Innovator: Andy Shaindlin, Pioneer in Online Alumni Education


Innovator: Andy Shaindlin, Pioneer in Online Alumni Education

Sep 22, 2009By Michael Stoner


Today, when online learning seems to be commonplace, it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case.

Distance education‐in the form of learning conducted by post-has been around since at least 1728 when Caleb Phillips offered instruction in Short Hand through weekly lessons sent by mail. In 1983, Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, began offering for‐credit, online courses. In fall, 2006, “nearly 20 percent of U.S. college students, or almost 3.5 million students in all, took at least one online course …” [Source]

By the 1990s, there was a lot of noise, and some action, around online education. But not for alumni. That changed in 1994 when Brown University began offering alumni education through email interactions with faculty members.

That pioneering program was Andy Shaindlin’s brainchild. It was the first serious attempt by a major university to provide alumni education through the Internet. One of the factors that made the program successful was its simplicity: because it used email, it was much easier for people to participate. In 1994, access to the web was fairly limited—and for most people, slow.

Today, Andy continues to push the limits of his profession as executive director of the Caltech Alumni Association. A member of the CASE Board of Trustees, he chairs CASE’s Commission on Alumni Relations. And many folks know him as the author of the thoughtful and provocative Alumni Futures blog, which focuses on “Ideas, trends and new directions in alumni relations and higher education.”

In the interview below, he describes his start in alumni relations and some of his early influences and looks ahead to some of the issues that will affect advancement in the near future.

How did you get involved in alumni work?

In the late 1980s I was working in New York City as the director of an SAT prep program. It just wasn’t the right fit for me professionally, but I did like managing a business with an educational focus and I wanted to move back to New England My alma mater, Brown University, advertised an assistant director position in alumni relations, and in 1989 I started work there, managing alumni clubs.

You were an early adopter of social networking for alumni and of continuing education for alumni. How did you get the idea? How did you get started?

The alumni education focus was the first thing I learned on the job. I was fortunate to work at Brown during the tenure of Bob Reichley, who was vice president for university relations. Bob’s commitment to alumni relations as an educational endeavor was unwavering. His philosophy, which is still largely valid more than twenty years later, was that alumni chose their alma mater primarily for the educational opportunities it provided. Therefore, the most relevant and unique service the alumni association could provide was keeping alumni connected to the educational life of the campus. This meant faculty lectures, research updates, faculty‐led tours, Alumni Summer College, and a general commitment to lifelong learning.

With this educational focus, once large numbers of people began using email as an everyday tool it was a very short leap to delivering lifelong learning to alumni electronically. In the early ‘90s I set up a non‐credit, email‐based alumni education program at Brown, which I think was the first of its kind.

What were your biggest challenge(s) in putting your idea into practice?

It seems absurd now, but alumni weren’t really ready for a structured, all‐electronic alumni activity. In 1994 Brown University was a 230‐year‐old institution based on the traditional residential college model; it seemed unlikely to us that alumni would be satisfied with the educational quality of something that didn’t have the trappings of a traditional classroom. So the main challenge was incorporating traditional modes of instruction (such as printed reading assignments or required books) into a virtual learning experience that was conducted via email listservs. After the first couple of iterations, however, we gave up on mailing printed materials and used email for everything. If there were assigned readings, we either obtained permission to distribute them electronically, or we asked alumni to buy a required book or to borrow it from a library.

There have been many changes in alumni relations since you did that work at Brown. In your view, what are the most significant for alumni relations professionals?

Obviously, the use of technology to connect alumni with each other and with the institution has been the biggest change. And we’re just at the beginning of that process, with little idea of what the type or rate of change will be in the next couple of years.

One big effect of the changes so far, I think, is that they’ve altered the direction of information flow. 15 years ago, 95 percent of the information in alumni relations flowed from the top down: the school sent out printed newsletters, magazines and annual fund solicitations. The only information that came back from alumni was in somewhat repetitive class notes, and a few letters to the editor. Fast forward to today and there is a very different communication pattern. Special interest alumni subgroups can form with no effort whatsoever‐and (more importantly) without the intervention, participation or blessing of their alma mater-and without geographical limits.

