Long-time online observer asks why Harvard turned to OPM for online courses

Charles Darwin, teleported from 19th century Cambridge, could walk into any classroom at Harvard today and, without the slightest hesitation, walk straight to the lectern and lecture on evolution as if nothing hadn’t changed in 150 years. (To keep pace, however, Darwin would need to learn how to display images of his finches on PowerPoint slides.)

But a teacher who retired 20 years ago, clicking open his computer, would find digital education almost unrecognizable. In just a few decades, MOOCs, flipped classes, video streaming, digital exercises, distance labs and other developments have transformed online education with new technologies and innovative pedagogies. Puzzled as to how to react to market forces that force them to move online, most universities and colleges are puzzled as to how to proceed.

“Universities went from the Pony Express to jets in one fell swoop,” Dominic Brewer, dean of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University, observed in a telephone conversation. . “Registration management dates from the 19th century, with spreadsheets and binders.

Moving forward online, most college professors and senior administrators face decisions they are usually unprepared for. With sufficient resources, they are comfortable enough to go over plans with starch specialists to erect new academic structures in glass and steel, but when it comes to virtual education, most are also confused. as Fred MacMurray in the Disney movie The absent professor.

Commonly elevated to the rank of academic leadership in an era before the Internet invasion, few senior professors took an online course, let alone taught one. In an earlier essay by Inside higher education, I noted that the data showed that “older and higher-ranking faculty members are the least supportive of online education.” It’s no wonder that schools, squeezed by shrinking budgets, often leave e-learning on the cutting room floor.

Take Harvard, for example. While a handful of selective schools have ventured into digital education as part of their core curricula, Harvard doesn’t offer a single degree entirely online. So why, with all its firepower – at $ 37.1 billion, Harvard’s endowment is the richest in the world, and its partnership with MIT is the second-largest MOOC provider, edX – Harvard has it turned to an external online program management (OPM) company? to help launch its new online business data analysis certificate? The new deal sees 2U, an OPM, remarkably valued at $ 3.025 billion, with leading university clients like Yale, NYU and the University of California, Berkeley, to work jointly with Harvard Faculty to make it happen.

“We don’t have the resources to support a marketing effort of this magnitude or provide one-on-one user support of this intensity,” said Peter Bol, Harvard vice president for Advances in Learning, in an interview. telephone. Bol admits, in fact, that despite its deep and cavernous pockets, Harvard slept at the virtual wheel as e-learning took off across the country.

Commenting on the riddle in Inside higher educationAnnaLee Saxenian, Dean of Berkeley’s School of Information, observed, “Even universities with substantial endowments lack the technology and marketing expertise to scale high-quality online programs.

Over the past two decades, since the introduction of e-learning, universities have invested hundreds of millions in campus facilities – labs, manufacturing spaces, football stadiums, and more. In contrast, as e-learning (both in terms of income and students) grew at double-digit growth and the residential population flattened or shrunk, only a few schools recognized the strategic pullback. to invest in the past while higher education starved its future.

Years ago, Harvard Business School, among others, accurately predicted that we were heading for a fully immersive digital economy, warning the industry that it would enter a fight to the death unless institutions failed. adapt to new digital facts.

“The digitization of the economy is one of the most critical issues of our time. Digital technologies are rapidly transforming both business practices and societies, and they are an integral part of tomorrow’s innovation-driven economies, ”said Harvard business review. Oddly enough, most university leaders paid no heed to the wisdom of business schools, somehow imagining that higher education would be accepted.

Worried about the backsliding of conservative professors and fearing that their reputations would be damaged if they delivered what many academics saw as a substandard product, many schools have given up on entering the online market in the past 20 years. I have participated in endlessly tedious digital education deliberations over the years as professors and senior administrators scratched their heads and procrastinated, posting awe-inspiring reports of an online utopia to come.

Pretending to support e-learning, some schools have invested in “technologically enhanced” education, a sprinkling of digital gadgets on campus, primarily for residence students. As a result, schools left a large void in the campus gates for PMOs to enter. Learning from the birds of Darwin’s Galapagos, PMSs occupied a rich commercial niche, feasting on growing virtual enrollments as many in higher education scent digital growth.

