In this Partner Spotlight feature, Keypath Global CEO Steve Fireng met with Stephanie Hunter, Executive Officer to the Provost at James Cook University (JCU) located in Queensland, Australia. JCU has partnered with Keypath to enhance its unique brand via a suite of online master’s degree programs.
Steve Fireng: What is unique about James Cook University?
Stephanie Hunter: Our mission is to create a brighter future for life in the tropics worldwide, through graduates and discoveries that make a difference. One of our real strengths is educating people to work in rural and remote areas of Australia and the surrounding regions, and specifically to work with indigenous people.
Fireng: Why did your university originally look to partner with an OPM?
Hunter: Because so much of our focus has been on our campus’s unique geographies, we found ourselves behind in terms of an online delivery model. We had some online courses, but we were not utilizing them to their fullest potential. We tended to do a lot more blended learning programs, where people would do some of their education at a distance and then come on campus for a weekend or those sorts of things. We knew we needed to leverage some fully online degrees in ways that we hadn’t in the past. Choosing to work with Keypath was really quite a big leap from the way we’d operated previously.
Fireng: Why did you choose to partner with Keypath specifically?
Hunter: We just weren’t in a position to expand our online offerings quickly, and we trusted the expertise at Keypath to get us there. We knew we couldn’t do what Keypath could in terms of development and program management to actually get materials online in the time-frame we wanted to achieve. We were attracted to Keypath’s carousel model for various reasons, and we were attracted to the idea of a partner who could get into the online market quicker – and more effectively – than we could do it ourselves.
Fireng: It’s been just over a year since JCU and Keypath began working together. What has the response to the partnership been from university leadership over that time?
Hunter: The reaction from management has been quite refreshing. Before the partnership began, there was quite a bit of trepidation from our leadership, especially from a revenue perspective. There was the underlying question of: “Could we just do this ourselves and keep all of the revenue?” as opposed to entering into a revenue-share partnership. I think that’s always a conundrum for management – they have to think very hard about the bottom line, so giving up that revenue can be difficult. But we made it quite clear that this partnership was offering something different – that Keypath was going to be taking us into markets that we couldn’t reach ourselves. Now, they are delighted with the Keypath partnership. It is working so well and exceeding the targets that we had set. Leadership is very pleased with our relationship with Keypath, and obviously looking forward to continuing to grow it in the future.
Fireng: How have the academic and operational staff reacted to the courses that Keypath is helping bring to market?
Hunter: Well, for the operational level staff – they’re the people who actually do the work, so the stakes are higher regarding their day-to-day job satisfaction. Because they’ve been involved in the development of the online programs, I think it’s been a really great professional development exercise, but it’s also been demanding. One of the most important aspects of our partnership with Keypath has been the program management that Keypath brings, because that’s how we get the program materials online in time. Everything is very tightly scheduled, and that’s not necessarily how university faculty and staff usually work – generally things are a bit more organic. So our academic staff has been working very hard to hit the timelines set by Keypath, and I think they have found it incredibly stimulating, as well as demanding. Now, because people have seen the great successes we’re having with the online courses, they just want to become involved. And that’s exactly what we want. We want people to want to get involved, and want their course to be part of the partnership so they can be part of the success as well.
Fireng: Why do you think there is such value in online programs?
Hunter: We’d been so reliant on our on-campus students, our local students, because they had been the backbone of our vision and mission. But other institutions were coming into our market and essentially poaching some of those students. As people become more mobile, and education becomes more global, I suppose it makes sense. We really had to start looking at ways we could take our strengths and expand them to broader audiences. It didn’t make sense for us to start offering courses outside our areas of expertise, but to start offering them in new ways. That’s why we chose the online market. Keypath has provided the expertise that we didn’t have, and in harmony with the expertise we do have, it has created a perfect match.
Fireng: Where do you hope to take the online courses that have launched so far, and how do you see this energy impacting JCU’s future?
Hunter: Now we are looking at a global market. We’re looking at how we can leverage our Singapore campus and our tropical location as a differentiator. We encourage people who are interested in what we have to offer, but who may not be able to be at one of our campuses, to take a look at our online courses. We’re also looking at adding some sort of optional in-person experience to some of our online courses. Picture a weekend at our Singapore campus, or at one of our field stations; for example, we have a field station on Orpheus Island right in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, and we have another field station in the Daintree Rainforest. So we could offer retreats or things like that in addition to the online offerings. We have these great physical assets that could make a fantastic companion to the online model. We’re hoping we can deliver our unique experience to the world.
Fireng: How has your partnership with Keypath affected your overall academic strategy?
Hunter: It’s been a catalyst for process improvement around enrollment, admissions and credit transfers. Keypath has pushed particular deadlines in order to get back to students quickly, and I think that’s been a great behavior change. Previously, like many universities, JCU hadn’t operated under that degree of urgency. There has also been some good technology and knowledge transfer between Keypath and our marketing department. Keypath is so open to sharing best practices and sharing ideas. Generally, the partnership with Keypath has really been a catalyst for a shift in the way we think about things, and has certainly been a breath of fresh air for areas of the university.
Fireng: How has the partnership with Keypath affected your plans for the future at JCU?
Hunter: We really love the carousel model, and we’re taking a closer look at how we could leverage it when working face-to-face with students. Students on campus generally take three or four subjects a semester, but what if they were able to do that continuously rather than concurrently? What benefits would that have if, for example, students were trying to learn the English language at the same time? Could we do a better integration of the English language training with the content area, and would that work well for international students? I think we could apply that carousel model to our face-to-face delivery as well as the online delivery in a way that would be beneficial to the university and many of our students.
Fireng: What advice would you share with an institution that’s considering going online, but hesitating because of the implications of outsourcing?
Hunter: Our management was also concerned about that – it can be difficult to give up control over something you work so hard for. But we must realize that we can’t be good at everything, and concentrate on what we are good at, then work with others to supplement and complement. At JCU, our strengths are our academic and intellectual capital, and our research. Online program management is not a strength of ours – and that’s okay. It is such a powerful thing, admitting we need people to help us. But we all do. Having those outside eyes looking at our courses, helping us to package our content and organize our material in particular ways really made an impact. Keypath is very nimble in that sense. The partnership allows us to access instructional designers and program managers who complement the skills and resources we have. That allows our people to be the best at what they do. It’s about recognizing what you’re good at and matching those with a partner that can provide the missing parts to create a really compelling whole.