl between modality and location according to their own particular needs. And by giving them that kind of choice, they have some agency over their pathways that we think really helps with retention.

Cristi (18:32):

So hearing you say that I’m thinking about faculty that will say that students just want online, and I think it’s really what you offered, it’s about agency and giving students the choice to be able to determine given what life circumstances are happening, where is going to be the best modality to serve their needs and for them to get an education. And so as we talk about the enrollment shifts and trends that we’re seeing as we talk about the hybrid model, as we were talking, I thought, well, there is an interest and impetus to be able to create really transformative learning experiences that you can really get the best of both worlds. But there’s also, I hear from institutions still limits on space and opportunities to really think about how do you forecast out an enrollment management plan to be able to meet the demands of your students.

I was reading the article from Forbes that came out a couple of days ago, and they spoke about from large research institutions to HBCUs to small liberal arts colleges that this fall we’re starting to see some of that enrollment increase in those first-year students coming back and those freshman students coming back. And so I just wonder as you thinking UCF and when you’re thinking about enrollment management and moving forward, how have your strategies changed? What are you all considering and doing differently and how has that shifted as a result of all of this world that’s happening?

Thomas (20:04):

Yeah. It’s a good question and you catch us at a bit of a transitional point. So I’ll tell you where we have been and where I think we’re going. So we’re deciding at the moment. So in the past, we have been very much pro-growth university and trying to meet the educational demand in our area and the State of Florida as best we can. And that’s what grew us to 70,000-plus students. However, we’re not necessarily, we haven’t always historically been funded to support that level of student body. And it’s been a challenge on our faculty and our university as a whole to make sure that we can provide the high quality experience for every single one of those 70,000 students. So we’re having some conversations now under our new president about, “Well, what makes sense for us?” And I’m not sure we’re going to see the same kind of just unfettered growth that we have always seen going forward as we try to align our mission with our student body.

And that’s a project that’s ongoing right now. We have a new strategic plan and probably what will come next is a new strategic enrollment plan. And that’s not been finalized yet. However, that doesn’t mean no growth. I think what it probably means is intentional strategic growth in certain areas. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we look at growing certain graduate programs in aerospace engineering. I’m just making something up. But that’s an area that UCF’s very strong in because of our relationships with NASA and the aerospace industry and everything else. That’s a real strength for UCF.

And I could see us trying to grow research capacity and student enrollments, particularly to graduate level there. And I’ve personally been making the argument to my bosses that some online growth could potentially help and it could potentially even be part of helping financially with the university. So if we go after, for example, out-of-state graduate students, they have the lowest impact on the campus infrastructure, but they pay sort of the highest tuition because they’re kind of out of state and at their graduate level, then that could potentially be part of the portfolio as we maybe don’t pursue or maybe even go down and headcount in certain areas.

We could replace them with these and it could potentially make up some of that lost revenue. Again, all of these are discussions we’re having. Nothing is officially in stone yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a different kind of enrollment strategy going forward than what we’ve had historically in the past. And that puts us at a very unique, I think, fortunate position. I think a lot of schools across the country are just scrambling for enrollments right now. And we’ve even seen a softening, which we’ve never had, right? UCF has always just gotten bigger. And this year, I don’t know if it’s a post-pandemic sort of malaise, but we have seen a little bit of a softening in the market and with enrollment and we want to make sure that that’s something that we are controlling and it’s not something that’s happening to us. And I think it’s a little bit of both right now. So long answer to your question, but it’s something that we’re thinking a lot about and we’re trying to be strategic about and intentional about.

Cristi (23:44):

No, it’s a long answer, but I think what I summarize from that is the creativity and ingenuity that institutions have to really employ now around enrollment management. And I think about us talking about our own college-age children and as people are trying to determine the value of college and juxtaposing that against student debt, I think that as an industry we’re really in a very interesting space where we really have to go back and be able to show the value proposition and really help students to understand where it is on the other side of that. And so the one thing I think that we continue to work on, and I wonder as it relates to enrollment trends, and as you think about the programs at UCF, how do we do a better job of closing that chasm?

We’ve talked for decades, right? About employability, the value of a credential, the ways in which we show our graduates value. I just wonder, what do you think we need to do differently? Because for me, it’s become a space where there’s a lot of rhetoric and there’s a lot of great conceptual framing and thoughts around this work, but there still is this gap between students who are graduating or understanding how to translate the value of the degree into the workforce. So just one of your thoughts.

Thomas (25:05):

Yeah, what a great question. It’s so funny, we’ve been having these conversations too, and I was talking to somebody just yesterday about this. I think it kind of goes back to that whole Clayton Christensen jobs to be done thing. What are the students hiring the university to do for them? And in some cases, it’s I want a coming of age experience. I want to be on campus and after I graduate high school and join a fraternity or sorority and just have that, maybe meet a spouse, whatever, have that experience and it’s a life experience and get a degree and be an informed citizen. Other people say more non, I’m going to generalize here, but maybe more non-traditional learners who’ve been out of high school for a few years and maybe have a few credits, maybe don’t, and are looking to improve their circumstances. Well, they’re not looking for the coming-of-age experience at institution.

