Online Ed goes to Hollywood

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Celebrities seem to endorse almost anything and everything these days: they lend their faces and voices to pitch and promote a wide range of products and services to consumers. Yet in academe, “celebrity” endorsements are typically limited to a successful coach, a prominent alum, or perhaps an accomplished faculty member who has won national or international awards.

Until now. Last week, during a commercial break in one of the early morning cable news programs, eight (count ‘em – EIGHT!) actors and actresses – Pierce Brosnan, Geena Davis, Sally Field, James Franco, James Gandolfini, Cuba Gooding, George Lopez, and Rita Wilson – were pitching me (yes me!) on behalf of UCLA’s Extension Program. Specifically, the TV ad promotes Empowered, a highly structured, iPad-based online certificate program that is a public-private partnership between UCLA’s Extension Program and Empowered Ed, lead by Steven Poizner, a successful Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur and the former insurance commissioner of California.

The UCLA Empowered ad begins with an alarm clock and an invitation from Pierce Brosnan, and then Sally Field and Rita Hanks to “wake up,” followed by encouragement from Brosnan, James Franco, Cuba Goodling, James Gandolfini, and George Lopez to “follow that recurring dream.” Says Bronsan: “you don’t just want a job; you want a career.”

Some of the celebrities in the ad have a personal connection to UCLA. For example, actor James Franco received his bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 2008. But perhaps the key tie that binds the “Extension Eight” is that they are all represented by the Creative Artists Agency, which is also an investor in the UCLA Extension-Empowered partnership.

UCLA’s Extension program has a long and well-established reputation for quality courses across a wide array of occupational, vocational, and avocational fields, including the arts, acting and screen-writing, business and management, language and culture, investing, and also science, math, and technology. Additionally UCLA Extension currently offers some 130 multicourse certificate programs in more than 20 fields.

However, in a telephone interview late last week, Cathy Sandeen, the Dean of UCLA’s Extension Program, said that the Empowered Ed initiative was more than just a series of extension courses that lead to a certificate. Rather, the Empowered partnership offers a “full package of [educational and career] services targeting the [baby-]boomer market,” specifically individuals who want or need to reinvent themselves and who want to enhance their occupational/professional portfolios for a changing labor market.

What differentiates the ten Empowered certificate programs from the regular UCLA Extension courses and certificate programs, said Dean Sandeen, is that the Empowered certificate programs are more structured, and provide more pre-program assessment as well as counseling and career support services over the course of the program. Students take eight courses over 12 months to complete their certificates. Empowered is also more expensive than many of the regular UCLA Extension certificate programs: students pay a non-refundable enrollment and iPad fee of $800, plus almost $6,000 in tuition and fees ($1485 quarterly) for the four-quarter/eight course sequence that leads to a certificate.

Of course, television advertising is not new to online ed. Many institutions have turned to the small screen (often at odd hours) to promote their programs. The ante (and production values) for television ads went (way) up in 2009 with Kaplan University’s “Your Time” commercial, which began with the confessional statement of a professor (actor James L. Avery, best known for his work on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) at a lectern before a classroom of college students: “I stand before you today to apologize. The system has failed you. I have failed you. I have failed to help you share your talent with the world and the world needs talent more than ever. Yet it’s being wasted every day by an educational system steeped in tradition and old ideas. Well it’s time for a new tradition…. It’s time the university adapted to you rather than you adapting to it. It’s time for a different kind of university. It’s your time.”

The UCLA “Extension Eight” ad raises the bar on advertising for both individual institutions and for online programs. Perhaps it is a precursor to more (and possibly competitive?) celebrity ads from other campuses and other online providers. But given the private investment in the Empowered partnership with UCLA Extension, the “Extension Eight” ad also speaks not just to educational opportunities for students and but also to the potential (and expected) financial returns to online education providers and their investors.

Kenneth C. Green is the founding director of The Campus Computing Project

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