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CEO Keys Partner Spotlight: Wilfrid Laurier University

By Chris Williams

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.

In this Partner Spotlight feature, I met with Wilfrid Laurier University’s Assistant Provost: Strategy and Dean, Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, Bruce Arai. Laurier is based in Ontario, Canada and has partnered with Keypath to extend its reach via a suite of innovative, first-of-their-kind online programs.

Steve Fireng: Tell us about your role at Laurier.

Bruce Arai: I currently have two positions at Laurier. For the past two and a half years, I’ve been the Assistant Provost: Strategy for the University. In that role, I’m responsible for developing new revenue streams based on our academic programs, as well as our non-credit offerings. I was responsible for the University’s strategic move into online degrees, including the due diligence process that resulted in the selection of Keypath Education as our OPM partner. We have launched two undergraduate programs with Keypath so far, a BA in Policing (for Police officers only) and a combined honours BA in Criminology and Policing (for non-officers). These programs are exceeding targets by over 70%. We are also scheduled to launch a Masters of Public Safety in January 2018 and a Masters of Social Work later in 2018.

For the past six months, I have also returned to my previous role as Dean of the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, a position that I have held (in various incarnations) since 2005. In that role, I developed our Criminology program along with four other degrees, and helped develop 15 other programs, including the BA in Policing and the Master of Public Safety.

SF: Why do you believe there is value/opportunity in offering hybrid/online programs?

BA: I believe there is opportunity in offering fully online degrees, but I’m less sure about the opportunities in hybrid programs. The value in fully online programs is that we are able to attract an entirely new kind of student. At Laurier, 96% of our current undergraduate students come to us straight from high school or from another university. With our fully online degrees we are able to offer high quality programs to people who can’t fit into a traditional academic schedule, which have historically been designed for full time students who want an on campus experience. The flexibility of our online degrees means that we are now attracting a more diverse group of students, which is a key pillar of our Strategic Academic Plan. And, it has added new revenue streams as well. We expect both the diversity of our students, and our revenue streams to grow as we launch more degrees in partnership with Keypath.

We have deliberately not pursued hybrid degrees at Laurier, in part because I am unsure about their value. The standard belief is that hybrid programs give you the best of both worlds – a superior teaching and learning experience in the face-to-face portion, and the increased flexibility and growth potential in the online portion. This idea is common among prospective students and faculty alike. But there are two problems with this view. First, it assumes that face-to-face is a superior teaching and learning experience, which is not necessarily true. Online courses are more consistent between instructors, and if designed well, can be of higher quality and can have higher levels of interaction than on campus courses. The second problem is that the increased reach of the online portion is largely defeated by the on-campus requirement. Students who live far from campus will be deterred from taking the degree because of the requirement to travel to campus. In the end, hybrid degrees can end up being the worst of both worlds – a program with limited reach and growth potential that doesn’t provide a superior experience to a fully online alternative.

SF: What differentiates your programs from competitors?

BA: The great thing about Canadian universities, unlike in some other countries, is that they all offer very high quality programs. We are all funded in very similar ways, and we have very similar entrance and degree progression standards across the country. There are certainly differences, in the student experience, research output and international recognition, but the fact of the matter is that the quality of degrees are remarkably similar across all of our universities. So in objective terms, we don’t differ much from our competitors in terms of quality.

However, there are some unique differences in our programs at Laurier. For our BA in Policing, it is the only fully online degree of its kind in the country, and the only one that is open exclusively to serving or retired police officers. We consulted extensively with the policing community before launching this program, and built it around the needs of that community. As such, it is the only degree that is intentionally designed to meet the needs of officers both in terms of academic content and the flexibility to fit into their shifting schedules.

The Masters of Public Safety degree is also the only one of its kind in the country, and is designed for people who aspire to positions of leadership in any area of public safety, from policing to fire, EMS, corrections or border security. As a fully online program, there is no need to live in or travel to southern Ontario to take the program. Canada has been a world leader in public safety for decades, and the degree is open to anyone from any country who wants learn this expertise and to improve their knowledge of this increasingly important field.

Our MSW program has two distinguishing characteristics. First, it is one of the University’s three signature programs, and has a decades-long reputation for specializing in clinical practice. Many people interested in social work are initially drawn to the clinical side, which is why we have always attracted very good students. We are being very careful to preserve this focus in our online degree. Second, we are the only program in the country to offer both an advanced standing (for those with a BSW) and a regular (for those without a BSW) MSW degree in a fully online format.

