Online learning, and its role in higher education sustainability, is increasingly the topic of conversation. Resting at the heart of this conversation is the question of how to build capacity to deliver a diverse education that includes online program options at scale. Should universities go it alone, creating capacity through insourcing, or partner with an online program management (OPM) provider, expanding resources through partnership?
For many institutions, this is often not an either-or question, as the OPM market continues to respond to university demand by segmenting its products across a range of activities -- marketing, recruitment, course design and student support services.
But OPM business models mostly rely on some sort of revenue share for services provided. These revenue agreements can range quite widely, depending on the depth of services provided. Contract lengths are similarly wide-ranging, with some companies seeking long-term multiyear contracts and others providing à la carte services that help, to a degree, campuses build their own capacity. The varied landscape of OPM providers may suit the needs of an institution at a particular time and within their distinctive context; we are not all traversing the exact same path.
However, before even considering an OPM or the idea of embedding your model within the institution, you have to ask why you are going online in the first place. Is online an integrated part of your institution or an add-on benefit that operates parallel to your larger mission?
Answering the Question of ‘Why Online?’
The question of how and in what ways to partner with outside organizations is situated within the context of dynamic change for our students and institutions. As the number of high school graduates continues to decline across the United States and as the average age of our college students rises while we also work hard to welcome back millions of Americans with some college credit but no degree, our campus programs must evolve. All of these students require more flexible and versatile learning pathways to merge into their lives while working, parenting or caring for loved ones, including aging parents.
Nowhere will program reinvention, let alone basic evolution, be more challenging than at our Research-1 four-year universities at the undergraduate level, yet here is where the market will see the greatest need for bachelor’s completion programs to lift students and families into better jobs and out of cycles of poverty. The question is, how do we transform our current models so as to meet our students where they are with the talent we already have?
First, to address student completion and ensure equity of access to the new traditional student, we must get beyond a simple dichotomy of online learning or face-to-face learning. Online education is just one way to serve students with flexible or modern learning pathways. Instead, campuses must mainstream conversations about multiple pathways into their campus plans. When they do, what can emerge is a dynamic set of programs, pathways and services across higher education that stem from and are fueled by faculty and staff experts that are embedded in your institution’s context and culture.
Driven by your campus experts, there should be no need for an external OPM to drive online and hybrid program development and growth, in particular if you embark on evolving your undergraduate access and entry points. That is because the answer to how to best serve your institution’s students is unique to your context; it is local to the culture of higher learning across your university, should stem from subject matter faculty and staff experts, and as a result, be tailored to the benefit of your students who are likely regional and local to your campuses.
In thinking beyond the OPM, we must recognize and appreciate that our faculty and staff can be the true innovators and leaders in teaching, learning and student success. At our universities, both of which are public land-grant institutions, for example, we have seen our colleagues take online learning head-on as an agent for access and expanded quality pathways. and we are proud of the results. At the University of Florida, we got our jump start from an OPM in 2014 but parted ways in 2015 and never looked back.
When Arizona Online launched in 2015, it was decided that all new programs would be internally supported. This did not preclude ongoing relationships with OPMs for some of our graduate programs that predated the launch of our undergraduate efforts in online. Many of those relationships have now reverted to being fully supported internally, however. So, what we believe is that while some programs may partner with vendors for discrete services such as the delivery of specific marketing campaigns or recruitment efforts, we believe that the benefits of the on-your-own model will dominate the net contributions of the full-service OPM.
The Long Game of Integrated Online Education
The long game of online education runs through a model where the institution builds its own internal capacity from its internal talent. While there are some OPM-like organizations that now offer start-up support, we think that building internal capacity across all the core verticals of online education -- faculty support and design, student enrollment, advising and coaching services, and marketing -- is the real long game. So, what does this look like?
To make a strategy of internal investment pay off, an institution must align its enrollment and success goals in online education with its larger educational philosophy and enrollment strategy. This demands that institutions ask a series of questions: Why do you want to expand access to your institution with online education? What is the relationship between online education enrollments and other enrollment goals, be that residential, distance located or international? How does online education map onto the other educational strategies of the institution and target audiences?