They have a much more transactional relationship, I think, where it’s like, I need to get a promotion or I need to be able to do this new career I’m interested in, therefore I need this credential that you can provide me and I’m going to pay for that. That’s a very different relationship. And I think both can live side by side and the university or the college, depending upon your mission, should be able to provide both to a student. And then you have the whole non-credit workforce oriented, skills-based kind of like boot camps and certificates and things that I think have their own place in the ecosystem. And we can’t forget about those either because in many ways turn in the aircraft carrier of an institution to be responsive to kind of marketplace needs, it’s hard. But continuing ed units can be the speedboat that can be really agile and responsive to something that’s happened like yesterday.

We saw it here during the pandemic, our continuing education unit stood up some retraining for displaced hospitality workers because when the pandemic hit, everybody lost their jobs in the tourism industry here in Orlando and they were able to retrain some people. Unfortunately, the economy bounced back pretty quickly here, but I can’t see, it takes four years to get a new degree sometimes, right? Because you got to go through curricular committees, and the board of trustees, and the board of Governors, and yeah, I mean it’s and there are good reasons for that and accreditation reasons. And I’m not saying that those are bad, I’m just saying that they have different purposes.

Cristi (27:42):

Yeah. And I appreciate you just reminding me that institutions need to be a lot more thoughtful than enrollment management strategies on the continuing ed or the workplace training and development parts of the institution because I love that you use example of a speed boat because I think sometimes it’s really difficult to be able to stand up something very quickly. I was working on a project about a year ago with some folks who were machine learning engineers and thinking about the kinds of skills they needed in AI and machine learning and cloud computing. And at that time we pulled up, did a little bit of a survey of who had these deep programs at their institutions and there were not many.

And so I think to your point, there is a way to be able to diversify, but you have to use the right levers to be able to make sure that you’re doing it very thoughtfully. And also realize that there’s a trends change. There may think be things you need to shut down. I mean, we have no need for VCR repairment anymore, right? In our society. And so how as institutions do we keep ourselves nimble and agile enough to be able to also meet and respond to those demands?

Thomas (28:52):

Yeah. And what we’re seeing is that maybe it can be a both and, right? So say you get a, so you’re I don’t know, humanities major. I’ll just make up an example here. And you don’t know what you want to do when you graduate, but you’re also kind of interested in computers. So get a minor in computer science or in information security or something like that, or get a non-credit certificate at the same time you’re getting your Bachelor of Arts in Humanities. They can both serve you to find a career and a job when you graduate. I’ve called them, this is my term, sidecar certificates because they sit on the side of your motorcycle of your humanities degree and you got little, maybe a couple of weeks certificate in something, whatever it might be, Amazon Web Services or Salesforce or whatever that can be just very practical for you when you graduate.

Cristi (30:01):

So, listeners, you heard to hear first sidecar certificates, Tom Cavanagh. No, I think you’re right though. I was-

Thomas (30:07):

Trademark, right?

Cristi (30:08):

Yeah, trademark, right? His IP. I was talking to my daughter who is interested in electrical engineering and architecture. And so to your point, she’s trying to determine should she double major. And I’m like, “Well, those are very different majors and you’re going to be in school a very long time.”

Thomas (30:25):

They’re both five-year programs too.

Cristi (30:26):

I know. Right. So I’m like-

Thomas (30:28):

They should be in there for 10 years.

Cristi (30:29):

Maybe you need a sidecar certificate to be able to determine that. So as you’re talking about that I think that’s really, really interesting. I’d love to just jump in a little bit and shift the conversation around enrollment management of online programs to talk a little bit about OPMs. I feel like when we talk about, we’ve seen over the years influence in terms of enrollment management for OPMs and how they have operated. And we’ve also seen institutions and instances where OPM partnerships haven’t worked. And so I just wonder, as you think about the role of OPMs moving forward for enrollment management specifically in online programs, what’s your take and what do you think about that?

Thomas (31:16):

Yeah, I think OPMs have unfortunately taken a lot of bad press lately and not always deserved. And so I’ll say all of this as an institution that does not work with an OPM for our academic programs. I’m just sort of an observer of the space, but it’s sort of in full transparency. We do work with partners for our non-credit boot camps so with an OPM basically arrangement for that. But not for our academic programs. However, I think there are an awful lot of schools out there that could really benefit from a good OPM relationship. Obviously, there are bad practices in any industry and it’s just like anything else. And there’s a reason why some people have criticized them with high rev shares and other kinds of things, long-term contracts. But if you don’t have the capital as an institution to invest in a program or you don’t have the culture where you can have speed to market or you don’t have the capacity of staff or whatever to instructional designers and programmers and everything else, you basically can outsource that to a partner through an OPM.