SF: What advice would you give others that are thinking about launching and/or growing hybrid or online programs?

BA: My first piece of advice for those thinking of offering hybrid programs is to try and gather some evidence on this model. What you may find is that while students may like the idea of a hybrid degree, when they actually choose between a hybrid and fully online program, they are more likely enroll in the fully online option because of its greater level of convenience. This convenience will also result in higher retention rates, which will affect everything from course planning to revenues and graduation statistics.

For fully online programs, try to avoid highly structured programs with multiple levels of pre-requisites. This is common in on-campus programs and it can be tempting to simply import the on-campus degree architecture into the online version. But these requirements are often not necessary, they are often more the product of tradition than any real pedagogical benefit. The problem with lots of pre-requisites in an online degree is that you will be forced to offer all of the pre-reqs multiple times per year, because you will hopefully have students starting at multiple times throughout the year. This will increase the costs of the program significantly. When we put our degrees online, we heavily scrutinized our pre-requisites and only kept those that were absolutely necessary. In all cases, even in our highly regulated and externally accredited MSW, we ended up with a maximum of three pre-requisite sequences.

SF: In your own words, please describe the Laurier-Keypath partnership.

BA: At the risk of being grandiose, our partnership with Keypath has been a revelation. We are very new to the online degree world, and we simply didn’t know what the possibilities were, or how we needed to work in this space to be successful. We needed an OPM partner with significant experience in online degrees to guide us in terms of best practices, and to work closely and carefully with us as we adapted our internal systems and culture to pursue this strategic initiative. There have been a lot of issues and details that needed to be worked out in all of our programs, and we have not always met these challenges with the best attitude or speed internally. So it has been invaluable to work with a company like Keypath that has always displayed a level of professionalism and responsiveness that we can aspire to.

I have said it many times and to many people that I have yet to meet someone at Keypath (and I have personally met over 25 of their employees) who isn’t completely professional, responsive and proactive in making sure that our partnership is the best it can possibly be. In my 22 years in higher education, I have never encountered a better organization to partner with than Keypath, and I have spent the last 13 years of my career developing a wide range of academic and community partnerships.

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

BA: We went through an extensive due diligence process when we explored the possibility of offering online degrees to help us fulfill our Strategic Academic Plan. This included an exhaustive exercise in modelling the possibilities of doing it on our own, and comparing that to what was offered from a series of potential OPM partners through a nationwide RFP process. Our analysis showed that in the Canadian market, where fully online degrees are very new, there was a significant opportunity to become a leader in that space if we were able to extend our reach across the country quickly, efficiently and professionally. It became clear that we didn’t have the internal capacity to do this properly, so we needed an OPM partner to reach this goal. Through our RFP process, Keypath was well ahead of the other respondents on every measure, and as a result our Board of Governors directed us to enter into a partnership with Keypath.

SF: How do you see these programs impacting Laurier’s future?

BA: To be blunt, the future of Laurier depends on the success of our online programs. To be sure, it also depends heavily on our existing on campus programs, and they will remain as the major source of students (and hence revenues) at the institution. But universities in the 21st century that do not have online programs will be anachronistic, so it is vital for us to establish ourselves as the national leader in this area. The diversity of our student body that results from our online programs will be critical as the demographics for on campus programs fluctuate, and government funding formulas become more erratic.

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

BA: The feedback from the senior administrators at the institution, from the President, the Vice-President: Academic and Provost, to the Deans who are putting their programs online has been very positive. The fact that we have exceeded our targets by over 70%, and that we are quickly establishing a name as a national leader in online education is exactly what the leadership of the university was looking for to advance our Strategic Academic Plan. In fact, meeting the objectives of our academic plan is even more important than the revenue that is being generated. On the faculty side, for those involved in the online programs, the reactions are similarly extremely positive. They like the fact that students generally come into the degrees with a good sense of what is expected, because of the work of the Keypath Enrolment Advisors. And the Keypath Student Success Advisors are able to assist students with the whole range of non-academic issues that come up. On the other hand, there are some faculty members who aren’t convinced of the value of online degrees. In general, the feedback from these people has been neutral.

For more information on how Keypath supports online degree programs worldwide, visit us at keypathedu.com/launch-programs. To learn more about Laurier, visit online.wlu.ca.

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