Better Revenue Model

Notre Dame to launch its first online master’s. University joins growing number of institutions opting to outsource online course
development on fee-for-service basis.

June 7, 2017
 
Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame this fall will offer its first online master’s degree program, in data science, and more online graduate programs will follow in the next few years. With the launch of this program, Notre Dame joins a growing number of universities in veering from the traditional, revenue-sharing online program management model, or OPM, for online course development and opted instead to outsource only part of the job on a fee-for-service basis.

The 172-year-old institution created the five-semester online master of data science in partnership with AT&T, which contributed “seed money” and ideas for program development and whose employees will make up approximately 35 percent of the first 40-student cohort, according to Elliott Visconsi, Notre Dame’s chief academic digital officer. ExtensionEngine developed the learning management system (LMS) for the program.

Designed for working professionals, the program will enroll part-time students who will take two or three courses per semester after attending an on-campus, weekend orientation at the start of the fall semester.

“You can retain your full-time job and take courses while you’re working,” Visconsi said. “That was an absolute requirement.”

Two Dimensions

The institution’s course developers had three additional requirements: First, the course would be “authentically online; designed for online,” and not simply an upload of existing face-to-face graduate courses in applied statistics, applied and computational mathematics and predictive analytics.

“People who go for a master’s in data science are typically working adults,” said Michael DiPietro, chief marketing officer for ExtensionEngine, which created the program’s online platform, “so the platform had to be easy for a working adult to get access to online, but also to find out, ‘What are my courses; what’s due next; what are the things I have to do?’ It had to feel like work.”

Second, the Roman Catholic university’s core religious values and focus on personal and business ethics had to be woven into the online curriculum, just as it is on campus and in its other online courses.

“We said, ‘Let’s infuse the DNA of this program with a sense of [the university’s] mission to be a force for good in the world,' ” Visconsi said. “We want to have ethical questions and public-good questions infused into every course, not just in a religious course, not just in a stand-alone course in ethics.”

To that end, “a portion” of the case studies, problems and exercises for the online graduate students will be related to using data science in the nonprofit sector and in what Visconsi called “public-benefit applications.”

A Different Approach

In a 2016 survey by Eduventures, a Boston-based research firm specializing in higher education, 62 percent of universities with online programs said they were exploring fee-for-service arrangements with outside program developers as an alternative to the typical revenue-sharing model.

In the usual model, the OPM would create a unique learning platform for the institution; work with faculty on content; design and upload all components of the courses; market the classes; recruit students; run the admission process; and manage the technology. Under this model, the OPM pays all up-front costs.

In exchange, for the next seven to 10 years, the OPM pockets between 40 percent and 60 percent of tuition and other revenue generated by the online courses.

In the fee-for-service arrangement with Cambridge, Mass.-based ExtensionEngine, Notre Dame keeps the revenue generated by the online program. With the help of AT&T, the university paid the up-front costs and trained its own course designers and faculty to contribute significantly to the development effort.

ExtensionEngine developed the LMS, which Notre Dame calls NeXus. But the university will eventually take over tasks like marketing, which the OPM is doing temporarily. 

DiPietro said the fee-for-service model gives Notre Dame more control. An OPM whose revenue depends on enrollment in the online courses it develops “gets to drive a lot of what’s going to happen because it’s their business, too,” DiPietro said. For example, an OPM might pressure a university client to enlarge class sizes or resist online upgrades that could cut into its profits.

Still, DiPietro said, it made sense for Notre Dame to outsource the program’s development. “You don’t want to hire a huge staff to roll out a program and then disband the entire staff” after the launch,” he said. “This allows them to build, learn and create good internal competencies … but later take over so they don’t have to depend on the third party.”

A Long Road

Notre Dame’s first fully online degree was approximately four years in the making.

Visconsi, an English professor, became the university’s first chief academic digital officer, part of the provost’s office, in 2012, just as Notre Dame and eight other top-tier institutions experimented with a year-long Semester Online. Online education provider 2U organized the collaborative, which allowed students of the nine universities to enroll in a handful of digital-only courses at any of the institutions. 2U disbanded Semester Online after one year because of low enrollment and waning interest from the universities.

Meanwhile, however, Notre Dame created about a dozen online courses—including some hybrids that had both online and face-to-face meetings— for undergraduates wishing to take general-education classes like math, philosophy and literature during the summer. It also offers a smattering of online graduate courses, but no other fully online degree programs.

“There have been online classes in an ad hoc manner for about 20 years,” Visconsi said, “but not in any way that’s been coordinated by the university.”

Semester Online, he said, “was a great experience for us to understand what it would take to run some for-credit, online-only courses.” When the program stopped, he added, “we used that as the launching point” to build an Office of Digital Learning and open what he called “an in-house design studio for online classes.

Administrators and faculty members in the Department of Applied Computational Math and Statistics chose data science for the first online master’s degree because of the growing demand among employers for workers skilled in that field. In addition, Visconsi said, Notre Dame already has a face-to-face graduate-level major in the subject, so faculty expertise was readily available.

Next Steps

Additional online master’s degrees from Notre Dame, in the near future, at least, will similarly focus on high-tech subject matter, Visconsi said, because student demand for those majors is growing as the job market in those fields heats up.

"Our goal is to add similar programs with a similar spirit; push to be a force for good in the world; extend our reach to connect distant students with Notre Dame,” Visconsi said. “These kinds of programs will track closely onto areas where there’s faculty excellence, market demand, and the opportunity to be a leader.

“And by that, I mean not only an academic leader, but also a leader in terms of commitment to the social good.”

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