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Interview with Mr. Ross Pearo of eCornell

Published May 14, 2008. 

I was honored to interview Mr. Ross Pearo, Vice President for Product Development and Marketing at eCornell. Below, please find the transcript from our exchange which includes a wealth of information about continuing education opportunities through a world-class, Ivy League university.

Paul: First, a little history. Can you please tell us how eCornell came about?

Ross: eCornell was founded in late 2000 by the University to provide an opportunity for professionals and executives to participate in Cornell’s professional development programs who may not otherwise have had the ability to visit the main campus in Ithaca or one of the University’s satellite locations, which include NYC, many locations in New York State, and now include locations in Europe and Asia.

eCornell was a way to dramatically expand the University’s reach taking advantage of emerging technology.

Paul: How are eCornell programs different from similar offerings by other universities?

Ross: Our programs are different in a variety of ways;

Unlike many major university’s, Cornell chose to make its online programs not for credit and focus on professional development and executive education. At the time, though it was before I joined the company, I believe that many felt that the technology was not sufficiently advanced to provide the right experience for a Cornell degree-seeking student.

Our courses are shorter than many competitive offerings and are focused on being skill-based and ensuring the transfer of skills from the course back into the workplace. A typical course is 2 weeks long requiring about 6 hours of learning effort. Because the vast majority of our students are working professionals, being able to integrate their eCornell experience with the rest of their life is key; we developed a methodology we call “Structured Flexibility” which provides the structure of defined course start and end dates and clearly communicated milestones with the flexibility inherent in online learning.

Also, even though all our courses are asynchronous, they are all instructor-led. We have a team of subject matter expert instructors, who are skilled in online facilitation, to work with students to ensure that they learn and understand the material, can apply it to real-life situations, and can demonstrate mastery of the content.

We have one of the largest international student bases, according to the higher education consulting group, Eduventures. Since our inception we have had students from more than 180 countries, more than 150 in the last year alone, and at any given time we have students from more than 90 countries participating in our courses.

We provide courses both directly to individuals seeking professional development and to companies, large and small, domestic and multinational, as a training solution so that we can offer cohorts of very diverse students to enhance the individual’s learning experience.

Our ability to offer courses every 2 weeks is also a great advantage; students wishing to pursue an eCornell certificate program rarely have to wait more than a few days to get started.

Paul: Browsing through your online catalog, I count 21 certificate programs. Could you please share with me how you determine which certificates to offer?

Ross: We actually just launched our 22nd and 23rd certificate programs recently with two new certificate series from Cornell’s Hotel School. One is on Hotel Real Estate and Asset Management and the other is on Strategic Hospitality Management. We also have two programs in development with the College of Engineering; one is on Project Leadership while the other is on Systems Thinking and Design, based out of the Systems Engineering program.

At the highest level, we seek to develop courses/programs that leverage knowledge areas for which Cornell is acknowledged as a thought leader. In addition, some of the criteria we apply to determine if it is a good fit for our publicly-available offerings are:

  • Will this type of content benefit from a collaborative online experience? Will eCornell’s product differentiators be meaningful in this instance? Will students learn more from being in a cohort of similarly-motivated students?
  • Is the audience dispersed geographically? Will an online offering help achieve the mission of reach or scale?
  • Is there a sufficiently large target market to warrant the investment to build and market a course?
  • Is the target market consistent with the markets we are already reaching? Is there demand from our existing customers? If not, can we easily reach this new target market?

Paul: For instance, let’s say a student successfully completes your certificate in Financial Management. Shortly thereafter, this student decides to pursue the Business Leadership Skills certificate. A few courses are the same for both certificates. Would coursework completed as part of the first certificate transfer to the second?

Ross: For the most part, yes – with some exceptions we allow courses that are part of multiple certificate programs to be used more than once. The Financial Management and Business Leadership Skills certificates are good examples of this. One of our newest certificate prograqms, Strategic Hospitality Management, has a course, Strategic Thinking, that is integrated into our Executive Leadership certificate, so students who have already earned that certificate, will be part way to earning an additional certificate.

However, we have some courses, in our two master certificates in Hospitality Management and Foodservice Management, for example, that can not be double counted, effectively requiring a student to select one or the other. We have just launched a new tool that will make it easier for students to understand their options and how courses and certificates interrelate.

Paul: During our initial exchanges, you mentioned eCornell courses as being eligible for Project Management Institute (PMI) continuing education. Could you please elaborate upon this point?

Ross: In January eCornell was approved by PMI as a Global Registered Education Provider. They approved 27 of our courses as being appropriate for PMPs and can be used as Category 3 PDUs as PMPs work towards their regular recertification cycle. This is a big advantage for us as many of our students, both B2C and B2B are involved in the Project Management profession.

