Last fall, as the country skidded into a deep economic recession, Rebecca Swanson read a panicky e-mail from an NC State alumnus. “He was a middle manager and in a heartbeat he had been laid off,” Swanson says. “He had no job, no skills that were in demand, and two kids to support. So he turned to his school for help.”
The message hit home for Swanson, associate vice provost for distance education. “This is the student we have to reach,” she said. “We can help people like this alumnus.”
Armed with a sense of urgency, Swanson rallied her staff and began planning an initiative to help people impacted by the economic downturn. In a few weeks they had the outline of a program, called “Focus on the Future,” to help working professionals chart new career paths through distance education.
The key to surviving a recession, Swanson says, is education. Even in a recession there are areas of job growth, and with the right skills and credentials, people can enter fields that offer better job security. Through Focus on the Future, NC State has developed a Web portal and a set of online tools to help busy professionals develop an educational plan and begin taking classes. The portal – a major redesign of the university’s distance education site – was launched May 24.
“This is an opportunity for students to look at where they have been all their lives and retool,” Swanson says. “We want people to be more in control of their destiny.”
Distance education is growing at NC State – and across the University of North Carolina system – as more and more courses and majors are offered via the Internet. NC State offers undergraduate and graduate courses in a wide variety of subject areas, from animal science to food safety; from economics, education, and entomology to management, leadership in the public sector, and engineering. With an eye toward high-growth industries, the university recently completed the campus review of three master’s programs specifically targeted for students who seek careers in North Carolina’s knowledge-based economy.
And it’s not just degree programs that can help professionals enhance their skills. NC State offers distance education certificate programs in computer programming, nonwoven science and technology, counselor education, and community college teaching, among others.
Many of these programs have been available through distance education for years. But now, with the state’s unemployment rate approaching 11 percent, there’s a new opportunity to package and promote them, and a growing target audience. From the beginning of Focus on the Future, Swanson saw the need for a new way of thinking about online resources. She wanted a site that moved users logically toward the appropriate information, not just a new page design.
“From the outside, it can be difficult to navigate our terminology,” Swanson said. “We needed to cut to the chase with information we felt would be most useful for prospective students: What am I going to learn, what kind of career prospects will I have in a particular field, how much will it cost, and how long will it take.”
To create a new, streamlined Web site for distance education, Swanson turned to her team of in-house developers. She asked them to design the site from a student’s perspective.
Mike Cuales, associate director of creative and multimedia production, led the effort, coordinating the work of both creative and technical staff. One of the biggest challenges of the project, he says, was organizing information in a way that was useful and engaging for the site’s visitors.
“Some sites suffer from information overload,” he said. “We have tried to ensure that we’re not confusing the users, but getting them the information they want as fast as we possibly can.”
The result is a clean, polished front page that has a welcoming feel and offers visitors a number of options based on their needs. If you know which degree or certificate meets your needs, you can easily jump to that section. If you want to browse a list of programs, you can do that as well. If you need one-on-one assistance, you can quickly find an academic adviser.
Once you’ve found a program your interested in, the new Web site offers everything you need to know to make a decision, including career prospects, curriculum, admission requirements, registration information, a plan of study and even a tuition worksheet. The site also offers links to scholarships and financial aid information, the university’s career center and other online resources.
“We want this to be a life-changing experience,” Swanson said. “We want to take away some of the fear that people have – fear that they don’t have the right skills for this economy – and put them in the forefront of the knowledge revolution.”
The Focus on the Future initiative is a partnership of NC State, the North Carolina Department of Commerce and other agencies.