Like many professors whose major is higher education, Jeffrey C. Sun is frequently asked by administrators at his institution to comment on sensitive issues they debate. As his bosses at the University of Louisville pondered how best to expand their online learning offerings, they asked Sun, a Distinguished University Scholar, for his opinion on whether the university should hire an online program management (OPM) company or not the in-house competence itself.
“I realized that there was no guide to the subject as to what to consider and rather than blindly delving into this world of outsourcing, especially for a core academic role, I wanted to make sure they had something to work with could,” Sun said. So he set out to create such a guide.
The “In-House or Outsource?” result was released this month by Louisville and UPCEA, an association focused on professional, online and continuing education. Sun and his co-author Heather A. Turner, an associate associate professor and Sun’s colleague at the SKILLS Collaborative in Louisville, worked with UPCEA to quantitatively and qualitatively survey senior online learning leaders about why their institutions used them (or Not). external providers who offer virtual learning – and their experiences, if this is the case.
The report is not the first to examine the role of OPMs – or online enablement firms as some call them – in the post-secondary ecosystem, but most of the others are either summaries of the industry’s growth (Holon IQ) or critical analyzes of its growth Rolle (the Century Foundation and New America). Others, like this one by the Arnold Foundation and the recent report by the US Government Accountability Office, tend to look through a political prism.
The UPCEA and Louisville report, on the other hand, aims to be a playbook of sorts for college and university leaders at a time when many of them expect that online education and other forms of technology-enhanced learning will play a more central, fundamental role in their strategies for the Future. Half of the respondents Within the Higher Ed‘s Survey of College and University Presidents in March said they believed students would increasingly attempt to enroll in virtual courses in the coming years, and most (83 percent) said their institutions would like the expanded online learning options, which they have adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report does not address the question of whether institutions should expand their online offerings, or the all-important question of how to go online to further their educational mission. It begins at the point where a college or university board might make a decision how to do this – with their own money, their own employees and capacities or with outside help.
Chief Online Learning Officers and their institutions were most likely to consider working with outside companies based on three factors: speed, money, and marketing.
Peer pressure played a key role, according to the report, which describes online leaders “watching their competitors (or institutional peers) and constantly hearing news about mega-universities” and “felt pressure to emulate the achievements of these institutions.” , many of which had an increased presence in online learning, offered multiple program options, and provided direct and responsive support to students in a short time frame.”
“That [chief online learning officers] reported that they did not want to be left behind in the competitive arena of online learning,” the report adds.
Working with an online program manager isn’t the only way to meaningfully get started with online education, but many choose it because the outside companies typically provide the upfront money needed to get the programs started, leaving many financially strained Don’t leave institutions funding lying around.
“This has allowed us to have a partner who essentially assumes much of the financial risk — and financial investment — and helps drive enrollment,” said one university’s online commissioner.
That last part – building enrollments, typically through (sometimes) sophisticated digital marketing efforts – tend to be the skills most institutions feel they lack internally, having assessed their own internal skills, an important first step in the evaluation process. It was believed that the OPMs would have “greater expertise and a centralized model in which they could pool marketing and lead generation resources from universities,” the report said.
When asked elsewhere in the report which OPM services their institutions needed most from outside providers, more than two-thirds of online learning leaders cited marketing and advertising as a high need, and more than half cited recruiting—along with everything else potential services significantly decreased. Sun of the University of Louisville said some online learning leaders cited the speed and agility of OPMs as qualities their own institutions lacked.
“OPMs have been able to respond to regulatory requests within 24 hours,” he quoted one of the leaders as saying. “We can’t do that. Our admissions office was not as agile.”
The report’s authors also took steps to measure the value and performance of the relationships. They asked respondents to rate whether the external providers had met their expectations for the delivery of various services, and then compared those ratings to the institutions’ perceived need for those services. Marketing showed the largest gap between perceived need and the extent to which expectations were met, suggesting that many senior online learning leaders “are not getting their marketing expectations met from OPMs,” the authors write.
Trace Urdan, chief executive at Tyton Partners, which works with both universities and online program providers, said online learning leaders’ dissatisfaction with the companies’ marketing and recruitment is not surprising – but rather a “function of broader cyclical trends ‘ as a structural problem with these relationships, as the report suggests.
“It is extremely difficult for everyone to attract working adult students to graduate and postgraduate programs at this time as competition comes from a still hot job market,” Urdan said. “No one is satisfied with leads or conversions, and no one anticipated how challenging the current moment would be. This is a problem for everyone, not just OPMs.”
The report points to one of the key concerns critics have expressed about how OPMs work: contractual arrangements that give the outside company a significant share of the study revenue that the programs generate over the (often long) contract term. But it only indirectly acknowledges the trade-off inherent in these agreements: the companies’ willingness to provide the money to build the programs (which online learning leaders see as a major benefit) and the fact that the companies don’t benefit from it (and make a profit) until the programs later reach a certain scale.
The Louisville-UPCEA report underscores (but does not resolve) another issue that is among the most intriguing in the online program management outsourcing debate: whether the ability to create and deliver online programs should be a core competency of education institutions in today’s world.
“Nearly half of the universities have set forth this exploration or relationship with the intention of learning from the OPMs, with an expressed interest in finding out what they need to do so that they can scale or operate independently of an OPM,” the statement reads Report.
There are examples of institutions that used an OPM to begin with and slowly weaned themselves completely from the need for external providers. More typically, however, is the ambition of institutions to slowly reduce, rather than eliminate, their reliance on external expertise. As one online learning officer said, “I could see that, frankly, our institution only uses OPMs in very strategic ways, not in [the] blanket way,” which many are now doing.
It would also likely lead to a move away from the much-criticised full-service revenue-sharing contracts towards arrangements where universities pay companies for specific services – presumably without the significant upfront investment.