What comes next?

That's the question Blockbuster's training executives asked themselves in 2009. After spending years creating, implementing, and perfecting the Starmaker Training Series, Blockbuster's field operations training program, they were looking for the next step.

The Starmaker Training is a series of operations trainings for all Blockbuster employees, from district managers to entry-level customer service representatives. The program utilizes a blended learning module approach, combining e-modules and hands-on practical applications.

"The Starmaker Training Series has become an integral part of Blockbuster's training culture and is aligned with the core business strategy," says Ben Ehrenberg, Blockbuster's director of training and development. "We wanted to strengthen the future leader development aspect of the program and add more value for the employee. We felt that if employees could realize a real world application in the time and effort it takes to learn our operations, then they would be more personally invested in the training process."

The decision was made to form an alliance with a university so that Blockbuster employees would be able to pursue a college education. In addition to increasing the value of the training for all employees, providing better access to higher education would broaden the talent pool for upper management from a primarily entry-level workforce. Blockbuster training executives met with numerous universities, ranging from local colleges to universities with online programs. The team discussed and reviewed several aspects of each university's partnership benefits, including program offerings, accessibility, delivery method, and the transferability of previous coursework and training programs.

The feature that was most interesting to Blockbuster was Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). The goal of this type of assessment is to give credit to students who have gained knowledge and skills through work or life experience, such as continuing education programs, workshops, or formal and informal work training, similar to Blockbuster's Starmaker Training.

The university evaluates these experiences, converts the experience into credit hours, and then allocates those credits to satisfy the student's program requirements. Generally, these credits count toward a program's elective credit requirement. The option to convert Blockbuster training into college credit would not only give employees a vested interest in the training programs and prepare employees for managerial positions, but also help future leaders along the path to pursuing their educational goals.

After a thorough review and follow-up meetings, Blockbuster was impressed with the offerings and chose to partner with Ashford University as their exclusive online education provider.

"Ashford was chosen because of their affordability, accessibility, student support services, and Prior Learning Assessment program," explains Ehrenberg. "One major benefit was that Ashford's PLA program would be able to convert the Starmaker Training into specific business courses, not just elective credit. The combination of elective credit hours and the mapping of our leadership curriculum to a number of business courses gave our employees the best possible benefit for their education options."

To determine which elements of Blockbuster's training were eligible for college credit, Ashford University's PLA Department reviewed the theory-based hours of training, the content and length of the training, and the assessment method. The PLA evaluation determined that Blockbuster's training would qualify for up to 21 credits toward an undergraduate degree at Ashford University. Taken to its full advantage, this could significantly reduce the time needed for a student to complete his degree.

"In keeping with its mission, Ashford University recognizes the uniqueness of each student's experience and realizes that learning takes place in a variety of settings," says Karen Conzett, Ashford University's Director of Prior Learning Assessment. "The PLA Department completes evaluations for many different organizations and types of trainings. It's always a pleasure when an assessed training program can affect so many student-employees, such as at Blockbuster."

Once the training was evaluated, Blockbuster and Ashford University's marketing department worked together to create promotional materials. Ashford worked with Blockbuster to insert custom fliers outlining the alliance and its benefits into Blockbuster's monthly training magazine.

The week before launch, Blockbuster managers received special FAQ fliers via email, so that the leadership team could familiarize themselves with the benefits and prepare for employees' questions about the alliance. In addition, large posters were printed for the corporate office as a daily reminder to all divisions that education is a top priority.

Ashford also took care to prepare for the launch internally. Admissions Counselors were trained on Blockbuster's specific benefits, so they would be better able to serve interested employees. A dedicated webpage was also created that detailed Blockbuster's benefits and offered information on degree programs and financial options.

Once Blockbuster employees enroll at Ashford University, they are eligible to receive college credit for completed Blockbuster training. Students work with a dedicated academic advisor who requests enrollment in the PLA Corporate Information Center, an information site dedicated to PLA corporate students. Not only is the PLA submission fee waived for the student's pre-approved Blockbuster training submission, but the processing time is also less because the training content is on file with Ashford and has already been reviewed. Students need to provide proof of training completion and write a one-page paper describing their experience in the training.

"Our partnership with Ashford lowered the time and cost of college for the employees who took advantage of it more than our tuition reimbursement program," says Ehrenberg. "That was a big win for us and really solidified our commitment to the partnership."

Blockbuster Inc., founded in 1985 and headquartered in Dallas, Texas, is a leading global provider of convenient access to media entertainment. With more than 3,000 stores internationally, the company is one of the strongest and most recognizable entertainment brands in the world and a ubiquitous neighborhood feature.

Ashford University, a private academic institution, offers traditional and online higher education to individuals interested in pursuing their Associate's, Bachelor's, or Master's degrees. Founded in 1918, with a campus in Clinton, Iowa, Ashford University serves more than 75,000 students worldwide and is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (www.ncahlc.org).

Through their National Accounts division, Ashford partners with companies interested in making higher education more accessible to their employees. Alliance partners benefit through a variety of cost savings, including PLA.