• Emerging Fields Q&A

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    Our webinar: Emerging fields of study: How to identify key target markets to grow and compete online, certainly generated a lot of buzz — and great feedback! In our last blog, we provided an overview of five emerging degree trends. In this one, we’d like to highlight five of the questions our presenters, Brian DeKemper, Director of Business Development, and Darcy Wilson, Associate Research Director, received following the presentation. (Note the time codes in case you want to listen to the complete answer in the webinar recording.)

    Watch the webinar

    [32:20] What’s the ROI for launching undergraduate versus graduate online programs?

    Brian: In terms of ROI for undergraduate program opportunities, we find that it is important to   leverage a suite of programs to target a broad spectrum of the addressable market. The reason for this is that competitive undergraduate programs typically have very competitive tuition rates, so in order to sustain the costs behind things like student support services and transfer credit evaluation services, you need to attract enough student volume to offset the costs of those extremely important, previously mentioned resources.

    Similar to our ASU or Maryville partnership models, we’ve found that, if students are looking for an undergraduate degree program, you’ll want to have enough variety in your portfolio to capture as many students as possible.

    The most important lesson is to start out by fully understanding the economics behind these things before you start developing programs. Make sure to know how much your own “internal” costs of instruction are and how your processes work for prospective student evaluation.

    Another important detail when it comes to ROI is student acquisition costs. If you have access to low cost leads that may come from  corporate partnerships, industry associations, or referrals — and you can attract students without spending a ton of money on direct marketing and lead acquisition, you’ll also find success ROI can be possible in the undergraduate space, but it is a competitive market, and there is narrow space for opportunity based on what you have to invest into the program.

    [34:53] What is the biggest mistake/s schools make when launching a new online program?

    Brian: I’d have to say the biggest mistake is when an institution has an idea baked before spending the right amount of time looking at the industry, evaluating competitors, talking to faculty, or their target audience. If you don’t try to keep your programs designed to be as nimble as possible, it’s hard to adjust to competition if you need to add a couple of concentrations or adjust tuition to be competitive. Keep an open mind about how to build and launch the program, because after the program is launched, making changes to react can be very challenging.

    Darcy: Success with emerging degrees requires the institution to create demand for the program by educating potential students about what the degree is, why it is important, and what it can do for them. Clear communication of degree purpose and the compelling focus areas that drive the program should help this cutting-edge program increase enrollments and thrive.

    [43:14] How do you learn the brand of your clients to really get them where they need to be?

    Brian: Any good (program management or marketing) company that understands why an institution is successful will work to understand the differentiated value of what the school offers. One of the things we do in every conversation we have, is really dive into a program assessment where we’re talking to the faculty and we’re trying to understand: what is the mission of this program, what is the ideal type of student you want to look for, and where do you want it to go in the future?

    Then, everyone in the room needs to align the answers to those questions to things like: is this something that students want? Is this (prospective student) market large enough so that we can get enough students to make this venture sustainable?

    We also hold institutional-specific sessions where we work to understand the university brand and how the school wants the brand to be portrayed. These conversations are fascinating because you find that many times academic program leaders and university marketing/communication/brand leaders don’t often have the opportunity to work together in such a direct way. We want to understand how we can do this in a unique and differentiated way that makes you stand out from another institution.

    [44:45] How is the OPM landscape changing in how they are partnering with universities?

    Brian: From our standpoint, the biggest thing that’s changing is the amount of competition and the way people seek out, compare, and evaluate online programs. There are a lot of companies popping up that specialize in different capabilities maybe disaggregated services or different kinds of service models. But, at the end of the day, we have found that we’re able to offer flexible program support services and flexible financial models to support the varying types of needs of an institution.

    I think that even the idea of how people (universities) go online has come full circle. Now, after 3–4 years of different competitors coming and going and various types of service models emerging, we find that it comes back to really understanding the student audience and where the job market is going. Educational attainment is extremely important and is a philosophical pillar of our company, but we also know that we serve students.

    Students care about value, career advancement, and following their passion. Sometimes all of those things don’t directly align with the legacy mindset of what “a degree” looks like. So, a lot of the changes in the OPM industry have been around how to make sure you can maximize the potential audience, from undergraduate to graduate, degree completion, and all the way through terminal degrees, leveraging all the things our partner schools do and what prospective institutions can do as well.

