When a Professor Moves to an OPM

A conversation with Dr. Melora Sundt, Chief Academic Officer at Noodle Partners.

February 7, 2019

How might we have a more productive conversation about the growth, impact, pros, and cons of the Online Program Management (OPM) industry?

One place to start is to listen to our colleagues who have been on both sides of the university and OPM table.

Dr. Melora Sundt is the Chief Academic Officer of Noodle Partners, and the former professor and executive vice Dean at the USC Rossier School of Education.

Melora generously agreed to answer my questions.

Q1:  What are your responsibilities as Noodle as Chief Academic Officer?

My responsibilities are matrixed, with present/future being one axis, and faculty support, program design and building, and student experience on the other axis.

I oversee everything related to the learning experience, other than tech integration. So I have teams that prepare faculty to design a program and a course, prepare faculty to teach using synchronous sessions, support students through their program, create a holistic ecosystem with student groups, activities, workshops, etc., and, finally, my team manages the pre-vetted external providers who do the actual instructional design and media creation.

Q2:  Why did you decide to move from faculty and leadership role (professor and Executive Vice Dean at USC) to a leadership role at an OPM?

Working with John Katzman and his team while I was a faculty member/Vice Dean at USC was a career-changing experience. We were his first client, and because of that, because his company was so new, I had a chance to learn with them and help influence, to a small extent, the way the LMS was designed and the way courses were created.

I was really reluctant to get into the online space at first, having had very limited exposure--as I often tell faculty, my only online experience prior to this was going to traffic school!  I believed, as many still do, that the online experience was boring, isolating and nothing like the classroom experience my students and I created on the ground. John was quite frank with me and said “You haven’t kept up with what’s happening online; let me show you…” and he was right.

Similarly, my academic background is higher education/student affairs administration, yet the first program we created online was a Master of Arts in Teaching, complete with student teaching placements -- totally outside of my wheelhouse. But because I was the Academic Vice Dean at the time, the Dean tapped me to chair the design team.

Initially, I dreaded that assignment -- because I wasn’t that familiar with the nuances of teacher preparation, and because I love generating ideas, but wasn’t confident in my ability to see an initiative like this all the way through to student enrollment -- and failure was not an option. This was a high-stakes endeavor -- to be one of the first USC programs, and a field-based program at that -- to go online. We had a lot to prove, and both the risks and potential rewards were great.

Fortunately, I got to work with brilliant colleagues, including John and my faculty peers, and I actually designed the first course, did the videos, and then designed the orientation experience and did the videos there. It was such a creative effort -- I loved seeing our ideas come to life online, I loved finding better ways to allow students to go deeper into content. And then I spent a good amount of time presenting with the Dean to internal stakeholders, and to other teacher educators around the country, to share what we were doing, and attempt to break through the widely held belief that “online = low quality.”

All this brings me to Noodle, and specifically to John Katzman. I wanted to pursue these interests -- help other faculty and student affairs colleagues discover the potential of the virtual world for facilitating learning -- beyond a single campus. What if campuses collaborated on some of these areas -- faculty support, for example?

John’s vision is a learning community that has no artificial wall between online and on-ground -- we simply have programs, and students and faculty engage in them in whatever modality is best for them at the time. And campuses share ideas and resources in ways that reduce their sense of having to compete against one another, but instead look for strategies that improve learning and reduce the cost.

Noodle offers me that opportunity. So when you ask “why go to an OPM?” it’s not just any OPM. I’m in this for the vision of education that the Noodle Partners team is driving towards. I’m here because of the chance to work with very smart people who all want to see a more innovative higher education experience, that makes education accessible to more people, and do it for less cost. I get to work with some of the most brilliant and creative faculty around the country and help them do the same.

Q3:  I'm having a hard time getting a handle on the impact of OPMs on institutions and students.  Where do you go to get data on institutional and student outcomes from across higher education and across school/OPM partnerships?

For this one, what kind of impact are you meaning? If the question is, to what extent, if at all, is value added by pairing with an OPM, even that question is too vague.

From my faculty/admin experience, we had the luxury of running very similar programs on-ground and online. We were keen to know if students’ performance on key indicators was as good among the online students as it was with the on-ground. It was, and in some cases, it was better.

I certainly found that students went further and deeper with content when I taught using synchronous and asynchronous resources vs just teaching a traditional on-ground course. But you can’t necessarily attribute that to the OPM/non-OPM condition. OPMs vary widely in their services and their standards for quality.

Q4:  There is no OPM professional association.  No conference (that I know of) where people from across the OPM industry come together with people who work in higher ed to share research or build a community of practice.  I want this to happen.  But I don't know where to start. Any thoughts and advice?

Some OPMs sponsor invitation-only conferences for their partner institutions, where they share new ideas and invite them to share what they are learning. Noodle and a few other OPMs do these.

Noodle’ Partners’ annual Symposium focuses heavily on finding points of collaboration across campuses. For example, just today we brought together the folks who run centers for teaching excellence (or other faculty support centers) among some of our partners to brainstorm opportunities to collaborate, and to lay the foundation for a virtual faculty lounge -- a place where faculty can share ideas and articles and resources across universities.

Institutions (and OPMs) can sometimes let their concern about competition get in the way of forging relationships that could be extremely beneficial. I’m so pleased that competition has not emerged so far as a barrier and we had 4 such centers coming together today to imagine the future.

OPM staff do try to attend traditional higher education conferences. We regularly put proposals in to places like NASPA and EDUCAUSE and OLC. Sometimes they even get accepted! But we do run in to a bias against having someone from a for-profit organization present at some of these conferences. We routinely pair up with colleagues from our partner institutions for proposals, and that’s as it should be -- OPMs don’t hold all the answers, and the learning improves when we partner with the people doing the actual instruction, obviously.

Q5:  When it comes to the growth of the OPM industry and the emerging model of non-profit/for-profit partnerships for online education, what keeps you up at night?

There isn’t anything about the model, specifically,  that keeps me up at night.

What I spend time wondering about, searching for, is the model for learning, period. I know we can create learning environments and experiences that are more effective, more fun, than what we currently do, and I want to know what those are. I think our future learning environments will look and feel little like what we have today. So I look for instructional design partners that can execute well in the current environment but are not satisfied with it, and are willing to invent and experiment -- never settle, in other words.

Going back to your first question -- I said I spend about a third of my time thinking about the future. During that time, I’m looking at what others are doing, looking outside of education completely, seeing what interesting things are happening and imagining how and if those ideas might help in the learning environment.

Riffing off of Dyer, Gergersen and Christensen in The Innovator’s DNA (2011), I believe the breakthroughs for learning environments will happen via networking, observing, analogous thinking, among other skills. We aren’t going to find the next generation of learning experiences by staying in the traditional instructional design pathway.

What questions do you have for Melora?


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