Is it time, for example, to modernize our operations and policies to address our diverse student bodies that will include a full-time, residential 18- to 23-year-old population as well as an increasingly mobile learner population that has an interest in higher education but cannot make the classic face-to-face model work for them, regardless of their age or life stage?
In answering these questions, institutions must consider what sort of learning experience they want to create. For us, at both the University of Arizona and the University of Florida, it has been hard work to offer a more versatile education pathway that delivers the very same academics and degree as our residential programs, boosting flexibility and enrollment efficiency but never compromising quality or academic performance expectations.
To do this, we have to ensure flexibility in the teaching and learning environment, enabling university faculty to flex their creative energies with a support infrastructure that does not bog them down in the quagmire of educational technology but instead supports them with highly experienced instructional designers as well as curriculum and multimedia specialists that can help them translate their pedagogy to a new modality.
Building internal capacity also means developing a student experience that reflects our institutional values and represents what it means to be an Arizona or Florida student. When someone asks for more information from our enrollment counselors, they are talking to an Arizona or Florida employee, someone who has not only been trained in our systems but also has been steeped in our campus philosophy and student-centered approach.
The handoff from enrollment counselor to academic adviser is also seamless because everyone is part of one team, an employee of our institutions. No part of our experiences is translated through another organization or private company. This, we believe, creates an authentic connection to our campuses. And the numbers bear this out, as both campuses have been highly successful in retaining and graduating their online learners.
An added benefit for our university teams, often ignored in the OPM debates, is the priceless value of in-house organizational growth that comes about through the collaboration and supported innovation of subject-matter experts across our campuses and boxes on our org charts. We can always improve, but we will only learn what works best for our universities and our students if we take the leadership mantle ourselves and empower our teams to take risks and evaluate programs with an eye toward continual improvement within our own university communities. We are not, after all, internal OPMs; we are an integral part of each of our universities.
Last, but certainly not least, a dedicated, university focus on strategic evolution to serve student completion and success demands real management and oversight of the overall big picture, message and marketing and communications plan. Not only must the online educational strategy align with the larger brand mission of the institution; it must also align perfectly in external communications and marketing materials, branding and message.
In our opinion, the university’s hard work and many pathways to serve and support students must be clear and resonate with prospective students who are increasingly bombarded with messages about new online learning experiences. Investing in a deliberate, on-campus strategic communications and marketing team, though, helps you not only manage and plan your external message but also helps prospective students (including returning completers) match their academic and format interests with the offerings of your university.
In reflecting on our own unique experiences at Arizona and Florida, these are just a sliver of lessons learned and insights gained, which we enthusiastically share with others facing similar questions. Through our experiences in the still-evolving terrain of online education, we believe we have more to gain through self-reflection at an institutional level and in combination with our partners across higher education institutions. Nevertheless, context is key, and each institution must find and tailor its own approach to meet its students’ needs.
Moving Beyond the Mega-University Model
To survive and prosper in this moment of massive change in higher education and the noise of “mega-universities” and to lead higher education into its next quarter century, it will take great courage, clarity of vision and purpose, and the empowerment and high expectations for impact among our faculty and staff. We must be mindful that while it requires leadership at your university, building an effective and integrated online experience also demands partnership with external stakeholders -- state officials, university boards and accrediting agencies -- whose focus on student completion and success must be geared toward the long game of a sustainable future.
In our opinion, focusing on the next mega-institution or the gold-rush mentality that has garnered so much attention in online education is a distraction from this higher calling. For us, a mega model does not align with our core educational philosophy. We imagine that for the majority of universities, the mega-university concept is not only unrealistic, it is also anathema to their institutional philosophy. We look forward to joining efforts across higher education to embrace a chapter of fundamental transformation. There are important issues that demand our focus, and chief among them are the exciting transformations afoot on each of our campuses, from within.