    There is a significant amount of evolution, and we’re happy to say that we’re seeing evolution on our side as well with the kinds of programs, or institutions frankly, that we work with — and the different types of models we use to help them go online.

    [48:02] Faculty can be quite wedded to an idea of what the curriculum may look like for a new degree and may be suspicious of thinking about degrees from a more marketing/business perspective. What are some ways you’ve found that worked well when working with faculty?

    Brian: I rely heavily on research and an institution’s competitive set. If a program leader at a university says, “we have to do this, and we have to take it in this direction, and we really want the program to look like that,” one of the things we might say is, let’s take a look at your five biggest competitors, locally and regionally, who are doing the exact same thing. Maybe they all have really low degree conferral numbers, which would mean that there isn’t much opportunity for a program to grow or scale.

    It might be something the institution or faculty really want to do, but the prospective program might just not be a sustainable opportunity. We can say that students are simply not interested in this kind of market or program, whatever it may be, and try to let the data really tell the story.

    It’s our job to identify the data for the institution to use to find an operational and sustainable program to go online. That means that when it comes to something faculty are really looking for, we try to help them understand what the overall viability looks like based on the types of program attributes they’re trying to put together.

    Darcy: We’re also looking at metrics that they deem important for brand strength, such as their U.S. News & World Report ranking, total conferrals, total enrollments, ranked programs, and the institutions accrediting body. These are some of the key metrics to help an institution understand who its key peers are and provide a more defined recommendation when uncovering the market viability of the program.

    [50:55] What are the types of things that Pearson does to develop leads?

    Brian: One of our primary value propositions is sourcing high-quality students that fill the needs of universities and help them grow and scale. In terms of lead acquisition and generation, we don’t buy leads or source lists of contacts. Rather, through our understanding of the program and the DNA of the institution and how they want to be differentiated and go to market, and through our research and data points, we build assets and different types of content and collateral and utilize them in traditional channels. It could be a web page or digital advertising through LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google paid search, or different types of media.

    We do experimental things that are starting to take shape in terms of radio or television, like Pandora, or a conference or magazine publication — wherever the particular type of student we’re looking for might be and tailor the content accordingly, ensuring we’re using the right channel to develop a lead and gain interest.

    It might be a diversification strategy as well to say where can we get the best quality and best converting types of students for these programs. Each program has its own angle on where to go to find the right students, and we rely on our research and data to find those leads that we can convert into students who ultimately become graduates.

    We also answer the following questions in the webinar recording:

    • What would the average cost be to acquire a non-organic adult bachelor’s enrollment? [46:35]
    • Have you worked with Christian Bible colleges or universities? [42:00]
    • What has your experience shown about the appeal of full MA degrees vs. grad certificates? What is more valuable to students? [39:18] 
    • How can you project Customer Acquisition Cost? [53:24] 

    Watch the complete webinar to hear those answers.

    If you have your own questions, please contact us. We’d be happy to follow up personally: Brian DeKemper and Darcy Wilson.

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  • Why I'm the worst example of a woman in STEM. Or maybe I'm the best?

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    This week’s episode of Nevertheless is a bit different. It’s a live conversation that took place at Pearson dealing with the tricky real-world issues of diversity and inclusion. It’s a good reminder that this podcast and these stories don’t take place in a vacuum. These are people who are still growing, learning and reflecting on what it means to create a fairer and better place to work.

    Along with this live conversation, we wanted to share the story of one of those people, Vicki Gardner. Vicki joined Pearson in 2015. She now heads the company’s Primary Schools Sales Team providing literacy and numeracy pedagogical schemes. Prior to this, Vicki spent nine years at RM Education in a variety of operational roles supporting strategic managed service contracts with local education authorities.

    My first experience of the Nevertheless podcast was back in October when I listened to the episode “Finding Genius” on my commute home one day. By the time I pulled up my driveway, I was dumbfounded and a bit upset, which are both unexpected consequences of listening to a podcast. That particular episode was about lost potential and included a great interview with a female engineer who is passionate about getting kids to invent stuff. Why did this interview upset me? Because my name is Vicki, and I used to be an engineer.