Many of our courses are also approved for recertification credits through HRCI, which enable SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management) credentialed professionals to earn recertification credits toward their PHR , SPHR, and GPHR certifications.

Paul: Which eCornell certificate programs are most popular?

Ross: Our Human Resource Studies certificate, which was our first program, continues to be our most popular. It leverages the knowledge base of the ILR School and their expertise, and is a comprehensive program for HR practitioners.

Our Hospitality certificates (Essentials, Foodservice, Marketing, Hotel Revenue Management and hopefully Real Estate) also have a very strong following through the hospitality community and build on the exceptional worldwide reputation of the Hotel School.

Recent certificates, like Executive Leadership and Financial Management, are very popular with professionals in many industries and continue to attract many dozens of new students each every month.

Paul: I’m not going to ask you for names, but have you had any celebrities — Hollywood/television stars, professional athletes, or politicians, etc. — take courses through eCornell?

Ross: Not to my knowledge.

Paul: What kind of feedback are you seeing from employers?

Ross: Many global employers embrace our flavor of online learning – highly interactive, engaging, cohort centric, and focused on skill development and completion – and give us the highest possible marks. Our corporate client renewal rate overall is over 85%, and that includes small pilot projects. In our history, we have only lost one client that integrated us in a strategic manner, and that was late last year. That client was a major mortgage lender involved in sub-prime loans and had more pressing problems than continuing training for their employees.

Paul: Another feedback question: How has Cornell University faculty and administration responded to eCornell and its learning environment?

Ross: Several faculty members are on their second or third course development project with us—a real testament to the value they see in this learning environment. The Hotel School is an example of how some administrators have embraced this model. eCornell course offerings are well-integrated into their own executive education offerings, and are used to support their on-campus Master’s program. Another good measure is that I am responding to several new inquiries each month from potential faculty interested in new programs.

Paul: What are your graduates saying about their eCornell experience?

Ross: Student satisfaction feedback is phenomenal. On almost a daily basis we get students emailing about how their eCornell experience has changed their lives or their job prospects. Students are able to immediately put what they learn into use; we see this across a range of industries and in countries around the world. We have some particularly meaningful testimonials from Asia and Africa where being able to learn from eCornell has been a life changing experience.

We track a lot of qualitative metrics in our exit surveys; students tell us the following:

  • > 90% rate their overall course experience as good or very good (4 or 5 on a 5-point scale)
  • 85% rate the difficulty level as “just right”
  • 95% say the material is applicable to their job or desired job
  • 93% say it will directly impact their performance
  • >90% say they will recommend eCornell to their peers

Our overall completion rate is above 90%

Paul: If a student enrolls in an eCornell program, and it is his/her first online learning experience, then what advice would you offer?

Ross: First, I would encourage them to take advantage of all the benefits of our course format to control the pace and timing of their learning experience. We offer a short module that is an introduction to online learning, called eCornell01, that helps students get acclimated to our interface, how navigation works, etc. That is always a well spent 5-10 minutes to get prepared.

Our instructors also send a series of emails prior to the start date of a course introducing themselves and the course, and suggesting a “course rhythm” that we suggest to allow a student to get the most out of a program. They also post tips and suggestions in the open forums inside the course. I would give the advice to listen to the instructor’s suggestions as they can provide a lot of guidance to a student about how to (a) get the most out of a course, (b) manage their time, and (c) give themselves the best opportunity to successfully complete.

Paul: Is financial aid available for eCornell programs?

Ross: We have partnered with SLM Financial, a Sallie Mae company, to provide financing, as well as a couple of other commercial lenders to provide financing to students.

Paul: Going forward, are you looking at expanding your offerings to possibly include continuing education targeting, say, teachers or engineers, for example?

Ross: We are expanding our hospitality offerings very shortly and will also be launching the following programs over the upcoming months:

  • Negotiations
  • Project Leadership
  • Systems Thinking and Design
  • Strategic HealthCare Leadership

We are also working with Cornell on non-professional development initiatives like Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to teach food safety at the grower level and for CU students to educate them on topics like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Cornell’s position on using university networks for music sharing and download services.

Paul: You’ve probably heard that Harvard Extension and Columbia University both offer for-credit graduate programs of various sorts that are available via distance learning. Some of my readers are especially interested in this next question. Has Cornell University and eCornell considered such for-credit possibilities as well?

Ross: In general, Cornell University is taking a more conservative approach to offering fully online, for-credit programs, and as such, there are no immediate plans for such a program with eCornell.

Paul: In conclusion, my readers might like to know what more you could tell us about the many online learning opportunities through eCornell?

Ross: eCornell provides people with a rich opportunity to learn in a truly global community—a real asset in this economy. The insights and experiences of other professionals from a variety of industries add a whole new context to the world class content provided by the Cornell faculty. And our team creates, for each course, interactive activities, assessments, and simulations that will engage people in learning unlike what they’ve previously experienced.