The Online and Professional Education Association
Valuable insights from UPCEA's trusted corporate partners.
If you are trying to pick a new registration system for your Continuing and Professional Education unit, I promise this article will be worth your time.
I’ve led a number of organizations through this process (three as a decisionmaker and dozens of others in advisory roles) and I can assure you it’s not an overstatement to say that it’s a seismic decision. It requires alignment between leadership, IT, registrar, admissions, programmers, marketing, and your front-line, student-facing team. If done poorly, it has the potential to be disruptive to day-to-day operations during the implementation process and beyond. And, on the flip side, I would say it has the biggest potential to unlock efficiencies for your CE unit and simplify your student journey.
My passion is using my personal experience to give schools all the relevant information they need to make the best possible decision. So, without further ado, here are the things I wish I knew when purchasing registration software for continuing education for the first time. In other words, watch out for these registration red flags.
Right before I left my last Dean position, we were in a full-blown RFP search for a continuing education registration system. At all my past institutions, I’ve had them, tried them, and experienced firsthand the gap that occurs between the time of the demo and after the contract has been signed.
During the demo, it all sounds great. You’ll pay X monthly, for Y number of students, with Z for implementation costs. But soon after the ink is dry, fees start adding up. Need a report you thought was standard? That’s going to cost you. You couldn’t handle something they told you was easy, like data migration? That’ll be another line item.
This happens all the time. ALL THE TIME.
And it’s actually kind of easy for companies to get away with it because the software buying journey is so complex that it often feels like you, the new client, made a mistake, accidentally delayed a process, or just forgot something when drawing up the contract. So most people just shrug their shoulders and pay, even when that’s not fair to them. Don’t believe me? Just ask anyone who has recently undergone an implementation process if they had to pay more than they expected in year one (and we aren’t even talking about subsequent years yet). If you can find someone who paid what they expected, find my contact information at the end of this article and I will Venmo you for a coffee.
One way to avoid feeling like you were misled and overcharged starts with your business requirements document (BRD). For those uninitiated, a BRD is just what it sounds like – a list of non-negotiable features you expect out of the software. If it sounds like a pain, that’s because it is – you need to spend a lot of time listing all the features you need within a single document and, ideally, connect a user and a process to each feature.
Be as detailed as possible describing each requirement you are looking for to assure that when the company comes to demo, they can actually show you the functionality and it is then part of the final contract. (More on this later.)
When it comes time to sign on the dotted line, all functionality should be listed *in the contract* with associated support hours you’re getting as part of the package. That way, you can be confident that 1) the requirement is actually available and 2) they will be there to support you in the learning and use of each requirement, without incurring additional costs. It also helps to speak to a few other clients of the company to learn about what extra costs they may have incurred to make sure you protect your school from similar ones.
I know we are backtracking a little bit, but this topic needs its own additional section because of how important it is. A requirements list is the most critical piece of documentation you will need to make the best decision for your organization.
During my time in Continuing Education, I’ve seen hundreds of requirements lists. To me, they are like reading an article from The New Yorker – lengthy, detailed, maybe a bit boring at parts, but overall enjoyable. Because you know that by the end of it, you are going to be excited once everything you’ve read finally comes together in a concrete way.
The most important piece of advice I can give you about your list is to put all the requirements you need right now – but don’t forget to add the “blue sky” features you hope for in the future. For any idea you have that would make a product more helpful to you (think room setup, program success validation, etc.), list it as an item and tell the story of why you want it.
Then once you have your list, each feature or requirement needs an “owner” or subject-matter expert to accurately describe what it does and why it is needed. If you want extra credit, a workflow would be extremely helpful so any company can visualize the need and figure out why you are asking for that specific feature.
Don’t worry about the length of the document – trust me, they’ve seen longer – because ultimately it pays to be very thorough about the things you are looking for in your next registration system.
I already mentioned it, but you want to see each item on your list in action and demo’d in front of you. Yes, the demo can get long, but the more you see, the better. If they say they can do it but don’t show you? It most likely means they don’t have it.
And if they say that it is on the roadmap, proceed with caution. As we all know, a roadmap is simply a bunch of ideas listed on a document of items the company wishes to put in their product. Take time to ask: How long has it been on the roadmap? How often do they develop features from the roadmap? What percentage are from clients? Those should get you a good idea of the roadmap’s direction.
It’s even better if a company can let you “try-before-you-buy” to ensure the very expensive software you’re purchasing is intuitive and enjoyable to use. This is very common in software-as-a-service (SaaS) outside of Continuing Education, so why should other folks get to have all the fun?
Yes, you need to take into account your needs today, but you also need to recognize that your student registration system should grow with you. You wouldn’t take your bike out on the highway, so why would you put your organization on a software platform that can’t grow at your same pace?
It’s the difference between surviving on a flip phone versus harnessing the power of a smartphone. Or Microsoft Clippy versus ChatGPT. It’s a registration platform that can be easily customized (rather than racking up customization fees) and can be continuously iterated on to support your everyday needs and fast changes in the market.
If you’re about to get on board with a new business, it’s your right (and I would argue your responsibility) to know if you’re hopping on a bullet train or a coal-powered clunker that has years and years of technical debt, kicked down the road with no end in sight. Throw in an acquisition or two, and you have a codebase that’s patched together, fragile and complex. If you want to know why this makes things complicated, think about doing a 500-piece puzzle. Someone tells you they want to add one more piece, but the only way to make it work is to take apart a large portion of the puzzle to make the new piece fit. Rinse, repeat.
Again, I get that some schools like working with more traditional companies that have been in business for decades, and every organization needs to do what is right for them. But know the trade-off you’re making, and get out in front of it and be proactive when asking questions about what features you’ll require and what your expectations for the future should be.
Getting into a new CE registration product means entering a new long-term relationship where you’re heavily courted before it officially starts. Year one is a whirlwind, and the subsequent years can feel like a poorly conceived arranged marriage, filled with what-ifs, regrets and dissatisfaction.
Don’t fall victim to it. Ask for a current client list (and a list of institutions who recently decided to move away from their software) and add those people on LinkedIn to start a conversation. Browse G2, TrustPilot and other software review sites, where you’ll find reviews from real users. And don’t be shy at CE conferences or online members-only forums.
Take your time. Have your information ready. Ask a lot of questions. And talk to everyone. If I can help, please reach out. At the very least, you might get a free coffee out of it!
Dr. Meni Sarris is a 25-year veteran and former Dean of Continuing and Professional Education who decided to step away from the Dean’s desk to make a bigger impact on the education landscape overall. As a believer in education beyond degrees (also the name of his podcast!), Meni firmly believes the education landscape will continue to evolve because students want more flexibility, accessibility and personalization when it comes to how they get an education or professionally developed. Currently, Meni lives in Chicago, where he runs the Spur Education Group as the company’s principal, leading a team of CPE, EdTech, and marketing experts. He also is the founder of Redge, a newly launched registration software company offered as part of the Spur Education Group.
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