    I studied electronic engineering at university and then had a really interesting first job working as an electronics assurance engineer for a global confectionery company in their vending machine division. One of my responsibilities was to research and reverse engineer our competitors’ products to see how they worked, while the other part of my role was to take prototypes of my company’s new products and try to destroy them through any sort of creative means I could think of to prove their quality. I was one of three graduates in the role and as a third aspect to all of our jobs, we each had a research and development project where we got to use our engineering skills creatively to improve the next generation of products.

    But fast forward to now. I’m far removed from being an electronics engineer. Now, I work at Pearson in the UK Schools Sales team selling printed and digital resources to primary schools. So how did I get from my first job to here? What happened along the way to change my direction?

    I would say that my change in direction began with the promotion panel. To be promoted at my first job, you had to present your research and development project to a panel of senior engineers. Our manager had put my two male peers and I up for a promotion at the same time. The other two graduates were both men my age and we’d all joined the company at the same time, but they were both paid more than me. At the time, I remember being a bit confused about the reasoning behind their higher pay, but I accepted it. They also were both given (I now realise), the really prestigious projects, the ones that were related to the new products that had the most investment and were forecast to bring in the most revenue. My project was interesting and I really enjoyed working on it, but it was on a product that was regarded as a bit of an unknown and not expected to do anything in the market.

    “The panel I faced was made up of six male engineers, all much older than me, and an HR officer, also male. I was in that room for nearly an hour, and I was absolutely torn apart. It was horrendous.”


    When it came time to speak to the promotions panel, my colleagues went before me, each spending about 30 minutes in his panel and coming back looking confident. When it was my turn, I, a painfully shy 23-year-old, was trembling. The panel I faced was made up of six male engineers, all much older than me, and an HR officer, also male. I was in that room for nearly an hour, and I was absolutely torn apart. It was horrendous. When I returned to the office I shared with the other two recent graduates and my peers asked me how I’d done, I shakily mumbled an answer. Our boss turned up some time later and broke the news to us all together; my colleagues had both been successful and were promoted. And me? He had tried to argue my case and there’d apparently been a long discussion about me, but he was sorry, I would have to try again in six months.

    I was gutted, and beat myself up, but my main worry was, how was I going to go home and tell my mum and dad that I hadn’t been good enough? I will never know if unconscious bias was playing a part in the promotion panel, or whether I really didn’t make the grade. What the Nevertheless episode did help me see, though, is that I definitely wasn’t given the same opportunities as my male co-workers. I eventually did get promoted, but I never quite got over feeling like a failure while I was with the global confectionery company, and, subsequently, always felt six months behind my colleagues.

    The second event that I now realise changed my direction happened when a new senior manager came in and we recent graduates were all “given the opportunity” to move from the assurance role into technical sales. We were told that the assurance role demanded engineers with more experience, so I moved into sales. Over the 20 years between now and then, I’ve worked in technical sales and managed distributors, technical salespeople, technical support desks, delivery teams, technical operations teams, inside sales teams, and field sales. Having a background in engineering has made me a creative problem solver, and I can always work out how things are going to break before they do. I’m also quite good with data and pretty adept at creating processes, which is handy when you’re running an operational team.

    But I’m not an engineer any more, something that I had to work very hard for and overcome lots of challenges to achieve. It took my mum a long time to accept this (she was still telling people I was an engineer years after I’d moved to sales).

    “Today, only 11% of the British engineering workforce is female, yet women have played and continue to play a significant role in the field.
    Women’s Engineering Society”


    I recently volunteered to be a mentor to sixth-form students in a local secondary school because I want to share my experience with girls and let them know that it’s okay to move away from the path you originally set out for yourself. Just make sure that the decision to make a change is your decision and not because someone’s made you feel “not good enough.” I want to tell girls who like maths and science that sometimes, life (and other people’s biases) can get in the way of your dreams, but it’s important to challenge the status quo.

    This is why I’m both the worst and the best example of a woman in STEM, because now I can see how easily you can be taken off course.

    Nevertheless is a a podcast celebrating the women transforming teaching and learning through technology. Supported by Pearson. Subscribe on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcherSoundcloudTuneIn or RadioPublic.