And that can be a really valuable service. Obviously, you’re going to pay for that, but that’s the trade-off that you make. And I think coming out of the pandemic, there are a lot of schools that are confronting the fact that they did not have a comprehensive online strategy prior to the pandemic. And they need one now in this kind of post-pandemic world where students are expecting things to be online and sort of demanding it. And I think OPMs can fill a niche there. I do think that you have to make sure that you know that the kind of risk tolerance you have, what you can afford to pay. And I think that industry is evolving. I think the rev shares are coming down. I think there are a lot more fee for service arrangements and all that’s to the good. But I think the OPM industry is probably going to be around for a while.

Maybe the last thing I’ll say on it is that I do see some schools that are starting to transition out of their OPM relationships as they have built capacity over their contracts. But I don’t know if every school is willing to do that because that would require taking a lot of the revenue that you make through these OPM facilitated programs and holding it and investing it in building capacity. And it’s real easy to not do that.

Cristi (33:22):

That’s tough.

Thomas (33:53):

It’s real easy to spend that on other things that need to be funded. And if you’re not planning over the years to make a transition away from an OPM, then I don’t see how you can do it. You’re going to probably have to continue those relationships and maybe that’s okay. Maybe you’re getting good value out of that relationship. So I think it’s, again, another one of these, it depends kinds of answers.

Cristi (34:18):

No, and I agree with you and I think we’ve seen the rise of OPMs, we’ve seen the challenges and the successes and the wins. And I think I will offer, as you mentioned, it’s all about the relationship and the contractual agreement, right? So what are terms? What is the right fit for your organization? And as you were talking about holding that revenue back, that’s really hard to do. So OPMs can kind of help you be a savings account to really be able to come back later and be able to be really thoughtful about when those resources are available. But you’re right, small liberal arts colleges or small institutions may not have the bandwidth to take all of those services in-house, and so I-

Thomas (35:01):

Yeah. Or even if you look at an example like Purdue, right? Purdue’s got plenty of money.

Cristi (35:06):

Right. Yes.

Thomas (35:09):

But they had at least a culture that their president at the time, Mitch Daniels, felt was not conducive to moving quickly to stand up an online program that he felt he needed to buy Kaplan. And then basically they have a one client relationship with Kaplan as an OPM. That’s a very different sort of use case, but it also speaks to he didn’t feel like his institution was able to do it on their own, at least on the timeline that he wanted.

Cristi (35:43):

Yeah, yeah. I would agree with you that and so it’s been nice to also see the diversity of arrangements that OPMs are bringing to the forefront. And I think it makes our market stronger and it gives us more opportunity to think about enrollment differently. I want to go back to these sidecar certificates. I’m really enjoying this terminology. And thinking about when you offered in the non-credit space that UCF is doing some work with an OPM kind of arrangement. We’ve known for, I don’t know, maybe seven or eight years now, that micro-credentials, badges, other ways to be able to make sure that students who, as you mentioned or maybe are career changers are coming back to institutions have an avenue. Do you think that those products and avenues or a part of enrollment strategy is moving forward or I mean have they lost their shine? How do those things play into as institutions you’re thinking about the diversification of their portfolio?

Thomas (36:43):

Yeah, I think they’re growing. I personally see more demand for these kinds of non-credit workforce certificates that there’s so much interest in them that we could do more of them if we had more capacity here. So I think that’s growing. However, it does, I think live separately in many ways from the academic side of the house for good or bad. It just that’s the way it is. It sort of lives separate from our accreditation requirements. It lives separate from a lot of the curricular review requirements by the faculty. The faculty don’t necessarily oversee the curriculum like they do for the academic programs. So it’s sort of an apples and oranges sort of world. But I do think they’re complimentary and they’re both pointed at serving the community and the educational and training needs of the community. And how can we ensure that we’re being relevant and fulfilling our mission as a public institution here in Florida?

Cristi (37:53):

Yeah, I think when you mention the portfolio that you need to include them, but it’s separate and I understand why they’re separate, but I think about the rankings reports and all of the other things that come out around an institution that really help to determine how students see the value of an institution. I really wish we could be a lot more thoughtful about how do we create a place for those nuances to really exist and not feel like they’re less than or they’re a subpar, right? That there is a diversity of that and that it should really be celebrated in a different place. But we’re just not there yet. We’re just not there in terms of those.

