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Our Managing Director of Short Courses Shares His Reflections on 2020 and What to Expect in the Year Ahead

Written by Molly Forman on Nov 13, 2020

Related content: Short Courses, Leadership, Outcomes

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.

In the short course business, 2U has experienced a surge in growth as more people have become interested in gaining critical skills to accelerate their careers. We’ve launched more than 45 short courses this year alone, many of which were delivered on an expedited timeline to meet the needs of our partners and their students. And we were able to achieve this because of our experience and scale at a moment when interest in online education is at an all-time high.

The premium online short courses powered by GetSmarter, a 2U, Inc. brand, are focused on providing professionals with the skills they need to thrive in the future of work. Optimizing learning outcomes with a career-focused curriculum, GetSmarter offers learners more than 170 short courses in partnership with the world’s most prestigious universities. With unemployment rising at higher rates in the first three months of COVID-19 than it did in two years of the Great Recession, future-proofing your career has become integral to economic stability.

For Managing Director of Short Courses Ryan O’Mahoney, 2020 has inspired new product models and platform enhancements that are paving the way for future success. Read on for more on Ryan, his thoughts on this past year, and what to expect in the year ahead.

After GetSmarter was acquired by 2U in 2017, you transitioned from GetSmarter’s chief marketing officer to managing director of short courses. What does the managing director of short courses do, and what are your primary responsibilities?

My primary responsibility is to set a strategy for the short course business that will help us to achieve our long-term objective of being the number one choice of partner to the world’s best universities and to ensure we help students thrive in an uncertain world of work. To execute this strategy, I collaborate with other key leaders across the business and the short course leadership team to set priorities and plans and hold ourselves accountable to those objectives. Another important aspect of my job is communication—to ensure that everyone across the business understands what our goals and plans are and how we are tracking against them, and to empower my team to make the right decisions when they are faced with ambiguous situations.

On a more personal note, what does being the managing director of short courses mean to you?

It's a privilege to lead the short course team and to work with such passionate and dedicated people every day. As the managing director, I am exposed to many parts of the business and get to see the inner workings of each function. That in itself makes my work so fulfilling and rewarding, as I learn so much from each department.

One of the challenges in my role is that I don’t directly manage many of the functions of the business, so I have to collaborate effectively with other team members to influence decisions and direction. That means a lot of meetings! It also means that I have an important role in conveying context and connecting teams that might be seeking to solve the same problems.

I am also a very results-oriented person, and the challenge of achieving great results for our partners and 2U overall is something that energises me!

Despite living and working through such uncertainty, we have achieved incredible milestones in the short course business this year. From the 10,000th enrollment in a London School of Economics Online Certificate Course to the launch of a beautiful new website designed to improve the student experience, we changed lives at scale all over the world in 2020. That’s a powerful thing, changing lives, and that’s not something we take lightly at 2U. I mentioned a few exemplary wins, but how would you describe the biggest successes of the year for 2U’s short course business? What were the biggest challenges?

I think that the big success of 2020 was that the business was in a position to make the best of a difficult situation and produce excellent results. We were able to switch to working from home with no interruptions in service; we maintained a high level of quality despite moving to a full remote mode of video and course production; and we were able to capture a large amount of the increased demand for online education solutions. All of this also happened fairly seamlessly, and I would put this down to the strength and stability of our leadership, the structures and rhythms we put in place in prior years, and the focus of the team on relentlessly pursuing our priorities and goals.

We had some big wins, too. Over the past year, we launched five product models that allow more flexibility during course production. We also enhanced our learning platform by adding 1-to-1 messaging capabilities, improved forum functionality, and an annotation tool; delivered our first Spanish translation and presentation of a course; and launched a brand new e-commerce website,

The biggest challenge for us as a business was the immense personal strain that our team members had to face with the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown in South Africa—that was pretty severe. It is a testament to the team’s resilience that we still thrived as a business during this trying time.

Beginning in the spring, we witnessed the enormous impact COVID-19 had on the economy. What impact did the pandemic have on 2U’s short course partnerships?

The pandemic brought us closer to our university partners. Our partners had an even greater appreciation for the quality of our course production and presentation and the resilience of our course portfolios in the face of the pandemic. In many cases, we also offered a higher level of support to our partners to help mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic on the university’s fiscus—directly and indirectly—and I think that this was also appreciated.

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 short courses, what would it be and why?

Resilience. In a year of uncertainty, volatility, and constant change, our people, our partnerships, and our product have shown resilience.

With 2021 right around the corner, what are your predictions for the overall short course industry in the new year? What changes are coming in the year ahead?

I predict competition will heat up in the space, and that there will be a proliferation of new options on the market but at differing levels of quality. I don’t believe students are going to continue to give poor-quality offerings the “free pass” that they got during the pandemic—expectations of online education will increase. For this reason, differentiating on quality is going to be important, as that is what students will demand.

I think we have also seen a mass acceptance of online in our everyday lives, from shopping online to virtual meets to e-fitness offerings. For e-commerce, we saw 10 years' worth of adoption in three months this year! I think that this general acceptance of online education is a permanent shift, and we will see greater demand for lifelong learning. Different types of products should be launched to meet these needs.

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