Schools that rely heavily on tuition fees for their financial stability find themselves in a difficult situation. As the traditional college-age population stabilizes, campus enrollment follows, often declining. Under pressure, institutions are looking for other sources of income. With the national online rising curve looking more like a smile than a frown, digital education could be a good bet. Catching up, it looks like Harvard and other schools now have three main choices to get them out of their current solution: go it alone, pay as you go, or sign with an OPM.

Go it alone

Since most schools haven’t prepared for the digital future, going it alone like I did 20 years ago doesn’t look very promising now. At first, with little or no training, faculty members were pushed into cyberspace with a laptop and a password. “Go ahead,” we encouraged, with a hesitant smile and a pat on the back, crossing our fingers that they were successful.

Twenty years ago, I opened an e-learning unit at a small tech school in New Jersey, with stunning views of Manhattan and a modest investment of $ 350,000 to start half a dozen master’s programs. in line. As amateurs, we haven’t done too badly, generating 20,000 virtual registrations in a dozen years, ultimately delivering healthy surpluses as well – not too shabby.

But if you are looking to generate large sums of money to make up for losses on campus or to accelerate your virtual entry into a competitive market, you better hurry up and launch some income-generating online programs fairly quickly. Schools looking to move forward are likely to be impatient. Waiting a dozen years to be rewarded is an incredibly slow time-to-market strategy.

For those who aren’t in such a rush and happy with modest enrollments of tens, rather than hundreds, going online on your own can be good for your school. By stepping away from grandiose projects, you can literally take off with a moderate investment in technology and a small, skilled workforce.

Pay as you go

While Harvard and others have gone for an OPM, it’s not the only option. Companies such as ExtensionEngine, Noodle, Learning House and others will step in to make pieces of the online puzzle for you, relieving you and your staff of tasks that you may not be qualified for, especially recruiting. and instructional design. While OPMs offer a turnkey service, with many moving parts made available by the company, if you pay as you go, you’ll have to coordinate everything yourself. If you fail, you will bear all the risk – the fees you paid to suppliers will be gone. But if you are successful, you will not be sharing your online tuition income with an OPM partner.

OPM in charge

In financial circles, OPM refers to “other people’s money,” but while OPM in higher education clearly means something else, one of the big draws for universities in the $ 1.5 billion market is dollars is that PMSs in education – in addition to providing instructional design, student support, recruiting, and advanced digital techniques – also act as investment companies, funding virtual programs for colleges and universities in exchange for a large chunk of tuition income, with many contracts sharing the income 50-50 online. (An aside: saying “OPM” quickly may sound like “opium.”)

“The revenue share is outrageous,” comments NYU Steinhardt’s Brewer, which has partnered with 2U and HotChalk to launch several degrees. “But, of course, we couldn’t have done it ourselves.”

Ilan Jacobsohn, senior director of distributed education at the New School, says, “PMSs take the risk. If your program fails, your school may look bad, but it’s the OPM that loses the money.

PMSs provide services that campus higher education has largely overlooked, including web marketing and recruiting. “For many traditional colleges that are launching programs online these days, the solution has been to outsource as much as possible of business operations (including marketing and advertising) using companies like 2U,” the editor reports. Chief Jeffrey R. Young in EdSurge News. When it went public in 2014, 2U said in its filing that it had increased its marketing costs from $ 32.1 million in 2011 to $ 45.4 million in 2012.

Meanwhile, OPMs appear as villains, accused by the Century Foundation and Atlantic to steal university treasures with outrageous conditions and bad value for money. Not that PMS are flawless, but the real offenders are finicky universities that haven’t invested in their own digital future. Compared to the business elite, university leaders are seen as far more sensible and risk-averse, but their heads-in-the-sand virtual education policies have proven irresponsible.

To pay for their inattention to the relentless digital economy – if they partner with OPMs – some universities must now share the hold.


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