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What do universities want from online program management providers?

I have no idea.

Ask me what I want in a potential OPM partner, and I’ll talk your ear off.

But search for any research on how universities evaluate the decision to partner with a for-profit company to build, market, launch and run a new online degree program -- and you will be mostly searching in vain.

The growing phenomenon of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in postsecondary online learning needs research attention. We need to move OPM analysis out of the world of for-profit consulting companies and higher ed blogs. We need to investigate the changing way in which higher education programs are financed, including the OPM partnership model, involving scholars who are committed to independent and sustained research.

For now, lacking the research, I’ll share some of my own OPM opinions. You can let us know if your thinking, and the thinking at your institution, aligns with my own.

Here are five things that I want to see from OPM providers:

No. 1: Higher Ed People

Higher education is a business built on relationships. We are more like an ancient guild than a modern industry. The decision to make a life in higher education is not a rational one. Nobody in their right mind would choose a higher ed career on a pure cost/benefit calculation. Higher ed people are, above all else, mission driven. They are true believers in the potential of higher education to improve the lives of our students and to contribute to the making of a better world.

It would be great if more people who worked in online program management companies came from higher ed. If they built their relationships and networks while working for a university. It is not that we don’t trust people from outside academia. It is just that we don’t trust people from outside academia.

This might be our blind spot. Higher ed people don’t have a monopoly on being mission driven. Still, too few professionals in the OPM business seem to have previously been in higher education leadership roles. If partnerships with OPMs really do benefit our institutions, our students and our faculty, then more higher ed people should be wanting to work for OPMs.

No. 2: Flexible Unbundling

The only reason that a university would partner with a company to do an online program is that, for some reason, we can’t do it ourselves. What we can’t do ourselves varies from school to school, and surprisingly even within schools.

In some places we need the whole enchilada. We need the start-up capital. The instructional designers and project managers and video educators. We need the marketing and outreach to a population of online learners that we are not experienced reaching. We need the learning platforms. The student support.

Mostly, however, we don’t need all that. We need some but not all of those things. And what is needed might be different for different parts of the university. One division, school, program or major might be really good when it comes to instructional design. What they need most is marketing. Another area of the institution may not have the instructional designers, but it is well set up to support enrolled students.

A good OPM will be flexible in their partnerships. It will have options between revenue share and fee for service. It will unpack the partnership in a way that can work best for the institution.

No. 3: Capacity Building

Too often, OPM providers lead with money. How much revenue the new programs might deliver to the schools. Money is good, but it is only one part of the equation.

What we really care about is the long-term resilience of our institutions, and our ability to meet our strategic goals and to support our larger institutional missions. Online education is integral to how education is changing. Online programs provide opportunities to not only bring in new (much needed) dollars, but also to build new institutional capacities.

Online programs can serve as amazing opportunities for faculty development. Pair a professor with an instructional designer and watch the magic happen. What faculty learn in developing and teaching online courses can be translated into residential teaching and learning.

Outsourcing the core functions of an organization is always a bad idea. Outsourcing the teaching and learning function of a university is always a bad idea. OPMs need to learn to work with universities to use any partnerships around online programs to advance all learning.

No. 4: Transparency

One difficulty that schools have in even thinking about investigating a partnership with a company to start a new online program is our lack of information. We just know so little about how past OPM partnerships have played out. There is no good source of independent data -- even if the data are anonymized.

There is no database that aggregates all OPM partnership arrangements across all the different schools and that would allow for a data-driven analysis of how well these arrangements work and which OPM might be a good fit.

Beyond a lack of outcome data, our ability to examine the contracts between peer schools and OPM providers is limited. We don’t really know how to negotiate a fair deal because we don’t understand how other schools have gone about setting up these partnerships.

The lack of data leaves us to rely on conversations, snippets of information and what the various OPM companies tell us. This inability to make data-driven decisions hurts everyone. It slows down the process. It makes schools that should consider an OPM partnership fail to even begin a project to look at options. A lack of data makes it less likely that partnerships that are begun will work well for both parties.

The only entities that can solve this lack of data are the OPM companies. I would love to see an OPM association that is built around helping higher education make data-driven decisions. This would require a commitment to transparency that I don’t think the OPM industry has prioritized.

No. 5: Diversity

This really should not have to be said in 2018, but judging from what I see in the OPM industry, I’m going to say it anyway. Higher ed people really do care about diversity, inclusion and opportunity. We believe that diverse perspectives are necessary for healthy teams and well-run organizations.

Our students are increasingly diverse across every demographic and social dimension. A potential OPM partner whose work force is not diverse is a demonstration of the values of that OPM company. We are unlikely to partner with anyone who does not share our values.

Again, these are the five things that I’d like most to see from a potential OPM partner.

What would you like to see?

How do we get the research started that would help us make some more definitive and representative statements about how schools and OPM providers might better work together?

Where do you get your OPM information?

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