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The recent acquisition of edX by 2U points to one of the more challenging aspects of higher education’s relationship with external partners: How can we reflect thoughtfully, intentionally and critically on those relationships?

This is perhaps even more of a challenge with for-profit partnerships, where the impulses and motivations of each of the players may be fundamentally different.

We ask this question not only about the 2U/edX deal. As we’ve noted, there is much we do not know about how this will play out, particularly with regard to the new nonprofit entity created from the merger.

Few in higher education would disagree that we need to think hard about the consequences of the growing set of partnerships with for-profit companies.

When those partnerships involve areas that are as central as teaching and learning, then extra care and attention are warranted.

Still, the for-profit 2U acquisition of the nonprofit edX brings up many questions that are of particular relevance to the evolution of higher education.

Questions such as:

  • In what ways are colleges and universities dependent on for-profit entities in the online education space?
  • Who are the winners and losers in an online education ecosystem heavily dependent on nonprofit/for-profit partnerships?
  • And most importantly, are nonprofit university collaborations with for-profit companies in online programs ultimately beneficial or harmful to students, educators, institutions and other higher education stakeholders?

These are questions that academics in online educational institutional leadership roles should be well positioned to address.

Thankfully, some of these conversations are happening.

One of the most critical analyses that we’ve seen of 2U’s acquisition of edX has come from Jeff Pooley, a professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College. Another skeptical analysis of the 2U/edX acquisition was written by Dhawal Shah, founder and CEO of Class Central. And a third by Steven Mintz.

Our friends and colleagues Phil Hill, Michael Feldstein and Bryan Alexander have also weighed in with some excellent perspectives and analyses.

It may be that the 2U acquisition of edX -- in and of itself and as a data point in a larger set of trends related to the evolution of the postsecondary sector -- is a good thing for learners, educators and schools.

Or it may be that our community should be highly concerned about the growth of for-profit providers in the online learning space.

Or it might be that we need more data, more research and more analysis to come to any conclusions about for-profit providers and nonprofit online learning programs.

Higher education needs to commit to making these critical conversations a fundamental aspect of these partnerships.

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