Operating a Continuing Education Unit in Startup Mode

Operating a Continuing Education Unit in Startup Mode

MindMax Founder and CEO Lee Maxey recently hosted a webinar with UPCEA featuring Annette Roberts Webb, Dean of UC Merced Extension. 

Titled PCO Startup Mode: Balancing Long-Term Strategy with a Practical Launch at UC Merced Extension, the webinar sparked a fascinating discussion about operating a continuing education unit in startup mode. In case you missed it, here’s a comprehensive recap of the takeaways.

About UC Merced Extension

UC Merced is part of the ten-campus UC system in the California system of public land-grant universities. It’s the youngest campus in the system, established in 2005. “It still has a very entrepreneurial startup feel to it,” said Annette. 

She explained, “The faculty who have joined UC Merced came knowing they were coming into something they had to build. So part of the ethos of UC Merced is to want to be building something better, to be building for the community and toward a better future for the Central Valley.” 

UC Merced Extension was established about five years ago with a focus on teacher preparation. That particular program is well-established, but UC Merced Extension didn’t expand much beyond it until hiring Annette as the first full-time Dean of Extension. 

“Now, the campus is really taking a full-forward investment in building out a well-scaled, well-developed Extension division,” said Annette.

Annette’s North Star: serving the vulnerable and underserved

For a startup professional, continuing education, and online (PCO) unit to be successful, there must be a North Star or raison d’etre driving its development. Here’s how Annette explained her North Star: 

“My whole higher ed career over 20 years has been in the PCO (professional, continuing education, and online education) space, and it’s because I really want to create programs that make a difference in the community. And one thing that I’m especially driven by is serving the vulnerable and underserved.

I moved to the Central Valley from the Inland Empire. The demographics are similar, although the poverty rate is quite a bit higher in the Central Valley. And we have over 53% of the population that speaks a language other than English. And so I’m looking at that for motivation in building partnerships to help create the right programs that are going to have an impact, but also thinking about the delivery of programs and offering them in different languages. 

Every school has a project management certificate, but what about a project management certificate that’s delivered in Spanish? That might be really cool. So I’m trying to think about ways to specifically serve my new community.”

Challenges with Launching a Continuing Education Unit 

There are many challenges associated with launching a PCO unit, including:

1. Reestablishing infrastructure 

“The Extension division was built sort of on top of the existing infrastructure for other more traditional undergraduate serving departments for the campus. And so I’m having to pry that infrastructure apart and reestablish infrastructure for nontraditional postgraduate workforce development, upskilling programs, and custom programs that I’m building from scratch,” said Annette. 

She explained that UC Merced Extension doesn’t yet have an SIS (student information system), for example. “We don’t have that yet, but we’re working toward it. We’re borrowing from other places to operate right now, which is why the scale of the unit has stayed small because the infrastructure isn’t there to support a fully built-out program,” she said. 

2. Balancing big ideas with practical implementation

Annette described the next challenge as also being a significant opportunity. 

“People were really excited about Extension having a scaling plan and being part of the full strategic plan. So a lot of people had ideas on the idea board, and some were small, some were big.” 

The challenge was considering those ideas in the context of the capacity for program development, the overall timeline, and which resources would be available to support the scaling process. 

3. Maintaining strong relationships with the Academic Senate and the University of California

“The relationship with the Academic Senate and the University of California is critical. They can put up high brick walls and stop all forward progress if they choose to,” said Annette. “But I’ve been really fortunate in this position. The Academic Senate has described themselves as being nimble, which is incredibly unusual but welcome from my seat.”

The First 90 Days

The first 90 days of any launch are critical. Annette had to address immediate needs while considering long-term strategy and planning long-term projects.

Immediate needs

1. Talking to key decision-makers

Annette explained that she took an open and transparent approach when meeting with people and conducting her initial listening tour. She wanted to come in fresh and make her own observations rather than being influenced by preconceived notions. 

“I met with some people, and I said to them, ‘Tell me what you see as working in Extension now and what’s not working and why.’”  She added, “I just wanted to have those open conversations right away rather than assuming everything is beautiful, and I’m stepping into a nice, neat arrangement. I knew that wasn’t the case.”

