A View from the GroundThe

The following is a view of what universities have to offer managers of organizations that need analytical “upskilling” and how universities think about collaborating in the context of continuing education.

Tim Blumentritt, PhD, Dean, College of Continuing and Professional Education

The first mention of “in the cloud” by the Wall Street Journal was in a column on buzzwords published on February 2, 2006. The phrase was defined as “a term technology and telecom insiders use to refer to the Internet superhighway through which all traffic flows. It’s the cyberspace between the connections to companies that provide content and individual homes”. The first time “cloud computing” was in the WSJ was on March 28 of 2007- Feature length articles on the concept started appearing regularly in 2008. A headline in the November 5. 2008 edition proclaimed “Firms Push 'Cloud Computing.”’

Cloud computing is a ground zero example of how fast even major, widespread technologies are moving. These dates suggest that anyone who completed their degree prior to 2008 had zero exposure, much less training, in the field of cloud computing; every computer science degree bordered on obsolescence

by 2009.

Enter professional education.

Professional education - meaning education for working professional outside of traditional undergraduate, master’s or doctoral-level degrees - plays a particular role in our educational system. Whether part of large universities or as privately-owned firms, professional education delivers educational programs and credentials that allow participants to enter new professional fields or advance existing careers.

As the leader of a College of Professional Education, I am fully attuned to these dynamics. Market demands drive our continuing and professional program portfolios. For instance, computer science departments at universities do not teach COBAL anymore - nor should they. But there are many firms and governmental agencies that still have legacy computer systems that depend on COBAL, and they need people with those skills to replace retiring programmers. So even though the language is old, professional education units are still interested in COBOL because of market demand. That is our litmus test for offering content.

Professional education units serve both individual learners as well as companies that sponsor their employees in career- and job-focused education. Millions of people spend their time and money on career-focused education every year, and while estimates vary widely, U.S. firms invest billions of dollars in corporate learning annually. In return, individuals expect to obtain skills and credentials to get new or better jobs, and firms expect to hire smart, competent people then use training to ensure they can complete their assigned work.

Both individuals and companies allocate precious resources to professional education with an expected return on that investment; unlike traditional undergraduate and graduate programs, professional education programs are typically focused on developing targeted, focused skills.

So, the question becomes, in a world of shortened life cycles for most technology-based skill sets, what is the best way to maximize the return on investment (ROI) on Professional Education?

Let’s start with for-profit providers. There are seemingly innumerable micro- credentialing options available to learners today. Companies like General Assembly and Flat Iron are fast-growing providers of technology boot camps. The Ultimate Medical Academy offers a number of programs that allow people to enter the medical field. Certsaffix Training “specializes in providing corporate computer software classes nationwide”. The National Educators Association defines micro-credentials as “a digital form of certification indicating demonstrated competency/mastery in a specific skill or set of skills”, and badges as an electronically displayed icon to represent the earned micro-credential”. Just about any institution can grant microcredentials or badges.

The challenge with these programs is that you often get out what others perceive you put in. Imagine meeting someone who tells you he went to INSEAD for an executive development program, a dead give-away since he’s carrying a padfolio with a prominent logo. What he doesn’t tell you is that he skipped most of the classes to experience the wonders of Fontainebleau. While he didn’t learn anything, the INSEAD name still carries weight (and rightfully so). On the other hand, while most for-profit training firms provide reasonable educational experiences, their credibility is often difficult to establish.

So even if a learner takes real lessons and skill sets from a badge or certificate program, their value in the real word is minimized unless the grantor of that certificate is highly credible. Hirers and HR practitioners still depend on brand names for credibility.

Next, many major corporations have developed internal training capabilities. They go so far as to call them “universities”, such as AT&T University and McDonald’s Hamburger University. These units are often very sophisticated at developing training programs targeted at the specific skills or traits that they want their employees to have. The (lucky) employees who get invited to these programs get high-profile experiences and fantastic networking opportunities with other future leaders.

The ROI challenges with corporate universities arise from the very same characteristics that make them valuable. First, those corporate universities are really expensive. AT&T’s website indicates that it spends over $200 million every year, which does not include support for online programs at “AT&T Learn”. Given the expense of dedicated facilities, top-level trainers and curriculum development, this figure is not surprising. Second, the value of those programs to employees must be significantly reduced as soon as they join a different company. Last, the closed nature of these programs mean that participants do not get the chance to learn from people outside their organization.

Professional education opportunities at universities address some of the ROI challenges that face both for-profit training companies and corporate universities. First, good universities have good brand names, and universities are quite committed to ensuring the level of their professional education activities meets the same standards as their degree-granting programs, even if the admissions standards are different. As an indication, Harvard Business School grants alumni status to people who complete many of its executive programs.

An indication of the power of university brand names is that for-profit providers have long sought universities as partners. The largest of them, including Coursera, EdX, and 2U (which purchased Trilogy, a tech boot camp provider, in 2019) tout the brand names of their university partners throughout their web pages. Clearly, they recognize that their programs are more powerful if they are backed by academics.

Second, the breadth of universities allows them to provide an incredibly broad scope of programs. The expertise of a university’s faculty becomes the raw materials for its professional education offerings. Third, universities have transcripting capabilities, which makes any credentials permanent and transferable. Graduates can request proof-of-completion even years later, and they can be certain that the university will still be there decades into the future.

Next, university programs can be customized; the programs offered by my unit can be delivered at our own facilities, welcoming individuals or teams from multiple firms, or on-site at a corporate client for just its employees.

Finally, these characteristics together mean that professional education at universities is stackable and customizable. To be blunt, universities hope to have a lifelong relationship with a learner, starting with a bachelor’s degree, adding base-level training at the beginning of a career, facilitating deep expertise through a master’s degree, and adding career-accelerators through advanced training and executive education.

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