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CEO Keys: Partner Spotlight Florida State University

By Steve Fireng
CEO Keys Partner Spotlight: FSU CSW

In the CEO Keys blog series, Keypath Education CEO Steve Fireng shares his thoughts and insights into the most prevalent topics in online higher education.

I’m excited to share we are launching a new Partner Spotlight feature. Periodically, I will sit down with one of our distinguished partners to discuss their work in online education. This month, I met with Florida State University’s Dr. Craig Stanley who serves as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the College of Social Work.

Steve Fireng: Thanks for talking with us, Craig. Tell me about your role at FSU’s College of Social Work.

Craig Stanley, Ph.D.: Currently, I serve as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. I have been in this role for about two and a half years. I am responsible for oversight of the operations for the College’s academic programs to include our BSW, MSW, and PhD programs as well as our Certificate Programs. I also teach classes for undergraduate and graduate students. 

SF: Why did you decide to take the program online?

CS: In Fall 2003, we were the first Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program to gain approval for an Online MSW Program. This achievement was largely due to the efforts of a faculty member named Janet Berry who was the director of distance learning programs at the time. Janet had been running off-campus programs that required students to meet at off-site locations throughout Florida to participate in their courses on a weekend format. These programs still did not provide a great amount of access for students who did not live close to one of our off-campus sites.  As internet technology improved, Janet pushed for an online program in order to provide greater access to a high-quality MSW Program for Florida residents. She then expanded to areas outside of Florida to provide access to several rural areas that were underserved by MSW programs. In the beginning, we served very rural areas. When I took over as the distance learning programs director in 2006, I realized that there was an opportunity to grow our graduate enrollments via the Online MSW.  Graduate credit hour growth was a priority of our Provost. I also realized that students who lived in more densely populated areas had commitments and obligations that made attending our campus-based programs difficult if not impossible. Building on Janet’s vision of providing access, we expanded our areas of coverage in order to improve access and grow enrollments.

SF: What target market does your program serve?

CS: Typically, we serve a population of students who find the flexibility of a high-quality, clinically focused, online MSW program attractive. These students are usually people who have family and/or work commitments that make it difficult to participate in a campus-based program that requires attendance on certain days and times. Many of our students are already working in the field of social work.  For them, achieving the MSW will help them to develop advanced knowledge and skills that will help them to better serve clients and move their career forward. Quite a few students are pursuing a career change that will allow them to transition to a profession where they can provide clinical social work services to help families, groups, and individuals reach their goals. We also serve students who have finished a BSW program and want to take advantage of the accelerated Online MSW Advanced Standing Program. As one can see, we serve a diverse group of students who have decided that online education will be the best way to achieve their goals.

SF: What differentiates your program from competitors?

CS: There are several elements that separate us from our competitors.

The FSU College of Social Work has been providing a clinical MSW degree program in the online format longer than any other institution in the world. We have used this experience to continually improve every facet of our program.  We have learned a great deal about providing challenging and engaging classes for students. Many of the faculty teaching our online courses are nationally renowned researchers and scholars. Additionally, we have developed an excellent understanding of many of the unique challenges that working professionals face when they return to school. This knowledge has allowed us to develop supports that enable our students to succeed. Students who participate in our programs benefit from our knowledge and expertise in online social work education.

FSU prides itself on being a student-centered institution. The online program is no exception to this orientation. Our faculty and advisers are accessible to students and are available when students need help or support. We are very responsive to student feedback and use it to develop and improve our programs and services. We welcome our online students to the Tallahassee campus for College events and activities. Many of these students travel to the main campus to participate in graduation ceremonies as they complete their studies.

Our program is offered in an asynchronous format, which means that students may work on their weekly tasks and assignments at the time of day that works best for them. Many of our competitors offer synchronous online programs that require students to be online at the same time each week. The asynchronous format offers a much higher degree of flexibility in online learning. For students who are juggling several demands on their time, the asynchronous format provides them with the opportunity to optimize their efficiency of their educational participation.

These are a few of the factors that prospective students should consider when thinking about an online MSW education.

SF: What advice would you give others that are thinking about launching programs online?

CS: I think that a lot of institutions underestimate the amount of resources that it takes to launch and maintain a high-quality online program. It is important to start with a plan that outlines everything that will need to be considered when taking a program online. This plan would include focusing on elements of course design, implementation, and evaluation, instructor development/training, marketing, admissions, recruitment, and retention, student services, regional and professional accreditation, …. etc. All of these components must be well executed for a program to succeed. Ultimately, an institution needs to determine whether or not they have the resources to design and develop and implement a program that can be successful and sustainable. 

SF: Why did you choose an online program management partnership with Keypath?

