Why We Disagree on OPMs

And why starting with different assumptions can be productive for collaborative scholarship.

April 24, 2019
 

The two of us disagree on the online program management industry.

Eddie is OPM critical. Josh is OPM optimistic.

We think our different perspectives on OPMs are a good thing.

The reasons for Eddie’s criticism of OPMs are many, but they are primarily rooted in his belief that universities should develop internal capacities to support their core educational missions. These capacities include instructional design, project management, media production, data and analytics, platform management, and learner support.

These are not just necessary capacities for online courses but for all courses at a school.

Once these core educational capacities are developed, they can be deployed in service of building and running online programs as well as hybrid and face-to-face courses. These capabilities are necessary for the future of higher education.

There are other reasons for developing and managing online programs internally as well. It’s far less expensive, a school doesn’t have to commit to a long-term revenue-sharing contract and courses developed by on-the-ground faculty and staff at the college will more closely align with the intellectual rigor and values of the school.

For Eddie, the ability to create online programs is a powerful reason to be cautious about OPM partnerships.

Josh, alternatively, is OPM optimistic. While he agrees with Eddie that core educational capabilities such as instructional design and project management and analytics and media should ideally reside within the university, he thinks that OPM partnerships can be a catalyst for developing those institutional capacities.

From Josh’s perspective, it is a mistake to narrow our conception of what OPMs are -- and what university/OPM partnerships can be -- down to a narrow set of arrangements. Instead, he sees room for nonprofit schools and for-profit companies to collaborate in creating shared value.

There may instances where the fixed and opportunity costs for a school to develop a new online program are prohibitively high. A partnership with an OPM provider, if structured around an institution’s long-term educational mission rather than a fixation on short-term revenues, can (if done well) create opportunities where none had existed.

Just as Josh is happy to partner with for-profit companies for many of the core things universities already do (e.g., every technology platform that a modern university depends on to run), he is willing to investigate if partnering with an OPM makes sense in a school’s efforts to build and run new online education programs.

This is where we disagree. Where we agree is a little simpler. We both acknowledge that there are capacities that may well be outside the scope of individual colleges to develop at scale. Marketing, for example, is often cited as one of OPMs great strengths. Rapid scaling is another.

Who is right? How do we know?

We have both have strong opinions. We think there is an opportunity to do more, though, to bring a scholarly lens to the question of the value -- or harm -- of the growth of the online program management industry in higher education.

How we would even structure this research on the efficacy of OPMs is an interesting question. We lack almost all the necessary ingredients for critical, objective and unbiased scholarship. Not only are the data not available, but we don’t even have a good idea of what data we would need. Student outcome data? Institutional financial data? Can we collect data from similar institutions who have made different OPM choices in their online program evolution -- therefore providing something of a natural experiment?

What sort of time frames would be necessary in order to draw valid conclusions? How would a research deal with the heterogeneity in OPM partnerships? What are the theoretical frameworks that need to be applied -- or developed -- in order to make sense of the OPM data? What academic disciplines are the natural home for this scholarship? Or do we need to develop a new cross-disciplinary field to adequately research the OPM phenomenon?

These are all nontrivial questions that any scholar of OPMs will need to contend with. And our questions just barely scratch the surface of the challenges of studying how schools are moving to launch new online programs.

Where do you see the study of how schools go online occurring?

Inside Higher Ed's Inside Digital Learning

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