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Partners or Predators?

Should colleges and universities be wary of the expanding role of third-party providers?

May 11, 2020
 
 

I don’t know about you, but the feedback that I’m receiving about many students’ academic experience since the transition to remote learning is deeply disturbing.

Here are some examples of comments that I’ve seen from students at a variety of institutions:

  • “Distance learning is OK in some of my classes, but in others I have received minimal information from teachers regarding the due dates of assignments, and I'm honestly freaking out a little because I need to know how to manage my time! Some classes are a 5, but some are a 1.”
  • “It’s hard to stay motivated with just online lectures, honestly. And my favorite class I’ve taken in college so far is now just a prerecorded lecture, which is unfortunate.”
  • “I've had to sign up for three new communication platforms for all the classes -- wasn't Blackboard and Zoom enough? I'm probably doing at about a 2.”
  • “I would rate the transition as a 2. Most of the online servers (Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate) have been lagging because everyone is using them routinely. I am finding it difficult to take online exams, as the interface is not very dynamic for multiple-choice questions. Also, some of my professors have just refused to hold livestream classes or check discussion boards, which is making it difficult for me (and other students) to reach out to them.”

Perhaps we can live with this level of student dissatisfaction during our current emergency, but we must do better -- far better -- in the future. A key question is whether faculty, even with support from instructional designers, educational technologists and assessment specialists, can improve the academic experience on their own.

Vendors and other providers stand ready, indeed impatient, to help. We should ask ourselves: Might it make sense to leverage their assistance?

Here’s what we’re about to see:

1. Online gateway courses as a service

Third parties -- including the MOOC providers Coursera and edX, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, Modern States, and the University of the People -- provide a large number of online courses at a very low cost or for free.

Other providers are poised to offer courses that institutions can purchase, rebrand, modify and call their own. The university can offer the course or program with its own faculty or rely on the vendor to staff the classes.

The attractions of using these packaged courses are great. Some institutions will use them a bit like textbooks: they will treat the online materials as courseware, with existing campus faculty providing glosses on the material, coaching and feedback.

It is now possible, on very short notice, for an institution to offer an online course that meets a basic standard of quality without all the instructional design work that such a class would otherwise require. Such courses can also guarantee coverage of areas that are otherwise hard to staff and free existing faculty for higher-impact tasks.

2. Third-party-provided skills certification programs

As Burning Glass, the analytics company that furnishes real-time jobs data, skills in demand and labor market trends, has pointed out, liberal arts graduates who can demonstrate certain practical or technical skills can greatly enhance their competitiveness in the labor market.

Even before the crisis, continuing education divisions had already begun to partner with coding academies and skills boot camps to offer certificate programs in areas of high employment demand. Vendors are now poised to partner with undergraduate institutions to offer such skills programs in high demand areas like design, data science, database management, research methods and sustainability, which campuses can rebrand as institutional offerings.

3. Career preparedness services

Most campuses have felt comfortable relying on third parties, like the American Institute for Foreign Study, the Council on International Educational Exchange and the Institute for Study Abroad, to facilitate study abroad programs. Now some are asking whether it might make sense for vendors to supplement career services, for example, by assisting with internship placement, including virtual or remote internships.

4. Experiential learning

A growing number of firms -- like Riipen, Talento, EduSourced and Capsource -- offer to assist colleges and universities that want to expand experiential learning opportunities, by introducing industry challenges and project-based learning into their curriculum.

It is easy to imagine cultural institutions, hit especially hard financially by the health crisis, formalizing partnership agreements with campuses, providing specialized programming in the arts, history, the natural sciences and other fields, for a fee.

Nor is it difficult to envisage other areas where third parties might potentially partner with campuses, for example, by expanding access to psychological services and wellness programs.

Reliance on third parties to provide services previously considered core is not new. Campuses are already very familiar with (and heavily dependent upon) vendors who assist with budgeting, procurement optimization and expense management, data analytics, enrollment management, financial aid optimization, marketing and student recruitment, online program management, and success coaching.

These third parties typically present themselves as strategic partners rather than as contractors or vendors, since they don’t simply provide services but work in close collaboration with the college or university to help it achieve its goals. Their success hinges largely on the institution’s success.

Some foundations, which doubt the ability of many individual campuses to develop, deliver and sustain services in essential areas, are investing in third parties. For example, the Lumina Foundation has made strategic investments in Acadeum, an online course-sharing marketplace; Civitas Learning, which offers tools to optimize retention and completion; Credly, a platform for verifying, sharing and managing digital badges and credentials; Mentor Collective, which matches students with peer, alumni and career mentors; and BridgeEdU, a provider of intervention services to at-risk first-year college students.

Strategic partnerships hold out the prospect of providing guidance and increasing institutional capacity, efficiency and effectiveness at an affordable cost. The third parties can provide proven expertise, tested technologies and start-up funding.

But the downsides to reliance on third-party providers are obvious:

  • Prepackaged courses threaten to de-skill and potentially displace existing faculty members and commodify introductory courses.
  • Third-party-provided skills workshops and certificate programs raise questions about faculty control over the curriculum and quality.
  • Institutions at times lose control over their own data.
  • Contracts often prove difficult to terminate or renegotiate.

Campuses have, in the past, outsourced a host of services previously provided in-house, typically involving janitorial and food services, and are increasingly partnering in areas like student housing. The looming financial challenges posed by the health crisis will, I believe, encourage new kinds of outsourcing -- reflecting institutions’ lack of internal capacity and resources. And this will require campuses to figure out whether these third parties are truly strategic partners or predators.

Steven Mintz is special adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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