September 3, 2008
Ron Kennedy’s work at Liberty University is a perfect example of how online learning can benefit both an institution and the students who sign up. Mr. Kennedy has expanded the enrollment of Liberty’s online learning program an astonishing 141% over the course of two years. As a company, EdTek is always interested in discussing ways of making distance learning successful. To that end, we interviewed Ron Kennedy and asked for his thoughts on marketing, enrollment, and how to successfully handle an enormous increase in online students.
EdTek: Did it fall to you to build the program, or
was the program already in place when you became Director of Distance Learning?
RK: The program was
already in place. Liberty
has been offering distance learning for over 23 years, although for most of
those years we were offering correspondence courses. But when I was asked
to become part of the program, we underwent a major overhaul. There were new
programs, courses, and operations implemented to make it more competitive and
up to date. We did this so we could meet the expanding needs of the online
learner. Some of our programs were already online, but a large portion of
our courses were still in video format.
EdTek: Before becoming Director of Distance
Learning at Liberty,
did you have any experience in online programs?
RK: I did not have any
previous experience in online programs, other than being a student in Liberty’s online MBA
program. My previous work experience was in traditional enrollment
management for resident students.
EdTek: Given the enormous increase in enrollment in
program, was there a specific method that you used to market the program? Were
there certain demographics or areas in which you thought recruitment would be
the most effective?
RK: There were some specific
things we did to market the program. I and my data management team
underwent a sizeable analysis of demographic information by program, and we did
this in order to find out exactly who the students were and where they were
coming from. Some of this was done through purchasing programs and
appending data to our files, while more information was filled in by surveys to
prospective and current students. We also did a dot density analysis to
find out which geographic areas we were having the most success with in terms
of enrollment. We overlaid that with a dot density of past inquires to
find any discrepancies in lead flow.
EdTek: There is, unfortunately, a misconception
that online learning is somehow “second rate” or inferior to the regular
college experience. Did you find that mindset to be a problem in your
RK: We have done some
internal surveys, and we looked at external data on this subject and we found
that most students think it is the equivalent of (or in some cases better than)
the face-to-face teaching model. We haven’t had huge problems overcoming
this misconception. Most students that inquire about the program have
already wrestled with that question prior to asking for information about the
school. I believe most students who ask about online schools already have
concluded that it is the best option for their individual lifestyles.
EdTek: Are there any specific benefits to online
learning? Are there ways in which online learning is better than the regular
RK: There are plenty of
“non-educational” advantages to online education. So much so that even if a
student did feel it was a bit “second rate” he or she might still consider an
online learning program. If you consider the problems of finding child care, a
commute to a campus, time inflexibility, having to pay for dorm rooms, and all
the other expenses and factors involved in a “traditional” college education,
online learning is becoming a better option for many people.
EdTek: Have you had particular success with the
“hybrid” approach? (That is, some classes taken in person and some classes
RK: We have had success
with hybrid programs, but at Liberty
we call them blended programs. At first we were trying to eliminate all
residency requirements (non-licensure) because we thought this was a hindrance
for students who wanted to enroll in our program versus a school who had the
same program 100% online. However, because we offer licensure track
programs, and there must be face- to- face class time in these programs, we
learned that students wanted to have that campus experience. Liberty is in a unique
situation with a traditional campus setting that has an abundance of student
life activities. Our distance learners want to come experience that
student life, even for just a short time. It really gives them a sense
that they belong to the university and the tangible experience they have has
proved to be very valuable. Because of that we now offer more blended
programs that are not required but are an option for those students that want
to come to campus and have the Liberty
EdTek: How was Liberty able to maintain academic standards
in online learning? Did the teaching staff have prior online learning
experience or were they new to it?
RK: Liberty maintains its online academic
standards in that we have a portion of the online sections taught by resident
faculty, and the remaining portion taught by pure adjuncts in the field.
All have prior experience. There has not been a shortage of qualified,
experience adjuncts to draw from. In addition, all course content is
controlled by the resident faculty and deans. Each adjunct is also
monitored and evaluated by a resident faculty member.
EdTek: How were you able to effectively handle the
dramatic increase in enrollment at Liberty?
RK: As we went through
the overhaul process 2 ½ years ago, we purposely went into it to make sure any
process that we built or changed were scalable for growth. We did not try
to fit our growth goals within current structure or processes. We knew
our growth goals and then we built the operations around those projected
goals. I could spend hours talking about all the things we did to make
sure we could accommodate the growth, but the bottom-line is that this is a
business and it needs to be viewed at the very top as a business. There
has to be flexibility and willingness for change. Operations have to play
an equally important role as the academics to make the growth happen. The
rate of our internal change has to exceed the rate of the external changes in
EdTek: Thank you very much for your time.
RK: Thank you!
Ron Kennedy is the Executive
Director of Online Learning at Liberty
University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
His blog, ronaldkennedy.com,
contains many valuable tips on establishing and marketing online education