This leaves a lot of alumni staff members wondering what there is left for them to do. So we do what we’ve always done we plan and deliver traditional, face‐to‐face events and programs, even though we’re not sure at all that this is what most alumni still want. I think this is an additional change for alumni professionals: understanding how and why we’ve been marginalized by changes in the external environment, and figuring out how to play a useful role in the new order.

Today, alumni certainly have more access to more networks than they ever did. How has that changed the dynamic for institutions and for alumni relations professionals?

That’s right—the technology behind online connection is no longer something that one nerd in the alumni office experiments with, like it was in the early ‘90s when I was running online courses via listserv. It’s everyone’s job now to utilize these tools and participate in the activity on networks such as Facebook.

But it’s not only about having more networks. Alumni also have more access to all their networks. What’s more, as access to disparate networks becomes centralized, the networks themselves are linked together. This makes the networks simultaneously more powerful and less focused on the alumni population, because diversification tends to increase network value.

So institutions no longer have a monopoly on access to the network and can no longer impose homogeneity on it. The data are being liberated. Instead of going through the alumni association to locate classmates (for example, by buying a printed directory) alumni now just do a quick Google search or look on Facebook or LinkedIn. A fraction of people are findable that way, but that fraction is growing very rapidly. As the networks coalesce and the Internet’s “identity layer” connects separate sites, it will become even easier for alumni to find and communicate with each other, without help from us.

So again, maybe we need to update Bob Reichley’s original question—which is about alumni relations, not about technology—and ask, “What can we offer alumni that is relevant to their needs, and that they can’t get it as easily, or as effectively anywhere else?” Can we solve a problem they have? Can we deliver something unique because of what our institution is like, or what it does?

Your blog, Alumni Futures, focuses on trends, issues, and challenges for alumni relations. What are some of the major challenges you’re thinking about right now?

A practical challenge is writing about alumni relations in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m writing a technology blog. “Technology” used to be a separate field of expertise, but not anymore. It permeates our everyday work and is a central part of what every alumni professional has to understand and be comfortable with. VPs or other senior staff who say “I don’t do computers” need to step aside so that we have people in place who are comfortable with the high expectation alumni have for their alma maters. What if it were 1930 and you said “I don’t do telephones?” You’d be obsolete as a professional. As for Alumni Futures, maybe I should get rid of the “Technology” category as a separate tag for blog postings! I’m perpetuating the old model by labeling ordinary subjects as being technology‐related.

As far as trends in the profession, the recent budget and staff cuts at many schools are highlighting something we should have taken to heart a while ago: that our programs and our institutions will benefit from closer collaboration among separate campus units. Alumni relations, development and communications form the traditional triad of advancement. But career services, recruiting and admissions, athletics and academic departments are increasingly important partners. The earlier and more successfully we collaborate and break down silos, the more effectively we can solve our alums’ problems in unique ways.

It sounds obvious when you hear it, and it’s always been true. But consolidation and even integration in the face of shrinking resources is no longer just a good idea, it’s becoming central to our effectiveness and our survival as a profession. Examples are everywhere, like the move from printed communication toward electronic channels. Or the correlation between alumni work and career services. And this is amplified even further by the increasingly blurred transition from student to alumnus.

What’s the next big thing(s) that advancement/marketing/PR folks in higher ed need to pay attention to?

This is the basic question that the CASE Commissions ask continually: we look at horizon issues that CASE needs to help professionals anticipate.

Collaboration is a hot issue, as is the convergence of different platforms for communicating. But probably the broadest issue we face across the professions is relevance. We can have cool web designs, clever Twitter campaigns, and detailed measurement of ROI for mass email. But there’s no point in being the best at something that alumni, donors and applicants don’t want or need. Or that they’re getting someplace else already.

So I’d say the key thing to accomplish for most advancement or marketing shops is to think about technology as a set of established, standard tools for carrying out our every day work, instead of as this discrete, separate activity that has something to do with computers. Don’t have a Facebook strategy, have an engagement strategy. Think about functions and about media, not about this company or that website. Don’t worry about which company has a revenue model or which site alumni are using today‐that will change when you least expect it. Instead, think about what alumni need to do and how to help them do it-using whatever tools make sense for that purpose. Stay relevant and no matter what else changes you’ll still have a role to play in their lives.

  • Michael Stoner

    Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?