Cannaday's Vision: How Technology Can Leverage the U.Va. Brand

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June 26, 2009 — When Billy Cannaday was hired in October to lead the University of Virginia's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, he was charged with expanding the school's use of digital technology and extending the school's offerings – within Virginia, nationally and internationally.

In February's State of the University Address, U.Va. President John T. Casteen III suggested that expanding online and distance learning could leverage U.Va.'s strong reputation in order to produce new revenue.

Meeting those goals will require a focus on the business side of things, Cannaday said.

"The slogan I use is, 'Think, plan and organize like a business. Behave like an accountable public university,'" the dean said. "Behaving like a public is important – that is, to serve our outreach mission. But you can't do that unless you have good business practices to sustain it."

Over the past 15 years, the School of Continuing and Professional Studies has steadily become more financially self-supporting, and Cannaday aims to further improve its financial health, something that he's uniquely well-qualified to do.

Cannaday was formerly the chief executive officer of the Virginia Department of Education and, before that, superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools, a suburban Richmond school division with more than 56,000 students. There, he supervised a $500 million budget with business units that included a fleet of 520 school buses, school cafeterias that served thousands daily, facilities personnel who maintained hundreds of buildings, and a human resources department that managed more than 8,000 employees. (For comparison, the academic side of U.Va. has an annual budget of just over $1.2 billion.)

The sour economy, declining funding from the state, faltering market returns for U.Va.'s endowment and national sentiment to generally rein in the rising costs of higher education make now a good time for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies to reexamine itself and evolve, Cannaday said.

"Times like these, while they create uncertainty, they also create lots of opportunity. It's hard to innovate, to look at yourself critically, when things are going well, because there's no sense of urgency to change," he said. "But when you realize that if you don't change, something is going to change you, you then begin to reexamine what we do. That's what we're doing now."

With help from consultants, Cannaday is weighing how to expand the school's offerings in ways that make the most business sense. His team is reviewing the costs, benefits and value of each program and course offering, he said, and they've already found that some are underpriced compared to market rates. Others that don't generate revenue or have seen declining enrollments are under close scrutiny.

A consumer-oriented redesign of the school Web site will help gauge demand for various offerings, Cannaday said. That, along with more surveying of the student experience, will create a "continuous feedback loop" to guide changes and refinements, he said.

The School of Continuing and Professional Studies currently serves about 15,000 students annually through a variety of offerings, from non-credit "Travel and Learn" trips to online courses in e-marketing and human resource management.

Almost a third of the school's students take courses in K-12 teacher training, developed in partnership with the Curry School of Education. That partnership, Cannaday said, enables offerings that respond to the changing dimensions of American schooling and that build on Curry's research into best practices to support the development of teachers and education leaders. The wave of retiring Baby Boomer educators mean further revenue opportunities in one of the school's strong suits, as the younger teachers who replace them seek continuing training.

Some of the most attractive revenue options involve partnering with community colleges, businesses and federal agencies, Cannaday said. One initiative is to expand the programs U.Va. customizes for federal agencies, which currently include executive leadership training for mid- and senior-level managers in the Naval Air Systems Command and accrediting classes at the FBI National Academy in Quantico.

U.Va. also is partnering with Nortel LearniT, the National Institute of Aerospace and NASA to offer a K-12 e-teaching certification. "They wanted to align themselves with U.Va., because of what we stand for in terms of quality," Cannaday said.

Cannaday plans to expand his school's offerings at the regional centers, particularly in the most populous regions of the state – Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Central Virginia. Currently, most offerings in those locations are K-12 teacher training and leadership development.

Since its inception 10 years ago, the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program has offered evening classes in Charlottesville tailored to working adults who are tackling part-time study on top of job demands. In the past two years, the program has been expanded to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads through partnerships with community colleges in those regions. Given the increasing popularity of the BIS degree, plans are under way to seek approval for a Master of Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies degree in the near future.

Cannaday is seeking partnership opportunities with businesses in those regions that would value training or education with the U.Va. brand. For instance, the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority has cited a need for executive education for mid-level managers, something the school is considering offering in Northern Virginia and elsewhere.

The emphasis on the bottom line must not compromise the excellence of instruction and responsiveness that people expect from the student experience at U.Va., Cannaday added. That's where the school hopes to be a leader in education technologies, in line with the University's goal of enhancing research and technology, he said.

Partnering with Curry, the school is researching ways to refine the use of technology in ways that don't compromise instructional quality. "Technology enables us to reinvent ourselves, without compromising the U.Va. brand," Cannaday said.

The school has long used digital technologies, including satellite broadcasts that connect professors in the basement of Zehmer Hall with classrooms of students at other colleges or in SCPS's regional centers in Richmond, Roanoke, Abingdon, Falls Church, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville and at the FBI National Academy in Quantico.

More recently, the Internet allows courses taught primarily or wholly in cyberspace. Students take tests, do readings and submit assignments at their convenience and engage in online discussions with one another and their professors.

Whenever possible, the school has offered, and will continue to offer, a blend of online activity and direct student-teacher interaction, whether in-person or via live broadcast, Cannaday said.

Such technologies take U.Va.'s offerings beyond Grounds and allow more flexible and customizable learning, well suited to the increasingly complex and busy lives of adult students, as well as today's youth who are growing up with new expectations of how they can control and structure their own learning experience, he said.

The flexibility possible with such technologies can also open new markets, including courses for Virginia's plentiful military personnel who must fit schooling around demanding and uncertain schedules.

The school is looking to expand its current online course offerings to meet demand for online degree and credential programs, Cannaday said.

Although these technologies require high front-end capital costs for training, content development and supporting infrastructure, they enable expansion into new markets – such as India – for a fraction of what a physical presence would cost.

Guiding all these decisions is one simple dictum, Cannaday noted: "This is really about 'How can we best serve?'"

— By Brevy Cannon