Under-the-Radar Online Learning Pioneer

The founder of what was seemingly the first "online program management" companies dies, at a time the industry is both growing and in flux.

March 22, 2017
 
Nathan Bisk

Lists of the most important players in the $1-billion-plus market of "online program management" companies -- those that digitize colleges' academic programs to help them reach more people -- tend to be dominated by publicly traded entities like 2U and Pearson/Embanet. But among the biggest players in the space is an under-the-radar company called Bisk Education, whose founder, Nathan M. Bisk, died last week.

The company's news release about its founder's death called Bisk an "online education pioneer" who built his company into a "global leader." It's not uncommon for companies to engage in hyperbole about their founders, but Bisk Education isn't alone in describing Nathan Bisk that way.

"Nathan founded the OPM field, and proved that outside firms could bring universities online successfully," said John Katzman, who helped found 2U (originally 2tor) and is now, with Noodle Partners, among those seeking to challenge the underlying business model of online program management.

As more and more colleges embrace the idea that online education must be part of their portfolio of offerings, companies to help them conceive, design, market or enroll students for those courses are growing and new ones are cropping up. A 2015 report by Eduventures identified 36 companies in the space; its new market map and a blog post late last year by Phil Hill of eLiterate and MindWires Consulting pegged the number at about 20.

By most accounts, Nathan Bisk and Bisk Education were there first. An accountant by trade, he was struck when studying for the CPA exam how little preparatory material was available. So he created a set of audio lectures and textbooks and founded Bisk Education in 1971. Over the next decade and a half, the company's offerings moved from audio to video tapes and ultimately to prep and training courses delivered via the Internet, according to the company's historical account.

In the mid-1990s, as online education was emerging, Bisk moved into that realm. It struck arrangements with some of the earliest (nonprofit) movers into distance learning, Regis University and Saint Leo College, says eLiterate's Hill. In 1998, it created the University Alliance, designed to be a consortium of institutions offering professionally oriented master's-level and continuing education. 

"The closest competitor in terms of claiming first OPM would probably be Compass Knowledge, which in 2010 merged with Embanet to become Embanet-Compass, which Pearson acquired in 2012," Hill said via email. "Interesting note on Embanet: they were originally known as providing an electronic MBA, thus 'e.mba Net,' which ended up becoming Embanet. Both Embanet and Compass Knowledge claimed to have started essentially OPM business in same time period as Bisk/UA - mid-1990s. But Embanet was really a software platform and hosting provider. Compass Knowledge was closer to OPM in terms of offering services, but I cannot find credible info to back up their mid 1990s claim."

Industry Pioneer

Bisk got there first, and scans of the online program management continue to show it as one of the five biggest players. (Its client page lists institutions such as Villanova University and the University of Notre Dame, and an equivalent corporate learning page shows Boeing and Home Depot, among others.) But it has generally avoided marketing itself and has largely been eclipsed in the public view by companies such as prestige-focused 2U, which went public in 2014 is now valued at more than $1 billion, and Embanet-Compass, part of the Pearson empire.

Because it was early in the OPM field, it was also among the first to start to feel the pushback against its business model that some of the online providers are beginning to experience. In 2011, Inside Higher Ed profiled Saint Leo's decision to end its relationship with Bisk and bring in-house the various services the company had provided.

Even as the online program management companies are continuing to add new customers, as colleges and universities experiment with online learning or try to scale up small programs, some institutions are bristling at giving up significant shares of revenue (often 50 percent or more) and the often decade-long lock-in periods that come with the companies' upfront investments in building out the programs. New entities such as Noodle Partners and iDesign (created by former Academic Partnerships executives), as well as Blackboard's a la carte approach to online learning management, aim to disrupt the OPM space.

That's today's history lesson on what Nathan Bisk has wrought.

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