CS: The Online MSW landscape has become increasingly more competitive over the last six or seven years. In 2010 only a handful of Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited institutions offered an online program. Today, there are over sixty (60) CSWE online MSW programs. When we started our program, there was really no competition. All of our marketing and recruitment was done passively using our website or materials passed out at conferences. Our budget for marketing was almost nonexistent. As competition increased, we witnessed other schools begin to become more aggressive with marketing. Leveraging SEO, social media, and retargeting campaigns, several competitors grew very quickly and we soon found their students in areas that we typically considered our backyard. Realizing that we needed to become more aggressive in our recruitment and marketing, we quickly came to two conclusions. Effective marketing of online programs requires expertise and money; we had neither. Our online program is one of the best in the nation, prospective students were not hearing about it. We needed to change that fast.

We considered a few different companies to partner with in order to help us with our marketing and recruitment issues. All of them offered a revenue sharing strategy. Keypath was unique in a few ways. The representatives we worked with all had a deep understanding of higher education and issues faced by large public institutions that rely heavily on state funding. Keypath spent time doing a deep dive into the operations and culture of our College. They provided a detailed market analysis and a very detail oriented pro forma that did not appear to be overly ambitious. They presented a thorough description of how they could enhance our marketing and recruitment efforts. They also proposed admissions and student services supports that would help as we grew enrollments. Their attention to detail and responsiveness to our questions and queries really set them apart from other vendors we considered. Ultimately, I believe that these factors influenced FSU to enter into a partnership with Keypath.

SF: How do you see the online programs impacting your institution’s future?

CS: The Florida Board of Governors for the State University System has signaled an interest in increasing access to online education. Our involvement in online education will help FSU in its efforts to meet targets that may be set as a part of this focus. Additionally, many of our peer institutions in the state have created online programs as a way to provide access to students who might not otherwise participate in pursuing a degree. Many potential students are choosing to remain in the work force while pursuing their studies. Online programs will allow FSU to extend its reach to serve many of these students and remain competitive with other online programs across the state. At the graduate level, online programs also provide a mechanism for FSU to grow enrollments and create additional revenue to support the educational activities of the University. All of these factors point to the positive impact that online programs will have for FSU in the coming years.

SF: What has the feedback from university leadership and faculty been in regards to the online programs?

CS: University leadership has always been very supportive of online program development. This support is one of the reasons that we were the first to launch an online MSW Program. In 2008, with the downturn in the economy, it was evident that online programs were helpful in mitigating the damage of decreased state allocations and diminished grant funding to the university budget. As the other schools in the State University System have grown, many of which are located in very densely populated areas of Florida, online programs have become a more important part of the FSU enrollment picture.

While I do not have any hard data to support this, my experience suggests that faculty are becoming more comfortable with online education. In the beginning, several faculty were wary of offering courses and an entire program online. However, anyone who keeps up with the research literature can see that online education has been proven to be an effective method of instruction. Many of the biggest skeptics in my College have become more accepting of the online format after teaching a class or two online. Even when faculty are not totally won over, their critiques and concerns provide some degree of accountability and are used to improve and develop online offerings.

SF: What impact does obtaining an Online MSW degree have for your graduates?

CS: Our graduates go on to do some pretty amazing things. Currently, we have two graduates from our Online MSW who are participating in our campus-based Ph.D. program. We have one of the most highly regarded doctoral programs in the United States and these students will pursue positions as social work scholars and researchers upon their graduation. A few of our graduates have gone into social work education. Currently, one serves as a Director and two serve as Field Directors for social work programs. A recent graduate was promoted to become an executive director for an agency that provides services to women and children who are victims of domestic violence. These are just a few accomplishments of note. In addition to these individuals, a large number of our graduates have completed the licensing process in their state of residence. They provide invaluable services to include mental health and substance abuse counseling, child welfare services, hospital social work, military social work, social work in criminal justice settings, and marriage and family therapy services. Our graduates go on to make a positive difference in the communities in which they practice.

SF: What has your experience been working with the Keypath team?

CS: The Keypath team has been exceptional in the effort that it has put into establishing the partnership with my college. They have flown staff into Tallahassee to meet and train with MSW program faculty and staff. They have taken the time to listen to and learn about who we are and what we value. In doing this, they have been able to become an extension of what we do. They are not just a bolt-on solution to recruitment and marketing functions. Through our interactions, we have become friends and colleagues. Prospective and current students have a consistent experience across a spectrum of services that are offered by both Keypath and FSU representatives that function as one unit. For these reasons, I am confident that this partnership will help us to continue to establish ourselves as a leader and innovator in online social work education.

For more information on Keypath's OPM partnerships, email Mike Purcell at mpurcell@keypathedu.com.

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