Leverage Existing Content to Serve New Customers


Jeff Russellby Jeffrey S Russell, University of Wisconsin-Madison

People concerned about the environment often remind us to “reuse, repurpose, and recycle.” In fact, recycling is a great way to make more efficient and effective use of finite resources. With that in mind, continuing education leaders might consider taking a page out of the environmentalist playbook.

In a competitive marketplace where continuing education units are responding to emerging needs and expanding their portfolios, it is not always necessary to create entirely new offerings from whole cloth. If we can retool, repurpose, scale up, and customize content in innovative ways, we may be able to meet new needs with existing resources.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, our Continuing Studies division has many high-quality certificate programs and courses in high-demand areas such as distance teaching, behavioral health, and organizational leadership.  We have marketed these programs via targeted e-mails, brochures, and other traditional means.

Although workers and employers alike still want and need these professional development programs, they have seen their training budgets cut repeatedly in recent years. At the same time, public universities like ours have faced funding challenges of their own. Thus, we needed to reach new audiences and generate new resources, using only the tools at our disposal. Like the resourceful TV hero MacGyver, we needed to achieve extraordinary outcomes using only what we had at hand. Instead of chewing gum and twine, however, our toolbox is full of high-quality learning objects.

We are seeing great success by repurposing and customizing our existing certificate programs and courses to meet the needs of specific organizations and audiences. Here are a few examples:

Our Distance Education Professional Development unit is augmenting existing online certificate programs and mini-courses with customized training to provide online faculty development to universities and private sector companies. In most cases, these organizations do not have their own online teaching training programs. In addition, these certificate programs are also customized for specific audiences, including health care professionals, religious study programs, and corporations.

Our Leadership and Management unit offers customized programs designed to develop the skills of business leaders and managers. When we bring these programs to an organization, they enjoy lower costs per person compared to the cost of sending individual employees to off-site programs. Because we tailor the off-the-shelf curricula to the organization’s specific needs, they also enjoy a more personalized learning experience. Building on this win-win model, we are also preparing to transform noncredit face-to-face learning modules into online programs.

Our Behavioral Health unit customizes face-to-face trainings to develop the skills of human service providers including social workers, grief support specialists, health educators, intoxicated driver assessors, and others. To address serve more learners better over greater distances, we use technology to facilitate assessments, reducing the amount of face-to-face instruction. This has included exams that learners complete online once they return home and mock presentations learners record and share electronically with the instructor and other students.  We have also repurposed and customized face-to-face certificate programs by creating online versions to reach new (and distant) audiences. The online programs are offered in “real time” with robust discussions among participants from various time zones.

We are also collaborating with other UW-Madison colleges and schools to repurpose for-credit programs. Together, we create post-baccalaureate capstone certificates that focus on niche workforce needs, using existing curricula from traditional graduate programs.

A few of recommendations and lessons learned include:

  • Develop and scale up new programs with repurposing and customization in mind.
  • Evaluate your current course and programs to identify those that would be in high-demand and could be customized to meet the needs of new audiences.
  • Leverage modern technology and online education to reach new audiences and engage the participants with more active and engaging learning strategies.
  • Often the best way to find organizations that may need your courses or programs is to ask those who have already participated as individuals.

You may never be able to hotwire a truck using nothing but a paperclip, some nasal spray, and a turkey baster, but you can use these tips to address the challenges of dynamic markets and constrained resources.

Jeffrey S. Russell, P.E., Ph.D, is Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning and Dean, Division of Continuing Studies, University of Wisconsin – Madison.

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