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Last week, the three of us participated in the first in-person meeting of edX/2U’s recently constituted University Partner Advisory Council (UPAC). Separately and together, we sit on a number of advisory groups/councils of for-profit companies working with nonprofit universities in the online learning space. In this post, we hope to share the reasons that we invest the time to provide strategic advice to for-profit companies such as 2U.

No. 1: Representing our Institutions

All our institutions were early university partners in building the original nonprofit edX consortium and our schools retain significant portfolios of noncredit online offerings on the platform. Our universities also have varying levels of ongoing collaborations with 2U that predate that company’s $800 million acquisition of edX in 2021.

Wearing our online learning institutional hats, each of us has a strong interest in maintaining the health of the ongoing university–edX/2U collaborations. We participate in the UPAC group to understand how 2U’s product and service road map will impact existing and potentially new online programs on their edX and other platforms. And, where possible, influence that road map to the benefit of our institutions.

No. 2: Ecosystemwide Impact

Prior to 2U buying edX, the three of us were active participants in the edX Consortium (indeed, it’s how we first met one another). It sounds almost innocent (or naïve) to say so in 2023, but one of the reasons that our institutions initially joined the edX Consortium over a decade ago was because edX was a nonprofit that viewed inclusion as innovation and sought to transform access to higher ed. We believed (at the time) that there was a place for universities to come together to create a new more open, inclusive and noncorporate space for educational innovation. Though we would be quick to say that we’ve learned a great deal about mutually beneficial university-industry partnerships in the years since.

Fast-forward to 2023, and not only has the for-profit 2U purchased the nonprofit edX, all of our institutions are also involved with partnerships (at some level) with for-profit companies. This entanglement between nonprofit universities and for-profit companies in the core areas of degrees and courses, teaching and learning, extends across the broader postsecondary ecosystem. The growth of the online program management (OPM) industry (of which 2U remains one of the largest players) and the controversial system of revenue sharing (now under enhanced federal scrutiny) is only one area of the expansion of nonprofit/for-profit educational partnerships.

By participating in advisory groups such as UPAC and others, we seek to influence the broad trajectory of university-industry collaborations from the inside. In our work with edX/2U and other for-profit companies, we are always up front and clear that our motivations are to represent the interests of learners, educators and universities. Our theory of change is that a positive influence on the direction of university-industry collaborations comes when interests are aligned and where areas of mutually beneficial activities can be discovered.

In seeking influence with industry partners by working with them (from the inside), we are mindful of the risks. In our work with companies, we make no effort to hide our skepticism about most aspects of university-industry partnerships that touch the core academic functions of the university. Our goal is to find those areas where partnerships are truly beneficial to both the long-term strategy of universities and the medium-/short-term interests of learners and educators.

No. 3: Learning From and Building Relationships With Peers

The best part of participating in any external advisory group or council is the opportunity to build relationships with peers from other institutions and organizations. To edX/2U’s credit, the company worked hard to assemble a UPAC group from a diverse group of institutions and roles. During the in-person UPAC meeting, the university-based members of the group had the opportunity to meet privately all together and talk about our shared interests and common goals.

Despite the existence of professional association-sponsored meetings, opportunities for cross-institutional information sharing in areas pertaining to nonprofit/for-profit online learning partnerships are scarce. It is rare that leaders of online education who are grappling with issues of how to best work with for-profit companies can gather and talk. Serving on an advisory board like edX/2U’s UPAC provides just such an opportunity and all the members of the group were eager to take advantage of the chance to share what we’ve been learning.

It is important to note that in addition to finding great colleagues across the university landscape, we have also discovered many important peer relationships with colleagues working with our industry partners. Despite different organizational north stars, the educational ecosystem has evolved to a point where it is not at all uncommon to find colleagues across educational organization types who are equally interested in issues like access, affordability and shaping the future of learning.

Some Concerns

edX/2U should be given credit for creating the UPAC group, curating its membership and hosting a well-run, highly relevant and informative convening. We also give edX/2U credit for stepping back and providing a private space for the university members of UPAC to talk.

While giving edX/2U this credit, we are also mindful of the potential dangers of ceding the space for cross-university collaboration and knowledge sharing on nonprofit/for-profit online program partnerships to the-profit companies. It makes some sense that a company could convene those university people most interested and motivated to improve and understand this growing area of university/company partnerships, but this development should give all university people some pause.

Additionally, we think that there should be an open and robust conversation within higher education on both the overall direction of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships and the theory that the best way to ensure that these partnerships benefit learners, educators and schools is to work from the inside. How much does participation in groups like UPAC signal for-profit ownership of communication and collaboration? How can university leaders participate in corporate advisory boards and councils in a manner that fully benefits the institutions and the broader nonprofit postsecondary system that they represent?

What’s Next?

A few years before the pandemic hit, each of us tried to build on the edX consortium, first by hosting a roundtable at Georgetown on Academic Transformation, Digital Learning and Design. This meeting generated terrific ideas, ideas that continued in a new, grassroots collective known as HAIL, or Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners. HAIL served an important role in bringing together colleagues from across higher education to discuss issues, challenges and opportunities. But where the edX consortium brought together educators who shared a common concern, HAIL looked broadly at the higher ed ecosystem and identified opportunities ready for innovation. It felt more diffuse and harder to focus. After the first couple of meetings, gatherings began to feel more like familiar conferences that represented the broad array of interests and concerns reflected by its membership. We now see HAIL focusing on more targeted activities like events focused on equity in education or writing retreats.

While there are many academic conferences and professional associations, we continue to see the need for spaces for discussion centered on singular sets of important, necessary and perhaps at times existential issues. Advisory councils and boards like UPAC give us one type of venue but we think it is incumbent on all of us to find that space to share in developing the solutions for higher education’s greatest challenges.

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