A Guide to the Pros and Cons of Outsourcing Online Education


Like many professors whose field of study is higher education, Jeffrey C. Sun is frequently asked by the administrators of his institution to intervene on thorny issues they debate. When his bosses at the University of Louisville pondered how best to expand their online learning offerings, they asked Sun, a distinguished scholar, his opinion on whether the university should hire a online program management company (OPM) or create the in-house expertise itself.

“I realized that there was no guide for the field on what to consider, and rather than blindly entering this world of outsourcing, especially for a basic academic function, I wanted to make sure they had something to work with,” Sun said. So he set out to create such a guide.

The result, “In-house or outsourced?was released this month by Louisville and UPCEA, an association that focuses on professional, online and continuing education. Sun and her co-author, Heather A. Turner, adjunct assistant professor and Sun’s colleague at the SKILLS Collaborative in Louisville, worked with UPCEA to survey online learning leaders, quantitatively and qualitatively, about why which their institutions used (or did not use) external providers to deliver virtual learning – and their experiences if they did.

The report isn’t the first to look at the role OPMs – or online enablement companies, as some call them – play in the post-secondary ecosystem, but most of the others are either summaries of the growth of industry (Holon IQ) or critical analyzes of their role (the foundation of the century and New America). Others, like this one from the Arnold Foundation and the recent US Government Accountability Office report, look primarily through a political prism.

The UPCEA and Louisville report, on the other hand, is designed to be something of a playbook for college and university leaders at a time when many of them expect online education and other forms of technology-enabled learning play a more central and foundational role in their strategies moving forward. Half of the respondents to Inside Higher EducationThe March survey of college and university presidents said they believe students will increasingly seek to enroll in virtual classes in the coming years, and most (83%) agreed. said their institutions would maintain the increase in online learning options they adopted during the COVID -19 pandemic.

The report does not explore the question of whether institutions should expand their online offerings, nor the overarching question of how to go about pursuing their educational mission. It picks up at the point where the leadership of a college or university might decide How? ‘Or’ What to do so, using its own money, personnel and capabilities, or with outside help.

E-learning managers and their institutions were the most likely to consider working with outside companies due to three factors: speed, money and marketing.

Peer pressure played a key role, suggests the report, which describes online leaders “watching their competitors (or institutional peers) and constantly hearing news about mega-universities” and “feeling pressured to emulate the success of these institutions, many of which had a high presence in online learning, offered multiple program options and provided direct, responsive support to students in a short period of time.

“The [chief online learning officers] indicated that they did not want to be left behind in the competitive e-learning arena,” the report adds.

Working with an online program manager isn’t the only way to make a meaningful move into online education, but many choose to do so because outside companies typically provide the upfront money needed to launch the programs, funds that many financially troubled institutions do not hang around.

“It’s a way for us to bring in a partner who essentially takes on a lot of the financial risk — and the financial investment — and helps drive signups,” as the online manager described. a university.

This last element – ​​creating listings, usually through (sometimes) sophisticated digital marketing efforts – tends to be the skill set that most institutions believe they lack internally, after assessing their own internal capacities, a key first step in the assessment process. OPMs were supposed to have “greater expertise and a centralized model where they could pool university funds for marketing and lead generation,” the report said.

When asked elsewhere in the report to rate which OPM services their institutions needed most from external providers, more than two-thirds of e-learning leaders cited marketing and promotion as a high need, and more than half cited recruiting – along with all other potentials. services are significantly behind schedule. Sun of the University of Louisville said some e-learning leaders have cited the speed and agility of OPMs as traits their own institutions lack.

“OPMs could respond to admission requests within 24 hours,” he said, quoting an executive. “We can’t do that. Our admissions office was not so nimble.

The report’s authors also took steps to assess the value and performance of relationships. They asked respondents to rate whether external providers had met their expectations for the provision of various services, and then compared these ratings to institutions’ perceived needs for those services. Marketing showed the largest gap between perceived need and the extent to which expectations were met, indicating that many eLearning leaders “don’t see their marketing expectations met” by OPMs, the authors write. .

Trace Urdan, managing director of Tyton Partners which works with both universities and online program providers, said online learning leaders’ dissatisfaction with corporate marketing and recruiting is not surprising, but more a “function of broader cyclical trends” than a structural problem with these relationships as the report suggests.

“Attracting working mature students into graduate and graduation programs is extremely challenging right now for everyone given the competition of a still-hot job market,” said Urdan. “No one is happy with leads or conversions, and no one anticipated how difficult the current moment would be. This is a problem for everyone, not just OPMs.

The report notes one of the main concerns raised by critics of the operation of OPMs: contractual arrangements that grant the outside company a significant share of the tuition revenue generated by the programs over the (often long) duration of the contract. But he only indirectly recognizes the trade-off inherent in these arrangements: the companies’ willingness to face the money to build the programs (which e-learning leaders see as a great advantage), and the reality that companies don’t recoup (and make a profit) until programs reach a certain scale down the road.

The Louisville and UPCEA report highlights (but does not resolve) another issue that is among the most intriguing in the debate about outsourcing online program management: the ability to create and run programs online should be an essential capacity of educational services? institutions in today’s world.

“Almost half of the universities started this exploration or relationship with the intention of learning from OPMs, with an expressed interest in determining what needed to be done to be able to evolve or operate independently of an OPM,” says The report.

There are examples of institutions that used an OPM to get started and slowly weaned themselves entirely off the need for outside providers. More typical, however, is the institutions’ ambition to gradually reduce rather than end their reliance on outside expertise. As one eLearning manager put it, “I could see our institution, frankly, using OPMs only very strategically, not in [the] generally” that many are doing now.

It would also likely mean moving away from much-criticized full-service revenue-sharing agreements in favor of arrangements in which colleges pay companies for specific services — also, presumably, without the huge up-front investments.

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