2. Observing the team’s approach to work

“I also observed what was happening with my programs and staff. I’m a big continuous improvement and kaizen type of leader. And so, I want to look at process improvement. Things are never perfect, so let’s always iterate toward the best outcome that we can have next and then keep working from there,” said Annette. 

Through her conversations and observations, she was able to quickly identify which areas needed the most attention.

3. Understanding campus culture

Another big one was really trying to understand the campus culture apart from what I was told during interviews,” said Annette. She obtained this information by asking many questions. “Asking questions is a good thing, being curious is a good thing, and having people who can share with you what goes on behind the scenes is important.”

Long-term strategy 

1. Program buildout 

Regarding long-term strategy, “It’s all about program build-out,” said Annette. “We have no professional workforce certificates right now in the portfolio, so we are building that out. There’s an intentionality about connecting that with the campus’s strategic plan, but also looking at the different areas of focus for our region for corporate education.” 

To her surprise, Annette even began addressing some long-term needs immediately. “The international space has already come to my desk asking about building out internationalization on the campus. That was in my long-term planning, but it actually happened on day two. So yeah, there are a lot of long-term needs that we’ll be working toward in smaller chunks.”

2. Major mapping that includes alternate credentials

One thing I got really excited about is that undergraduate education and the career center are interested in creating a major mapping tool that includes alternative credentialing. And so I was invited to the table for that conversation right from the beginning to talk about the career skills that should be embedded in the curriculum and how Extension fits within that,” said Annette. 

They also discussed making Extension a part of the official career map tool that the university gives to every student. “I’m excited about that. It may be a mid-term strategy, maybe not such a long-term strategy,” admitted Annette. 

Long-term projects

Annette is working on several long-term continuing education initiatives, including:

  • Develop a UC Re-engagement Consortium for Degree Completion. This consortium will serve UC students who stopped out of their undergraduate degree and involve with the UC Office of the President on advocacy for sustaining the systemwide hub of four UC campuses that provides personalized, high-touch student advising and support services.

  • Scale Extension’s operational infrastructure to a mature state (SIS, LMS, Strategic Finance, Strategic Comms).

  • Identify an internationalization partner for the campus (Global Partnerships Collective Impact model).

  • Monitor the volatility of new certificates/ the portfolio launch. The goal is to achieve predictable enrollment trends and fiscal sustainability.

  • Work on staff development with a focus on PCO mindset qualities (agile, flexible, innovative, quick/responsive, engaged, scanning, curious).

Lee’s Questions for Annette

Lee asked Annette a few specific questions that get to the heart of what it’s like to operate a PCO unit in startup mode.

1. What surprised you?

“What surprised me was the internal team’s readiness for a full-scale Extension. It’s a small team, and I’m going to build a full-scale Extension, so I’m really having to set the vision for what an Extension is. We’ve talked about having the team go see what a full-scale Extension looks like so that they can see it with their eyes rather than me describing it.   

Even some of the campus faculty and staff outside my team want to hear about what we’re doing. So I’ve had to do a lot of describing key components of what PCO units do, which I know we all have to do, even in well-established PCO units and well-established campuses.”

2. When are you done being a startup? 

“I feel like if you’re entrepreneurial, you should always be operating in startup mode. And I also feel like with PCO units, just because you start something doesn’t mean it stays there forever. 

They’re like traditional business product lines when you think about product lifecycle and from the innovator to full adoption and then late-phase work. So I look at certificates in that way. Some of them do have a long shelf life, but some of them don’t. So I’m always doing opportunity scanning and viewing every single new initiative as a startup.”

3. What role do partnerships play in launching a startup PCO? 

Annette has formed a number of key partnerships to date, including internal university partnerships, partnerships with other schools, and vendor/corporate partnerships.

She explained, “Partnerships are really important to PCO units, but you can get caught up in the number of partnerships versus the quality of partnerships. And so I think for me, my method to developing partnerships is really about forming relationships that are mission-aligned, sustainable, recurring, mutually beneficial, and have an impact on the community that we’re both trying to serve.”

If your school is preparing to launch a continuing education unit, MindMax can provide comprehensive support. Connect with us today to learn more.