Vol. 16 : No. 3< >
STATE AND INTERNATIONAL EXCHANGE
Georgia GLOBE Models Efficient Approach to Statewide Distance Learning
Higher education rarely does market research. At best we wet our finger to see which way the wind blows," assesses Richard Skinner. Skinner is President of Georgia GLOBE, short for "Global Learning Online for Business and Education." His enterprise, a division of the University System of Georgia, is unique in the academic world because everything they do is driven by market research.
The GLOBE is an aggregator and marketing portal with the mission of promoting distance learning from the 34 institutions within the University System of Georgia (USGA). The GLOBE is not a virtual university. It awards no degrees. Everything in its catalog comes from one of the state’s residential campuses. "We provide our 34 institutions with the power and number to compete with a growing for-profit sector," explains Chris Cameron, Vice President of Marketing and Communications. "Our goal is to drive learners to our institutions."
Since when does a state university system need an integrated marketing campaign? Since the Net made geographically bound markets less reliable. According to Cameron, new for-profit schools have targeted the population dense and education eager Atlanta area. Up to four pages of advertising appear from these schools in weekend editions of metro papers. The GLOBE helps by advertising the statewide university system, lending leverage to local university brands. "We’ve found somewhat on a statewide basis that within our 34 institutions people still tend to migrate to institutions that are known in their local area," explains Cameron.
Founded in 1999, the GLOBE has enlisted market research to uncover the answers to crucial questions. "Our first big question was who are our distance learners?" comments Skinner. "We asked ourselves, were distance learners a distinct group from our other college students?"
The GLOBE discovered that distance learners in Georgia are indeed different from residential learners. Moreover, they discovered that distance learners are different from each other. Suburban-dwellers live close to urban areas and tend to be well educated. They know the advantages of education and are motivated and able to access education via a PC. Convenience motivates them to abandon the residential campus in favor of online learning. This group often lives near campuses, but they prefer not to fight metro traffic.
Georgia’s second group of distance learners does not follow any geographic pattern. They tend to be young women, typically from a lower socio-economic status, often under 30. They need distance learning to overcome real-life problems, like childcare and juggling career, family and educational tasks simultaneously.
The third and final group has, according to Skinner, posed the greatest challenge to Georgia’s higher education institutions and GLOBE’s marketing efforts. "These are people in rural areas, often employed in dying traditional industries like wood and furniture. They are employed in dying industries with no local college access."
Identification of these three groups has allowed the GLOBE to cherry-pick the best media channels and messages for letting learners know what the statewide university system has to offer. Not surprisingly, different demographics have responded to different media channels.
"For African-Americans in the Atlanta and metro areas, radio has a lot of clout," reveals Skinner. "There is a stark contrast between Atlanta and the rest of the state. People outside Atlanta have little experience with education and do not read newspapers. Elearning is foreign and alien to them. We have not been as successful as we’d like reaching these people. They are not tech savvy." Many rural homes remain offline. Skinner sees Internet workplace penetration as a dominant factor pushing rural populations toward online educational opportunities.
Among the GLOBE’s programs, one ranks as the most popular. "One third of our inquiries, of about 4000 inquiries last quarter, were for our WebMBA," reveals Skinner. In addition to being the most popular program, the WebMBA is one of Georgia’s most efficient online offerings. The program is jointly developed and taught by five University System institutions: Georgia College and State University, Georgia Southern University, Kennesaw State University, State University of West Georgia, and Valdosta State University. Applicants apply to one institution but take courses from all five before earning their degree from a chosen "home institution."
Research revealed that the largest single demand for Web-based degrees in Georgia occurs at the graduate level and in business and technology areas. "Our WebMBA could be priced at a gazillion dollars and still fill up," predicts Skinner. Demand for entry is thus far outpacing the limited number of seats available each term. Master’s in engineering, quality assurance, and computer science are in development.
Skinner, who has a long history in university administration, having previously served as President of Clayton State, points to the WebMBA as "a new model of efficiency" for higher education. "Historically each course is hand-made. And that is a very expensive way to make courses." With the WebMBA one campus will create an ecourse. Other campuses may enroll students in these courses online.
The GLOBE’s newest project was, not surprisingly, born of market research. A 1999 study prepared by the Georgia Tech Research Corporation sounded an early warning alarm that Georgia would face a severe shortage of IT workers if the state did not intervene. To address the problem, the GLOBE arranged for KnowledgeNet, an online Phoenix-based IT training firm, to channel their courseware, which is tied to popular private vendor certifications from Cisco and Microsoft, online through 19 of the University system’s local campuses.
The project, labeled "Georgia Gets IT," allows even the smallest colleges in the statewide system to offer IT training online. Cameron reports that KnowledgeNet was chosen because they offered a turnkey system that all colleges could access. "The content was there. The infrastructure was there. They built a private label system for each campus." By using KnowledgeNet each campus avoids worries about hosting, technical support, keeping content up-to-date, and handcrafting content to meet private vendor certification needs.
eCore is perhaps the GLOBE’s most controversial program. Skinner reports that some faculty have resisted the idea of eCore. Unlike many distance programs, which focus on putting the last two years of the bachelor degree online, eCore offers freshman and sophomore core courses. English, history, math and political science are among eCore offerings.
"Selling Ecore has been hard. Colleges say they [students] need to come to campus to get these crucial entry skills." Nonetheless, eCore grows. Skinner sees this program as another lesson in "future efficiencies." He points to the fact that Georgia stands fifth in the nation in K-12 enrollments. "We’re facing a tidal wave of traditional university students. We have a long-term issue of capacity. The hope is that eCore can help us expand educational capacity for all students."