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  • A teachable moment

    by Emily Lai, Ph.D, Kristen DiCerbo, Ph.D, Peter Foltz, Ph.D

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    Nevertheless, a series produced with Storythings, celebrates women both inside and outside of Pearson who are using technology to transform teaching and learning and improve outcomes for students. 

    Pearson’s Emily Lai on trust, children, and information literacy

    A little-known fact about me is that I was once a librarian. Before I entered the world of educational measurement, I completed a degree in Library and Information Science and worked in an archive. This fact is ironic because there was a time in my life when I actually suffered from library anxiety.

    This occurred during my sophomore year of high school, when I had an English assignment to write a research paper summarizing and critically evaluating evidence of some paranormal topic of my choice (my topic: people who claim to recover memories of “past lives” through hypnosis.) Our class made several visits to the library of a local university so we could carry out research. At that time, there were no full-text electronic databases to consult, just stacks and stacks of books, hard-cover periodical indices, and a computer-based card catalog. Even this was intimidating to me.

    I remember spending way too much time trying to figure out how to search the collection and then retrieve the results — only to find that they weren’t all that relevant to my topic. I should have approached the reference librarian (the most under-utilized resource in the library!) but I was too shy. I felt this was something I should figure out on my own.

    Eventually, I overcame my paralysis in the library and learned to see it as a treasure trove. The tools to support information retrieval projects like this have vastly improved, thanks in no small part to technology. But technology has also made it even more important that students develop information literacy: the ability to diagnose an information need, identify what kind of information is needed, search and retrieve information, evaluate its relevance and quality, and use it responsibly to answer a question or solve a problem. It’s more important today simply because the internet and mobile technology enable ridiculous amounts of information to be instantly accessible to us, anytime and anywhere.

    Recently watching my 9-year old daughter try to research rights and responsibilities of citizens for a school assignment brought me full circle. Although she was sitting at home (not in a library) and using her computer (not bound books) to look for sources, she ended up with about the same result as my fruitless search from years before — a small collection of marginally relevant information sources of dubious credibility for the topic. She didn’t know what question she was trying to answer or how to describe what type of information would be best suited to answering it. She was simply googling her way through the assignment.

    If ever there was a teachable moment for information literacy, this was it. So we talked about how to search for information and how to judge whether that information is valuable for a given question. We talked about mis-information and the need to critically interrogate information sources to figure out if they are trustable.

    If you’re a parent like me who is concerned that your kids aren’t picking up these skills at school, or you’re just interested to hear more perspectives on the topic of trust and technology, make sure you check out the next episode of the Nevertheless podcast, entitled The First Click.


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  • Designing for Learning: Pearson's Learning Design Principles

    by David Porcaro

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    As I write this blogpost, I occasionally stare out my window to the Rocky Mountains looming above me. It’s amazing to think that these 4200m/14,000 ft mountains were formed by a series of small tremors and occasional larger seismic movements. Likewise, the tectonic plates of education are shifting, and seismic ripples are apparent globally.

    Many are small movements—tremors really. But, as education places greater focus on the learning sciences and our understanding about how people learn expands, such tremors may occur more frequently. In fact, bigger shifts occur when such insights are increasingly applied to learning tools and experiences used by millions of learners worldwide.

    As a part of this movement, Pearson is pioneering the application of learning sciences to education products at scale. For decades, many education research projects focused on basic or evaluative research, leading to discoveries shown to impact learning, but failing to do so at scale. On the other hand, many educational technology products have been built on solid user experience and market research, but have failed to impact learning. In the learning experience design team, we’re implementing a principle-based design process in which we apply design-based research methods to a variety of Pearson products across disciplines, supporting the outcomes of millions of learners globally (building on such efforts as Clark & Mayer, 2002; Gee, 2007; Koedinger, Corbett & Perfetti, 2012; and Oliver, 2000).

    Using both the design thinking methods of user experience (Kelley & Kelley, 2016), and the design-based research methods of the learning sciences traditions (Reeves & McKenney, 2013), we’re building, applying, and refining a set of forty-five Learning Design Principles. By doing so, we’re working at the nexus of education research (i.e., products based on research) and product efficacy (ie, research-based products that evidence impact on outcomes). In that messy and exciting space of innovation, we’ve established a design function and process that allows us to build products that meet user needs, are delightful and usable, and, most importantly, impact learning.

