Professors, Ask Hard Questions of Your Online Providers

Private companies can help colleges achieve their goals, but the faculty should never lose control of their courses and programs, Melora Sundt writes.

January 30, 2019

Late last year, the American Association of University Professors published a tool kit designed to help faculty members understand the relationship between universities and online program management companies, or OPMs. The documents warn about private companies infringing on educational quality, academic freedom, university reputation and shared governance.

Perhaps most significantly, the tool kit encourages faculty to speak up -- loudly, and in groups.

As a longtime faculty member at a major research institution and now an executive academic officer at an OPM, I believe faculty are the richest resource for preserving an institution’s core values, especially in times of intense change.

Are private companies trying to commandeer the classroom? I don’t personally believe so, but the creation of the AAUP tool kit indicates a growing sense of distrust in academia.

While OPMs offer schools a necessary means of entry into the online space, academic program decisions -- from course structure to content -- are faculty decisions. Ideally, an OPM will complement, not supplant, a university’s existing internal strengths.

Like any viable company, an OPM must think carefully about accretion and the intelligent allocation of resources. This process tends to engender tension between higher education institutions and their for-profit partners, which professors feel when they see OPMs overtemplatize the design experience by, for example, providing very limited options for course structure and content. Certainly, cost savings are realized when online modules share design aspects, but it is very possible to overtemplatize.

When a chemistry course looks and feels like an unrelated teacher preparation program -- and not because faculty intentionally designed it that way -- there is a real problem.

Today, according to Inside Higher Ed’s 2018 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, 44 percent of faculty members are teaching online. The more respectfully OPMs can manage and conduct these public-private relationships, the more we can all collaborate to deliver on positive student outcomes and larger institutional goals.

As the chief academic officer at an OPM, I work directly with deans and professors to craft online degree programs. I previously spent nearly 30 years as a faculty member and senior administrator at a large private research university. I firmly believe that for-profit partnerships can drive innovation and positive student outcomes in higher education, but like my colleagues in academia, I am cautious about the extent to which these partnerships infringe on faculty freedoms.

What many OPMs may not notice is the larger context for faculty fears. It’s not so much about OPMs themselves, but rather the decreasing involvement of faculty members in institutional decisions. The central faculty role in big-picture campus decision making is a hallmark of higher education.

I regularly meet with faculty members who are transitioning from one OPM partnership to another, and it’s clear that they have been led to believe that they must forfeit control over certain curricular choices. Some have even asked me for permission to change pedagogical strategies. Wait. Ask me for permission?

There are, of course, limitations to consider in online program building. Outdated learning management systems can slow down data collection and tech integrations that make online programs exceptional. Budgetary constraints can rein in some aspects of instructional design. And, of course, each individual professor who teaches a section of a course will not have free rein to overhaul its scaffolding. Course learning objectives are determined in relation to the larger program; how professors achieve these objectives should be left up to them in live sessions with students (and never by a for-profit company).

OPM partners need to understand these limitations and, in response, offer their best suggestions based on the faculty’s desired outcomes. Further, OPMs must provide compelling evidence to back up their suggestions.

Real threats to academic freedom are born when an OPM dictates a university’s curricular choices for reasons that indulge only its own optimization. If your OPM doesn’t provide options or doesn’t provide evidence-based pros and cons for the options it presents, ask for them. It’s your curriculum, it’s your intellectual property, your faculty, your content, your students, your money and, ultimately, your decision.

The right OPM will appreciate the uniqueness of each degree program and, more importantly, the people behind them. Neither the process nor the relationship can be a one-size-fits-all solution. I implore faculty to take advantage of the AAUP tool kit, if only to understand and prepare for the pressure points of these complicated relationships.


Melora Sundt is chief academic officer at Noodle Partners. Previously she was a professor of clinical education and executive vice dean at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.


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