Q&A with Janet Niblock, Director, Office of Continuing Professional Education

Posted: May 6, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette.

By Christopher Anzalone

Janet Niblock
Janet Niblock
Photo by Evan Cantwell

What is the primary focus of the Office of Continuing Professional Education (OCPE)?

Lifelong learning. Our primary focus is to address the ongoing work-related professional development learning needs of the greater Washington, D.C., area, to include business and government communities, as well as individuals focused on continuing career development. We facilitate the design and delivery of a wide range of noncredit and credit offerings that complement or enhance traditional degree programs. They provide the opportunity to apply concept and theory to workforce functions, problems, and solutions—which in today’s working environment is a lifelong endeavor. If you think about it, the most important asset to both the worker and the organization is knowledge, and with the rapidly changing environments and cultures of today, ongoing increased bodies of knowledge and skills are critical. We play a major role in facilitating the university’s capability to respond to those ongoing learning requirements. Our audience is rich when you consider the high concentration of info tech companies, service industries, government contractors, international and focus organizations, and government agencies in this geographic area. Our programs focus on lifelong employability of working professionals and sustained or increased productivity, competitiveness, and economic forces of business and government.

We have offices in three locations, Prince William, Fairfax, and Herndon at the Center for Innovative Technology. Each office targets the specific interests and needs of its geographic location. This translates into some 400 public seminars a year, primarily certificate programs, as well as extensive on-site contract programs, which include both credit and noncredit programs customized or tailored to an organization’s goals and objectives. This fiscal year, more than 2,500 professionals will have participated in our noncredit programs, and more than 1,000 in our on-site contractual credit programs.

What makes the continuing professional education program at George Mason unique among similar programs within the Washington, D.C., metro area?

There are many factors that set us apart. For one, we have been around for more than 15 years and are well established in Northern Virginia as an institution committed to lifelong learning through alternative professional development programs. We have become known for our adaptability to customize and tailor our wide range of program capabilities. We have client organizations that turn to us repeatedly to address their workforce development needs.

We are positioned in the university to effectively address those needs. In many similar institutions, the continuing education function is either totally decentralized within each academic unit or is totally independent—often privatized—such as George Washington University. Here, we have been centrally positioned in the Provost’s Office to provide support and service to all of our academic units. Our staff becomes an extension of those units. This not only avoids duplication of staff needs to administer continuing education programs, but also fosters consistency of process and procedures. We sit as a primary point of inquiry and referral. A few years ago business focus groups told the university, “We don’t know what you have to offer in continuing education and we wouldn’t know where to go to get it.” It was not an easy task for companies that wanted to explore how we might meet their needs, given a university as large and diverse as ours. We now provide that “one-stop shop,” reaching out to bring together the relevant academic players with the client, based on the inquiry. Those referrals have resulted in successful contract programs delivered by academic units to organizations such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, CIA, Defense Mapping, and SAIC.

Our position in the Provost’s Office has also facilitated a strong link between the academic and administrative worlds. A couple of years ago, the provost established the Continuing Professional Education Academic Council. Membership is comprised of representatives from the various academic and administrative units. The council has provided a platform for open discussion, planning, and recommendation on continuing education matters. Through the collaborative efforts of this council, we have been able to address continuing education features, which are real benefits to our customers. We now have defined university certificate awards for different levels of continuing education learning activities. We have an established official student record of completed noncredit learning. We have consistent, efficient internal approval processes in place, which means quicker turnaround time to our clients. We have a strategic plan developed for a weekend program campaign. All of these are the result of the combined efforts of the CPE Academic Council. All translate into first-rate customer service.

I must say that the support of President Merten has also been a key factor. His background includes experience with executive programs. He has translated that into solid support of programs facilitated through our office. He has always made himself available to welcome audiences to our major seminars. Recently he welcomed and introduced Dr. Henry Lee, a well-known forensics expert. This sends a strong message to our students and clients that continuing education is important to George Mason.

How does the OCPE interact with academic departments and centers?

As I mentioned, one very important vehicle is through the CPE Academic Council. Another way we interact is our continual outreach and referral based on inquiries received from the business and government communities. Increasingly, this represents bringing together interdisciplinary players to respond to an expressed need. We also provide a wide range of support services. It might start with strategic thinking—working with an academic unit to explore the feasibility of a continuing education program and defining the need, competition, target audience, budget, etc. It might be assistance preparing contract proposals, negotiating contracts, or facilitating the internal approval process. Often it is the direct program side that includes marketing assistance, student registration and billing, financial administration, logistical support, and Continuing Education Unit awards. These supports mean that the academic unit can focus on the integrity of program content and instruction while we focus on the administrative and management issues.

All business and government contract credit courses are administered through OCPE. Well-defined administrative processes and procedures for contract credit have been established university-wide. Depending on each academic unit and their support staffing, the need for OCPE services for their noncredit activity varies. The main point is that no matter what the support need is, our staff of 17 is ready to work with academic interests to translate their traditional academic programs into viable alternative continuing education programs targeting business and government and workforce development.

Are there any new initiatives that the OCPE is working on for the next academic year?

The most significant initiative right now is exploring the opportunity to expand our weekend program offerings, which are professional programs for working professionals. Many learning activities were already conducted on the weekends, but we seized the opportunity to package these offerings—primarily noncredit certificate offerings—and target our marketing campaign to busy working professionals. Our spring pilot was very successful. Subsequently, we have had a lot of faculty interest regarding other programs that would be ideal for weekend learning. The university is now considering a full campaign in the fall with a greatly expanded set of offerings. Internally, we are addressing the associated administrative and infrastructure issues.

So, would that further development of weekend programs be the primary focus for the fall semester?

That’s one. Our world is a continually changing one. We’re here to respond to what the current needs, interests, and requests are from the professional communities. Those continuing professional needs change on a regular basis. Right now, we see weekend programs as a way to expand our outreach.

We’re also looking at a campaign to more aggressively target select audiences in fiscal year ’05. For example, we’ve significantly increased our outreach to alumni and have seen the fruits of that outreach. In a recent Graduate School of Education noncredit PRAXIS Test Prep course, over half of the enrollees were George Mason alumni. The Alumni Office recently conducted a survey of alumni and asked, “What would you like from the university?” A large percentage answered, “professional development activities.” Along with targeted audiences, we’re also considering new growth areas. Bioscience is one; project management and the nationally established Project Management Professional certification is another. And of course, the goal is to continue to expand what is already successful. This includes expanding our on-site contract credit programs as well as certificate program offerings. As businesses establish internal corporate universities, they turn to us increasingly to bring our credit programs on site. Likewise, certificate programs are increasingly essential elements of career advancement today for many professions. They represent concentrated, integrated bodies of knowledge or skill, heavily focused on applied knowledge and often involving demonstrated mastery. They are a suitable complement to the baccalaureate or advanced degree.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about the OCPE?

One of our important roles is to provide support internally to all academic departments and faculty. That support could be direct administrative, marketing, or logistical support. It could likewise be our availability to strategically consider and evaluate continuing education possibilities. Collectively, our staff represents years of education and training experience. I, myself, have over 30 years of experience in all aspects of training and development. Bringing that collective experience to the table, we have been able to assist in developing business plans that define the potential of a proposed offering. With that information, we can project its likely success. We are currently working with several academic units on this level of strategic thinking and planning. We look forward to working with others who have possibilities they would like to explore.

Also, the CPE Academic Council welcomes the membership of others who have an interest in the mission and goals of George Mason as related to our continuing professional education initiatives.

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