Taking a Step Back

Middlebury will sell its stake in for-profit online language learning provider, an initiative that never sat right with many faculty members. But future online education initiatives are in the works.

August 25, 2015

Middlebury College is ending its at times controversial online education partnership with K12, with administrators at the college citing the experience gained but also the “tensions” of working with a for-profit company.

The college and K12 in 2010 signed a joint venture agreement to create Middlebury Interactive Languages, or MIL, a language learning program provider for K-12 students and teachers interested in professional development. Five years later, MIL has more than 200,000 learners, according to a recent tally.

Middlebury, which owns a 40 percent stake in the company bearing its name, has a strong reputation for high-quality language learning programs. MIL was seen as a strategic move for the college to expand its reach online -- and perhaps create a new revenue stream -- but the choice of a for-profit partner gave some faculty members pause.

Those doubts never quite dissipated. As recently as May 2014, faculty members voted 95-16 in favor of a nonbinding resolution that urged college leadership to end the partnership with K12, saying its business practices were “at odds with the integrity, reputation and educational mission of the college.”

Questions about the educational fit arose again earlier this month after the college announced its intent to sell its stake in the company. One Middlebury administrator, asking not to be named, said learners showed little interest in programs other than Spanish and English as a second language. From a pedagogical standpoint, the administrator said, those demands were not of that much interest to faculty members at Middlebury, a college that offers programs in Arabic, Hebrew and Portuguese, among other languages.

The college also alluded to those differences in opinion in a press release. “Going forward, MIL will be able to chart its own strategic course without having to balance the different priorities of two owners,” it reads.

Bill Burger, vice president for communications and marketing at Middlebury, was quick to stress that the college neither got into the partnership nor left it primarily for financial reasons.

“We invested for a number of reasons,” Burger said. “The additional revenue stream was not the primary driver. The primary driver was really to get involved in a way that would allow Middlebury to learn firsthand how different methods of online language education would work from a product standpoint and in the marketplace.”

The college invested a total of $5 million into MIL, Burger said, adding, “We are confident that the current value of our share in the company exceeds the amount we invested.”

Neither does the sale represent Middlebury backing off from online education, Burger said. The college recently hired Amy Collier, a key player in Stanford University’s many online education experiments, to fill the role of associate provost for digital learning. Collier previously served as Stanford’s director of digital learning initiatives, among other roles.

“We are definitely beefing up our plans to pursue a number of digital learning initiatives, and Amy will be a key player in making that happen,” Burger said. Collier declined further comment.

Before the sale can go through, however, Middlebury and K12 need to settle on how to wind down the partnership. That includes deciding what the company will be known as in the future. Middlebury signed a licensing agreement with K12 in which it traded the use of its name for the right to review content before it hit the market. The agreement is still valid after the sale, but Middlebury may not want its name associated with a company it doesn't own a stake in.

Both the college and the company said they expect that issue to be resolved in the coming months, and that no naming decision has been made yet. The sale is expected to close before the end of the year, spokespeople for both parties said.


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