Recently, we participated in the inaugural meeting of the Noodle Advisory Board. For those of you who don’t know Noodle, it is a for-profit (privately held) online program enabler. Noodle positions itself as the alternative to online program management providers, as the company stresses its preferred positioning as a fee-for-service bundled enabler for university-launched online programs. The comparison is with traditional bundled OPMs, whose core degree business model relies on revenue-sharing agreements with their partner schools.
In our books and articles, we have written extensively about the growth of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in the online learning space. In our analysis of these partnerships, we are both highly critical of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships that cannibalize a university’s ability to build internal capacity in digital learning. If we have learned nothing else from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that blended and flexible instruction must be a core capability of every college and university.
So why did we agree to participate in the Noodle Advisory Board? Three reasons.
Nonprofit/for-profit partnerships are part of the fabric of higher education. Many of these are crucial to higher ed’s ability to function. We may have concerns about the role that for-profit companies are playing in the decisions colleges and universities are making—for example, in which programs they choose to take online, and how those programs are designed, marketed, delivered and priced. We think the best way to address those concerns is to help both colleges and companies evolve their practices to be more thoughtful, intentional and forward-thinking.
This evolution should, we argue, require that nonprofit/for-profit partnerships place an emphasis on long-term institutional capacity building as a central goal of any relationship. We also believe that any school/company partnership must be transparent in its arrangements and that both parties need to be committed to engaging in research and analysis around learner and institutional outcomes.
From what we have been able to gather, Noodle is serious about engaging with its advisory board as a strategic partner. Noodle devoted significant effort, time and focus on forming the board (more on that below), bringing everyone together to New York City for a day of meetings and bringing their senior leadership team to the conversation. We expect that our work on this advisory board will help determine Noodle’s strategy and help us better understand the values, goals and principles that motivate these partnerships.
Joining company advisory boards is always something of a chicken-and-egg process. You only want to be on an advisory board with amazing colleagues, but nobody wants to commit until they know who else will be joining. Fortunately, Noodle got the composition of their advisory board just right. The advisory board contains both existing Noodle academic partners and nonpartners alike. (Neither of us are at institutions that partner with Noodle.)
The online leaders that Noodle has assembled into the advisory board include a provost, a dean, an associate vice provost and a vice president. All of the members of the advisory board are nationally recognized experts in higher education and online learning. More than that, each member of the advisory board is the sort of colleague and peer that makes building a career in higher education worthwhile. They are thoughtful, passionate, collegial, modest and caring. The relationships that we can help build through participation in activities such as Noodle’s advisory board are critical in nurturing that network.
As higher education becomes increasingly entangled with the for-profit sector within our core teaching and learning enterprise, it will become ever more essential for those of us in academia to strengthen our cross-institutional ties. We need to understand what works and what doesn’t in nonprofit/for-profit partnerships. And to do that, we need to share as much information across schools as possible. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, company advisory boards can be one of the best ways for academic peers to bond, build trust and share knowledge. For this to work, the company advisory board needs to be structured in a way that prioritizes the voices and concerns of the academic partners over the short-term and narrower interests of the company. So far, the Noodle advisory board seems to be following in that positive pattern.
The third reason that we agreed to serve on the Noodle advisory board is research. Part of our scholarly portfolio involves studying the growth and impact of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in the teaching and learning space. What we will learn as part of our work on the advisory board is directly applicable to our research. The nature of school/company relationships is evolving too rapidly to understand from a distance. To get a handle on what is going on now, and how things might look in the near future, it is necessary to get into the details. We need to learn directly from schools and companies the motivations to engage in these partnerships, how the collaborations are structured and the impact they are having on schools, students and educators. Participating on an advisory board provides the opportunity to ask lots of questions to colleagues at both schools and companies.
To Noodle’s credit, the company has (so far) been highly supportive of our research orientation. We have made the case to Noodle’s leadership that what is missing from conversations about nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in the online learning space are opportunities to conduct independent research on school/learner outcomes. What that research may look like, and the support that Noodle will provide, is something we are still figuring out. Joining the Noodle advisory board, and securing their commitment to being a participant among others in supporting independent research, is a start.
It’s a start that suggests a larger role for university partners in helping to understand and address some of the key issues higher education is facing, whether that be cost, demographic shifts, impact or value. If nonprofit partnerships are necessary for higher education to function, then these partners need to help higher ed solve its greatest challenges.
Being on the board at Noodle may be a start, but it is just a start.