While this year was like any other year in the sense that 2U’s goal remained intact—deliver products that meet the diverse needs of our university partners and lifelong learners—the impact of the pandemic accelerated demand across all three of our primary products: boot camps, short courses, and degrees.
For degree programs, we’ve seen a share shift happening toward online programs as learners expand their consideration set. Irrespective of discipline, prospective students are now more likely to consider online degrees. And as the pandemic accelerates the move toward online learning, more universities are actively looking for digital transformation partners like 2U to help them deliver sustainable, high-quality online programs that meet the needs of 21st-century learners.
While we’ve experienced growth across much of our degree business in 2020, there are certain degrees—like those within our public health programs—that have really taken off. We believe that’s because people want to deliver during a time of need and see an opportunity to grow their skills in the healthcare space to support the world amid crisis.
We’ve also navigated some complex challenges. And according to Managing Director of Degree Programs Ebony Lee, that has required 2U to be agile. She describes 2020 as being a year that 2U needed to be more nimble, flexible, and creative in solving unique problems during an unprecedented time. Read on for more on Ebony, her thoughts on this past year, the hurdles overcome and successes accomplished, and what to expect in the year ahead.
You joined 2U a little over a year ago to lead our degree program business and help some of the best universities around the world deliver great outcomes for students. In layman’s terms, what do you do as the managing director of degree programs? What are your primary responsibilities?
As managing director of degree programs, I’m responsible for day-to-day operations as well as delivering product enhancements and innovation to ensure the overall success of undergraduate and graduate programs powered by 2U. In my role, I work cross-functionally to build new program opportunities and partner with the Student Engagement, Marketing, and Technology teams to deliver better experiences for prospective and current students.
On a more personal note, what does being a managing director of degree programs mean to you? And what have you focused your efforts on over the last year?
I’m thrilled to lead the degree program business and partner with incredible universities to expand access to education that transforms lives.
Over the past year, I have dedicated the majority of my days to setting clear goals and focusing our teams on delivering high-quality experiences for both our university partners and their students; identifying ways to grow and enhance degree programs on behalf of our university partners; developing new products and offerings that keep our partners’ programs relevant and differentiated in the market; and achieving financial and operational goals that ultimately benefit our partners, their students, and 2U.
Reflect back on 2020. What were the biggest successes of the year for 2U’s degree program business? What were the biggest challenges?
We’ve experienced many successes in the degree program business this year, from unveiling new programs in cutting-edge verticals like the Doctor of Pharmacy program at St. John Fisher College to launching our first undergraduate program with the London School of Economics and Political Science and its parent, the University of London. We also tested new marketing strategies, including hosting LinkedIn Live events, and brought to life new product innovations, including the rollout of a Python elective for MBA programs that leverages the expertise and curricula developed for 2U’s intensive tech boot camps.
Our greatest accomplishment in 2020 was the same as our greatest challenge: meeting the needs of our university partners amid the uncertainty of COVID-19. To help our partners and ensure educational continuity for students, we launched No Back Row® PRO, 2UOS Essential, and 2UOS Plus. We developed resources to train on-ground faculty who were learning to teach online for the first time, supported universities with moving on-ground programs online quickly, and secured placement opportunities—remote or hybrid—for students in degree programs that require fieldwork.
Beginning in the spring, we witnessed the enormous impact COVID-19 had on the economy. What impact did the pandemic have on 2U’s degree program partnerships?
While all of the degree programs we powered at the start of the pandemic were already online, there were three large challenges we had to solve for fast.
We needed a solution for universities with on-ground undergraduate programs. That’s how 2UOS Essential was born. 2UOS Essential was developed to provide the essential technology and services universities need to quickly build, deliver, and support an effective online learning experience—without compromising quality. With 2UOS Essential, universities could receive faculty training, video production support, a scalable LMS, and student and faculty support for technical assistance. Today, we’re supporting more than 340 courses, 400 faculty, and 3,000 students through 2UOS Essential.
We needed a solution to enable virtual content production when the pandemic prevented us from being able to continue to do production on-site at our studios. That’s where Studio in a Box came into play. We built Studio in a Box so that we could send instructors everything they need to create educational video content in their own remote setting—both the gear and the support—to design, create, and deliver meaningful learning experiences for students around the globe. Today, faculty have developed more than 2,400 videos using Studio in a Box and more than 550 hours of video have been captioned for accessibility.
We also needed to find a way to enable social work students to graduate on time, despite their placement sites shutting down. While many universities were able to pivot amid COVID-19, higher education programs that required hundreds of hours of in-person, hands-on learning experiences to graduate and, in many cases, gain licensure, threatened to shut down. To support our partners faced with this grim possibility, we created the Virtual Field eXperience (VFX), an immersive experiential learning opportunity for social work students to practice their skills as counselors with live actors who simulate clients. The VFX was developed in 10 weeks and was intentionally designed to replace the first year of field placement required for social work programs.
Reflect back on the progress you made and the pitfalls you encountered this year. If you were to choose one word to describe 2020 for degree programs, what would it be and why?
In a word, the past year has been about agility; the ability to change direction quickly while keeping balance, strength, speed, and control. Together with our university partners, we have proven to be nimble, flexible, and creative in solving unique problems during unprecedented times—all in an effort to best serve students.
With 2021 right around the corner, what are your predictions for the overall degree program industry in the new year? What changes are coming in the year ahead?
It’s hard to predict the future, but I think we can expect to see continued acceptance and adoption of the online modality across higher education—both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Online-only, hybrid, and hi-flex models will all be in play, allowing more flexibility and multiple pathways for students to access education in a way that makes the most sense for their unique situation. I think this will also lead to greater attention, more resources, and customized support systems to help students succeed as they navigate their online and/or hybrid journey.
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