OPM -- the terrible three-letter acronym for companies in the online program management space -- is something of a dirty word within higher ed. The brand tarnishing of the OPM concept reached its apogee on April 1, 2019, with the publication of Kevin Carey’s Huffington Post piece “The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education.”
The arguments about OPMs (which we have gleefully participated in) come down to four main objections. They can be summarized with the idea that online degree programs (particularly master’s degrees) developed in partnership between nonprofit universities and for-profit companies are, among other things:
Bad for Students: As tuition costs are as high as residential programs, and the OPM deals may, in fact, be raising student costs due to the arms race of marketing.
Bad for Faculty: Support for course development is isolated to online courses, distributed to disconnected partners and rarely consistent with the ethos, values and goals of individual faculty.
Bad for Schools: Revenue-share agreements and long-term contract lock-ins can result in lower-than-expected revenues, hidden costs and no way to gracefully exit the relationship.
Bad for the Higher Education Ecosystem: Colleges and universities give up fundamental intellectual pedagogical skills, expertise and experience that diminishes their ability to do the very work of teaching our students.
Defenders of university/OPM partnerships, and the OPM industry, point out that: a) OPMs serve to increase access to online programs for working adults, as they provide the up-front capital and absorb the risk that allows schools to develop online programs that they would not be able to launch and run without a partner; and b) universities retain full academic control of the content, faculty and admissions process in the online programs designed with an OPM partner.
Perhaps nowhere has the OPM debate raged more strongly than between the two of us (Josh and Eddie). See “Why We Disagree on OPMs.”
Very, very broadly -- Eddie is critical of outsourcing core intellectual, fiscal and pedagogical capabilities in service of for-profit partnerships. Josh thinks that OPMs may be able to serve as a catalyst and partner in the effort of higher education for access to low-cost degrees.
What we do agree about is that we both hope that the OPM discussion in 2020 is more nuanced and more engaged than it was in 2019.
In particular, we hope that when higher ed digital learning leaders gather to talk about the pros and cons of working with for-profit companies to develop online programs, everyone moves beyond the language of “the internal OPM.”
Here we need to pause for a brief mea culpa. In our upcoming book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, we are also guilty of using the language of “internal OPM.” (Eddie blames Josh for that one.) The good thing about writing a book is that it forces you to think deeply about the topic.
While one of us (Eddie) was never a fan of the language of the “internal OPM,” both of us have decided not to use that naming shorthand to describe what is involved in using in-house university resources to develop and run an online program.
The reason is that the services offered by an in-house unit for schools/programs that wish to go online differ in both form and function to an external OPM partner. Working with a university resource to develop and launch an online degree (or nondegree) program is qualitatively different than working with an external OPM to market a program. The two options -- in-house university team or external OPM -- are not alike.
Many, if not most, internal academic entities that work on online learning bring a different set of priorities and goals to the table than a for-profit OPM.
Internal academic units may have all the requisite capabilities necessary to enable a school or a department to launch an online program. Likely, this internal academic unit has instructional designers, project managers, media educators and other nonfaculty educators who partner with faculty to develop online programs.
Where the internal academic unit will differ from the OPM is that it will approach the work of partnering to create and run online programs in a manner that is aligned with the larger goals and values of the institution and is informed by the depth and breadth of work happening in the campus learning organization.
These goals and values may include a focus on aligning the educational operations of the university with the research on how people learn. An orientation that prioritizes learning science and the contribution to the scholarship of teaching and learning may be accompanied by a commitment to supporting the educators at the institution.
Few OPMs will put in their mission to invest in the career success, wellness and expertise of professors. But this is central to the mission of many of the internal campus organizations that will partner on online learning initiatives.
Who are these internal academic units that partner with departments or programs or schools to build online programs? If they are not “internal OPMs,” what are they?
At some schools, it is the center for teaching and learning (CTL) that is able to work with institutional partners to develop online programs. The growth of the integrated CTL, formed by merging previously distinct CTL and academic computing units, has catalyzed the ability of internal groups to support campus online learning programs.
At other institutions, there are stand-alone online learning units that work across the campus on new online programs. Sometimes, that capability to develop online programs resides in schools of continuing and professional education. In other places, separate schools (such as the business school or medical school) have internal capabilities that enable the development and running of online programs.
Our point is that internal academic units involved in online education should not be thought of as the “in-sourcing” analogue to an OPM. Nor should what OPMs do be understood as simply outsourcing the work of internal online units.
These different organizations, one internal and the other external to the institution, have different cultures, different missions, different values and different goals.
Choosing to work with an external OPM to develop an online program is a different choice than outsourcing what is done internally. The relationship between the department, program or school that is creating the online program will be different with an OPM than with an internal unit.
Choosing which approach is a judgment that should be made based on the goals, constraints and other variables. What should be understood is that the two approaches are fundamentally different.
What differences and similarities do you see in developing and running an online program with an internal unit vs. an external OPM?