Thomas (38:33):

No, we’re not. And some schools maybe do it a little bit better, but I think too long or too often, historically, those continuing education professional education units have been thought of as a extension afterthought, not resourced or I think put on the front page of the university or college’s offerings when in many cases they could be a front door to the university and for academic programs. We work with some of our faculty to do programs, custom programs that could introduce students to potential degree programs. So it could be an entree in many ways. So I think that there are opportunities to be better integrated that we’re working on, but I don’t think we’ve quite realized yet.

Cristi (39:29):

Yeah, I would agree with that. I think it’s going to take us a little bit of time to be able to catch up, but I think it’s people like you and other innovators in this space that we continue to get out there and talk about the value proposition and how it is complementary and not that it’s either or, right? That there is a space, I remember when online started to be so prevalent, it was all about cannibalizing the on-campus student. Oh yeah. And we know that that’s not the case. And so I think as institutions are thinking about the enrollment management strategies post peak pandemic, and now seeing the opportunities that are available, really shifting the paradigm of those administrators to start to understand there is a value to have a diversified portfolio. Even if you decide within that diversified portfolio here is the four areas you’re send our efforts for our next two or three-year enrollment management strategy.

And I also think it’s interesting even in the strategic planning space, right? We’ve moved away from 10-year strategic plans. We’ve moved to five or three years. And so we’ve had to be a lot more responsive to the landscape and to the demand and what we’re hearing from the field. And so I think these next couple of years we’re all flying this plane and building it at the same time to really determine how is this going to level out and what are we going to look like in 10 or 15 years. I don’t think we really know. I think we have an opportunity to be a part of a really big change in shift. And so I was talking with a colleague of mine whose son plays Minecraft. He’s seven, he plays Minecraft, and can build all of these worlds. And he talks about the sophistication of how he is so embedded in co-creation.

And the woman across the table who was sitting with us said, “Well, my son plays Minecraft too, and he’s 17 and he’s been playing it since he’s 7.” And so I also think that as we talk about enrollment trends and the value proposition, we have a responsibility to do a better job of helping students co-create their learning in these spaces. And helping faculty understand that this co-creation doesn’t mean that there’s any less value, but there is an opportunity in space for students to really be more in the driver’s seat of their educational process. And so that’s my soapbox for today, but.

Thomas (41:59):

Well, I couldn’t agree more. Yeah. In fact, it’s funny, during the pandemic, during the pivot to remote instruction, I got more than a few letters from parents that either came to me or were forwarded to me through the president’s office complaining about. We increased our offerings and we had a variety of different modalities, but one of them was our typical high-quality asynchronous courses facilitated through the learning management system. And we’ve got a long history of doing that. And we were able to increase sections. So a faculty member who had already taught in those sections might get two or three first semester instead of the one that they normally. So we kind of increased some of that and some students ended up taking those courses that hadn’t had them before. And some of the parents’ complaints were, “The faculty aren’t teaching my child. They’re teaching themselves.” Without understanding kind of the constructivist instructional design that was built into there.

This of what you’re talking about, the co-creation of learning that is much more effective than a kind of passive sit and watch a video, which is what their mental model of learning is. I sit and you talk and if you can’t do it in person, do it online. And I tried to… In these letters, I had a bit of a template I had developed to kind of explain. And in fact, I even got some nice responses from parents kind of saying, “Thank you for explaining that to me.”

Cristi (43:37):

That’s great.

Thomas (43:38):

But I think it’s beyond just the faculty. I think that there’s maybe the general public doesn’t quite understand online learning yet, and I don’t know if what happened during the pandemic is going to help us because all it did was reinforce this passive reception model of instruction.

Cristi (43:58):

Agree. Agreed. Thomas, it’s always a pleasure to spend time with you. You know you’re one of my favorite people and I really appreciate being able to be on the podcast with you today. I think as we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners as we close out?

Thomas (44:15):

Maybe the only thing I’ll add is just kind of to underscore this idea of intentional quality and online learning. If you are building an online program, it’s really easy to outrun your quality supply lines. You can stand up an LMS Shell really easily and say go teach, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good, right? The hard part is in all of the stuff behind the scenes of the instructional design and the media production and technical support and faculty development and all of the hard stuff that it takes to build a really good online course. And so don’t shortchange that in the ease with which you can manage the technology.

Cristi (45:03):

I’m in the peanut gallery on that. So thank you. Thank you again for the time today. Thanks for joining us and we appreciate just hearing your expertise and knowledge and speculation. We’ll take it all and I’m going to take that sidecar certificate and make sure I give you credit for each time. Thanks so much for joining us. Thank you.

Thomas (45:23):

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Cristi (45:26):

You’ve been listening to Teach and Learn a podcast for curious educators. This episode was produced by D2L, a global learning innovation company, helping organizations reshape the future of educational work. To learn more about our solutions for both K through 20 and corporate institutions, please visit You can also find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. And remember to hit that subscribe button so you can stay up to date with all new episodes. Thanks for joining us and until next time, school’s out.

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