University of Florida distance education program grows with focus on customer experience, live classes

Posted: 10/30/2013
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The College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida has called many norms in marketing for distance education into question when developing its online programs. Instead of focusing on popular social media marketing channels, such as Facebook Ads and Google AdWords, the college's marketing team focuses on great customer experience. Rather than offering asynchronous-based learning environments, classes have appointment times where students and instructors interact live using Adobe Connect. That also means that the college hasn't jumped on the MOOC bandwagon.

Mike Weigold, associate dean for undergraduate affairs and enrollment management at the College of Journalism and Communications, says that at a time when the trend with MOOCs is to open courses to the widest number of students possible, he and his team have focused on curating small learning environments in distance education. The program is offering a MOOC this year on the topic of rock 'n' roll, but Weigold said the college's distance education programs are built from a fundamentally different approach to teaching students. "MOOCs tend to start out with tens of thousands of people," he said. "We limit class sizes. We're very conscious of that because we want to make sure that the experience the students have in our distance program matches what they would get in residence."

Check out our video interview with Mike above, or the text version of the Q&A below. To learn more about Mike, click here.


You'll be speaking about delivering excellent engagement and experience in online education. There's a general thought from marketers that marketing campaigns really makes or breaks things in terms of getting students, but you suggest it really has to do with delivering great customer service, or, in this case, great student experience and customer experience. Can you explain what you mean by that?

At the University of Florida, our college really got into a significant presence in distance interaction about three years ago. When we started, we wanted to try out different approaches, different ways of reaching students. One of those approaches emphasized the marketing component of things, getting the word out and establishing a strong advertising presence for our programs. Another approach was less focused on marketing, but more on investing in the technologies for our classes and investing in the student experience. After three years, the evidence is pretty clear. Students really want the very best online experience they can get and when you can provide that to them, you don't really have a marketing problem anymore. At that point, you're delivering on the promise that you made to those students and the word of mouth becomes phenomenal.

Can you explain some of the things you're doing at the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida to deliver that excellent customer experience you're talking about?

We've tried to challenge the idea that distance education means asynchronous learning — watching PowerPoints that were pre-recorded and very low interactions with other students in the program and with the faculty instructor. We've established a program where the content is live at all times. Students have appointment times for class. They link to one another and their instructors in Adobe Connect. In doing that, they really develop a cohort experience, so they really feel like they know their fellow students and their instructors know them as people. When we started this, frankly, I wasn't certain it was going to be the right way to go. I wasn't sure if busy professionals who were taking classes in their spare time would really embrace appointment times for class. In fact, they love it. They rave about the technology we use. They rave about the quality of their classes. And they rave about feeling like they're part of something, like they're part of a group with fellow students that are trying to help them get there.

I want to shift the focus to prospective students. Have their preferences and behaviors shifted in the last few years?

Students are getting savvier about distance education. For those of us in the marketing and advertising field, we know that with an introductory phase of any new technology, it doesn't seem to much matter what brand you buy. At that point, you want to get in — like the early days of tablets or in the early days of mobile phones. But as a lot of different companies, and in this case, higher ed organizations become involved in something, students start to ask: What's the point of differentiation? Why is this program better than this other program? That's where we think the focus on the student experience is going to make the difference at the University of Florida.

Given that students are becoming savvier when it comes to distance education, what marketing channels are you going to be using more going forward?

That's been the interesting thing about this program. The marketing presence has been relatively small compared to some other programs in our college. We've used Facebook and Google AdWords and we cooperate with our university partners in terms of developing campaigns to reach those folks. But in truth, a big draw for our programs has come from two of our most loyal customer bases: alumni and existing students.

We have tens of thousands of alumni from our college, all of whom now want the new digital skill set that we can provide them in these distance programs. All we have to do is reach them by email or newsletter, the same channels we've used with them in the past, and they're really excited about this chance. They're really engaged with their alma mater.

The second group that's been very attracted to our programs thus far — and I should emphasize these are exclusively graduate distance education programs at the moment — has been our undergraduate population. They're excited because we're doing things in distance education that we would be very challenged to do in on-campus programs. The courses aren't just a different delivery technology. Distance education has allowed us to do things we could have never done in the past.

What are the tools and technologies you're using to measure student engagement and student experience?

That's a big part of how we approach the program. We are relentless in assessing the student experience. That means, yes, of course, we do the standard teaching evaluations that every institution does on a regular basis, but we've developed our own in-house measures, too, because we feel these in-house measures better tap into what's important in the online environment. It may be okay for a on-campus student if the feedback they get back about their work takes a week or two weeks. Our expectation is that feedback should be rapid, through, helpful and constructive. So we ask students about that. We do that all the time and we let our instructors know, that's what we're expecting of them. Part of our investment in the student experience is we do pay our adjunct instructors a better salary than they're likely to find at many institutions. And the reason for that is simple: When we find the right people, we want to make them happy. We want them to be here and we want to reward them for engaging with our students in the best way possible. So for us, understanding if that's happening is crucial and we do it all the time.

One thing I know is very hot in education right now is this idea of massive open online courses. It seems to get all of this buzz. For you, how have MOOCs affected the marketing efforts for your program? Is this something prospective students are looking for when you're reaching out to them?

The University of Florida is a very large university. We have about 55,000 students, thousands of faculty members. The University of Florida, like many institutions, is taking a variety of approaches to education and some of that absolutely involves MOOCs. We do have a contract with Coursera. We're developing courses for that space. We even one in our college, on rock 'n' roll, of all topics, that's being developed. And the faculty member who's going to teach that spent his summer traveling through Memphis and interviewing people, and we think it will be a great course.

That said, I'm kind of the anti-MOOC guy, and what I mean by that is we know student engagement with MOOCs are rather low. They tend to start out with tens of thousands of people; that gets whittled down to a much smaller number by the end of the course. Our approach is different. We limit class sizes. We're very conscious of that because we want to make sure that the experience the students have in our distance program matches what they would get in residence. We are not looking to comprise that in any way because of the platform we've chosen. I think there are likely to be MOOCs that serve their purposes very well. My approach has been to say, it's okay to charge students for content if that content is life transforming. That's what we're shooting for. We want a quality of educational experience that helps people change their jobs, get a better job, move up in the corporate hierarchy, help their small business to grow, help a nonprofit to be more effective. We think if we deliver on that promise people are not really going to be that upset that they're paying for that. So MOOCs have a really good purpose of their own, but it's not what I shoot for in the program that I supervise.