Why UW-Madison created a portal for nontraditional students

In February, the University of Wisconsin-Madison launched pdc.wisc.edu, a one-stop portal that provides nontraditional students with information about flexible and online degree and certificate programs offered across campus. The project required a significant amount of collaboration and innovation, and it has already been successful in providing access for working professionals who need a convenient way to continue their education and advance their careers.

Jeffrey S. Russell: 'We wanted to make the university more accessible and friendly to the adult learner.'
Jeffrey S. Russell: ‘We wanted to make the university more accessible and friendly to the adult learner.’

In this interview, which originally appeared in The EvoLLLution, Jeffrey S. Russell discusses the rationale for creating Advance Your Career, outlines the challenges of taking the portal from concept to reality, and shares his thoughts on the future. Russell is Dean of UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies and Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning.

Why did UW-Madison decide to launch the Advance Your Career portal?

Russell: We have over 40 programs across the university that are adult-serving, and there was no single point of entry where they were aggregated.

We wanted to make the university more accessible and friendly to the adult learner through the portal. Adult learners want more flexibility and are looking for different types of modalities than a residential, face-to-face program.

Was this a response to a stated issue from students or more a recognition that, as an institution that has a focus on the adult market, more needed to be done to make education accessible to that group?

Russell: We weren’t responding to any external requirements. The mission of the Division of Continuing Studies is to serve the adult learner, so although we’re a division—not a degree-granting entity—our mission is to provide high-quality learning experiences for the lifelong learner.

Part of offering high-quality learning opportunities is to serve those that want either a capstone credential or even a master’s or terminal doctoral degree. We want to better serve that audience; we want to help implement our mission; we want to help those on campus seeking to better serve the audience of adult students by taking the lead and bringing everything together in the form of a portal.

pdc.wisc.edu caters to working professionals who need convenient ways to continue their education and advance their careers.
pdc.wisc.edu caters to working professionals who need convenient ways to continue their education and advance their careers.

What were the most significant challenges to taking the portal from concept to reality?

Russell: We’ve got a very strong tradition of shared governance in Wisconsin in what I would call a highly decentralized system. The primary challenge was communicating with those diverse programs on what we were proposing to do, why we were proposing to do it, and how we were going to do it. Through that process, we made adjustments; we held a number of town hall meetings; and there were a number of one-on-one consultations with the programs to make sure we addressed their concerns and integrated their good ideas.

Historically, we tend to really focus on the academic elements of a program—pedagogy, structure, rankings of the program, expertise of the institutional faculty and staff. But when you look at the portal, what we’re trying to do is make a strong case for each program and demonstrate what students are able to pursue with it and what employers say about it.

As the student demographic becomes more nontraditional, will continuing education units have to play a larger role in helping their colleagues express the benefits of their programs in terms relevant to the labor market?

Russell: The mission of our division is to help reach more students with high-quality programs. That’s something we’re hoping we can bring to the table— from a workflow, process, and expertise perspective—to help these programs, because it is a different audience. How we message and the language we use is important. At the end of the day, it’s being able to articulate what is unique about the learning experiences; that’s a key part of dealing with adult learners. People are there because they’re trying to build their skills and knowledge to help with their practice.

Success to us is not use of the web portal; it’s not driving up the number of applications such that we don’t make good decisions around who these programs are designed for. Success for us is making more students aware of the opportunities here and considering whether it makes sense, in terms of their career goals and learning goals, to apply here. Our hope is that more students will have opportunities to take advantage of our experience.

In six years, what do you hope the portal will look like and how do you think it’ll work?

Russell: Since we’ve launched this, we’ve had thousands of people go on the site. Success is that we continue to grow the number of people who are on the site and actually request additional information. More eyeballs leading to requests for information translates to success because that means our portal is achieving our goal of increasing access by offering an organized and systematic pathway to institutional programming.

What’s next for Advance Your Career?

Russell: It took a tremendous amount of collaboration on the front end to launch the portal. Where we’re going next is to continue to enhance its functionality and to include a section that will highlight our non-credit offerings. We’re in the credit world, so the currency is credit leading to the certificate, a credential and/or a master’s degree. However, we want to build out the portal to include some of the non-credit offerings that can help those in the workforce who might want to come in for a stand-alone course. Going forward, we want to add to the portal as we’re building programs on campus.

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