    Pearson’s Learning Design Principles

    The Learning Design Principles (LDPs) are research-based syntheses of targeted topics within the learning sciences that serve as quick, reliable reference for learning designers when working with all key stakeholders in the product development process. The LDPs provide us with a research-based point-of-view to inform how learning and teaching theory are integrated into Pearson products and features. Drawing on the work of leading researchers in education, including some of our own authors and customers, we are building a research base that we can continually reference in making design decisions.

    The LDPs are not official policy or “how students learn” type documents. Rather, they are focused on application, and are the first point of discussion on learning design, paving the way for further Pearson-led education research.

    Surrounding this work, we’ve developed design tools and guidance documents that we use to apply the learning sciences in new product design. From this larger corpus, we’ve created LDP cards that summarize key concepts and applications of each of the learning design principles into a succinct and portable form. In addition to providing quick reference on applications, impacts, and possible capabilities, each card includes a self-assessment instrument that we use to better align our products to what consistently improves learning. Internally, we use these cards to set a common language and understanding of learning sciences research for everyone involved in the design and development process, which helps us link back all design decisions to a research-based “why.” They also provide preliminary measures of learning impact in our early stage product design, and act as the glue to the logic models of more robust efficacy and impact evaluations.

    We’ve been using the principles in a number of ways that combine the speed of design thinking methodology with the rigor of design-based research. For instance, in one recent design sprint workshop with a university partner in our online program management work, we used the LDPs (Scaffolding, Motivation Design, Feedback, Self-Regulated Learning, and 21st Century Skills cards among others) in a card-sorting activity that allowed all participants–students, instructors, administrators and designers– to quickly prioritize the key learning elements that would need to be part of program innovations.

    The Learning Design Principles were also at the heart of recent product updates for Pearson Writer, a digital writing support tool. After analyzing the existing product using the LDP self-assessments, we identified a number of opportunities for features that would enable better learning. In creating a plug-in for Microsoft Word, learning designers identified LDPs best aligned to guide the efforts, including Cognitive Load and Multimedia, Scaffolding, Online Information Literacy, and Writing to Learn. Through several rounds of co-design with students, the application of these principles to feature requirements has been refined, measured, and iterated on. We’re continuing to refine the product through principle-based analysis and co-design, and measuring the impact of these developments to learning.

    Sharing the Learning Design Principles

    We are pleased to announce the public release of our summary cards for an initial forty-five LDPs in an attempt to initiate a larger conversation around how to better design learning experiences. (My sincerest appreciation to Dan Shapera and his team who tirelessly shepherded these to completion!)

    We invite you to download these cards which are being released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license which allows you to embrace and extend our work. By sharing these cards with you, we’re building with you a common vocabulary around how we’re making our products. You can use the cards to discuss with us what aspects of learning are important to you and your students, and how we can better support you in implementing these principles in your learning environments. Additionally, you can use these cards to begin your own principle-based design program, springboarding discussions around the kinds of capabilities, design implementations, and impacts you want to see in your own learning experiences.

    Please join me in an extended dialogue about these principles. Over the coming weeks, we plan to have further conversations about the principles and their application. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s missing, how we might further refine our understanding of learning, and how you are using them in your own user-centered design processes. Together, we can cause seismic shifts in how people learn worldwide.

    Find me on twitter, @DavidPorcaro

    Access additional resources on Pearson’s Learning Design Principles



    Clark, R.C. and Mayer, R.E. (2002). E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer.

    Gee, J (2007). What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.

    Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. Crown Business.

    Koedinger, K., Corbett, A., & Perfetti, C. (2012). The Knowledge-Learning-Instruction Framework: Bridging the Science-Practice Chasm to Enhance Robust Student Learning. In Cognitive Science 36, 757-798.

    McKenney, S., & Reeves, T. C. (2013). Conducting educational design research. Routledge.

    Oliver, R. (2000). When teaching meets learning: Design principles and strategies for web-based learning environments that support knowledge construction. In ASCILITE (pp. 17-28).

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