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Getting My Head Around Noodle Partners

The value of hosting an Academic Roundtable.

November 10, 2019
 
 

Everyone seems to know what they think about the online program management industry.

Opinions seem to range from wildly negative (“The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education”) to approvingly positive (“7 Questions for Trace Urdan on OPMs”).

Me? I’m not so sure.

As a scholar of learning innovation, my intuition is that the OPM story is complicated. That it would be a mistake to make blanket statements about an industry. And that what we need is more analysis, more data and more open-minded critical thinking.

As part of my desire to participate in a scholarship of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in the online learning space, I am trying to understand the players. And if you’re trying to make sense of the OPM ecosystem, you need to try to understand Noodle Partners.

Noodle Partners may be the best known, but least understood, company in the OPM space.

When we think of Noodle Partners -- or at least when I think of Noodle Partners -- two things always seem to come to mind.

The first is the founder and CEO, John Katzman.

The second is John’s positioning of Noodle Partners as the “anti-OPM,” fighting the scourge of long-term university contracts based on uneven revenue-sharing agreements.

John has certainly contributed to this view of Noodle Partners, as he is both well-known across higher education circles (through his excellent keynotes and the friendships he has built over the years), and through his willingness to eschew the careful verbiage of a traditional CEO.

Don’t believe me? Check out my Q&A with John, where he provocatively (if maybe undiplomatically) said that his “job is to decimate the OPM industry, which is driving up higher ed tuition.”

Noodle Partners, however, is much more than the “anti-OPM” -- and it is much bigger than its founding CEO.

As I have gotten to know the company, I have come to believe that anyone in higher ed who is looking to potentially develop an online program should at least have a conversation with Noodle Partners.

I am not saying that Noodle Partners will definitely be the place that you will ultimately land if your institution decides to partner with a company to develop online programs. From what I have observed, there is a range of OPM companies (including 2U and Emeritus and Wiley and Pearson and others) that can potentially make excellent partners.

And I am not saying that schools should always partner with an OPM, as there are very good arguments for building internal capacities.

What I am saying is that Noodle Partners should be on your list in any due diligence research work to scope out the OPM ecosystem.

Why my positive feelings towards Noodle Partners? (And for the record, Noodle Partners is not today partnering with my institution for any online program, although we continue to discuss possibilities.)

The method that I have been able to get to know the folks (beyond John Katzman) at Noodle Partners was through a small Academic Roundtable that the company hosted this summer at their Manhattan headquarters.

At this event, Noodle Partners’ executive vice president, Lee Bradshaw, assembled a handful of scholar-practitioners in the online learning space.

What was unique about this convening was that:

  1. The people Noodle Partners brought together were some partners of the company, but mostly not.
  2. The conversation was not about Noodle Partners, but about broader trends in nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in online education, and
  3. Noodle Partners prioritized the provision of time and space for generating scholarship that was not about the company.

This model of bringing scholar-practitioners together for an Academic Roundtable is one that I think that other companies in the ed tech, publishing and OPM space should follow.

It takes real discipline for a company to gather people together and have the agenda not be about that company’s products or services. And it takes a commitment to research and knowledge creation to support and underwrite these activities, without any stipulations of what that scholarship should be.

The upside of hosting an Academic Roundtable for Noodle Partners was that their leadership team was able to actively participate in the conversations as colleagues (rather than as a vendor), and the participants in the Roundtable who are not customers got to know a little bit about the company.

What I learned about Noodle Partners surprised me.

There are over 170 people who work for the company, three-quarters of whom are working remotely. At the Manhattan offices, I was able to watch the Noodle Partners team do their thing -- as the company is located in a gorgeous open-plan office setup on 860 Broadway, a space that once served as The Factory for Andy Warhol. Katzman has dubbed the space the Ed-Tech Factory.

Anyone who follows the OPM industry knows that there is something of a Yankees/Red Sox rivalry vibe between 2U (which Katzman founded before leaving) and Noodle Partners.

I find this rivalry strange, as 2U has evolved beyond its model of only offering bundled programs with revenue share, and Noodle Partners offers a range of financial models. I also find this rivalry odd -- and honestly a bit distracting, if maybe energizing for the CEOs of both companies -- as the two OPM providers share many core values.

For instance, the commitment to inclusion and diversity that I have observed and called out at 2U is also much in evidence at Noodle Partners. Fully 15 percent of recent hires at Noodle Partners have been recruited from underrepresented minorities. The president, chief financial officer and chief academic officer are women; only two of the eight C-suite members are white men.

I was also delighted to learn that four in 10 of the staff of Noodle Partners learning team (the folks who work directly with schools to design and run online programs) have a terminal degree.

To my surprise, Noodle Partners has many more university partners than I had realized. The company already works with 18 universities (20 separate schools and 40-plus programs), including Michigan (Ross and Nursing), Harvard (Kennedy School), University of Pittsburgh (Health Informatics and Physical Therapy), Boston College, Tulane, University of Virginia, Southern Methodist University, New York University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the University of Tennessee.

To put this in context, 2U has 30 university partners for its degree offerings, and Pearson has at least 14, though they don’t always publicly announce them. Emeritus, which my institution does have an existing partnership with for nondegree online programs, has 16 university partners in the U.S., U.K., Europe and Singapore.

If anyone has ecosystem numbers for other companies in the OPM space, please share.

Noodle Partners' model is to offer a combination of unbundled services (from instructional design to marketing to technology to student support), with the flexibility to bundle these services together as needed. As part of this model, the costs for each of these services are made transparent to the university partner. (With no long-term contractual lock-in.) Schools have the option of entering into a traditional revenue-share model in order to minimize up-front costs and risks, but they can have the financial model transition to a fee-for-service arrangement once the cost of launching the program has been paid back.

Another aspect I find fascinating about the Noodle Partners model is that the company acts in some ways more like a movie studio than a vertically integrated company. Rather than develop each specialty related to online programs in-house, Noodle Partners selects and vets companies that specialize in instructional design, enrollment management, digital marketing and other areas.

Noodle Partners then manage those relationships for the university, providing both uniform oversight and a single point of contact (and contracting) for the school. This also allows schools to be flexible in using the platforms with which they are most comfortable, rather than requiring the use of a specified set of technologies.

Additionally, Noodle Partners seems committed to the idea of leveraging online programs to build up the institutional capacity of the schools in which they partner. With the many of their partner schools, Noodle Partners provides marketing, enrollment and technology support but works directly with the university’s in-house instructional design teams.

The extent to which how Noodle Partners differentiates itself in the increasingly crowded OPM market is, for me, another open question. My sense is that Noodle Partners led the way in unbundling OPM services, but that other companies are now offering this option.

Does unbundling address the main critiques of the OPM industry of Carey and others?

I would enjoy the opportunity to get to know other players in the online program management/enablement space.

Rather than participate in events for existing OPM partners, or talking to company representatives at industry conferences, the format of an Academic Roundtable seems the best venue to get to know these companies. The key to a good Academic Roundtable is that it be small and not about the company. An Academic Roundtable should also meet the needs of its participants, to either form new relationships or to create space and time for research and writing.

I hope that other companies in the OPM and ed-tech/publishing space follow Noodle Partners’ lead in creating their own broad-based opportunities for scholar-practitioners in digital and online learning to gather.

Can you share your experience, positive or negative, in the university/for-profit online learning partnership space?

Are you as skeptical about the whole idea of the OPM industry as many of my closest colleagues?

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