Over the past eight days there have been a series of valuable articles covering Online Program Management (OPM) and the broader Online Program Enablement (OPE) markets.1 All four articles provide useful historical and academic environment context to better understand market dynamics.
University of Cape Town Policy Briefing
Laura Czerniewicz and Sukaina Walji from the University of Cape Town's Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) released Issues for universities using private companies for online education this week as a policy briefing for "universities who are thinking of using - or already using - private companies to develop or expand their online programmes or courses"2
Rather than just focusing on the OPM market itself, Czerniewicz and Walji place the subject into the broader context of "marketisation, digitisation, unbundling and austerity climates." This placement is valuable, as it frames the appropriate questions that colleges and universities should address when considering OPM or OPE vendor support.
After addressing why the OPM / OPE movement is becoming so important now - from an international perspective with some global south viewpoitns - the briefing addresses the various funding models involved. The note in the description about these models being on a continuum with various combinations possible is crucial.
The briefing including a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) analysis for the full-service OPM scenario and for an inhouse / fees-for-service scenario as well as use cases for different institution types. It is well-worth reading the whole report.
EdSurge Debate on OPMs
Last week EdSurge ran a two-article series on OPMs that missed the SNL's Point / Counterpoint opportunity and instead tried the nuanced argument method.
In the first post "How OPMs are the Modern Enrollment Managers", Randy Best and Harris Pastides from Academic Partnerships described OPMs as a follow-on to the enrollment management companies that emerged in the 1970s, with OPMs partially taking credit for moving away from the for-profit sector.
These OPMs, like enrollment management consultants decades before, assist universities in providing access to time-pressed, place-bound students for whom online education is the only choice for earning a degree. In doing so, OPMs shifted leadership in the market for online education from for-profit institutions, which dominated the landscape in the early days, to nonprofit institutions.
After addressing four myths about OPMs, Best and Pastides position full-service revenue-sharing OPMs against the new movement of fee-for-service OPM / OPE providers.
Given the evolution of OPMs, perhaps the time has come for a new name to describe them. They are not just managers, but partners with universities. They don’t just oversee programs, but perform operations critical to the overall success and reputation of the institution. And their efforts often result in the expansion of overall enrollment. In many ways, they should be called Enrollment Growth Partners.
Some players in the OPM space who are not traditional comprehensive providers are trying to adopt the mantle of the future with fee-for-service or unbundled offerings. But fee-for-service simply shifts the cost and financial risk to universities. Meanwhile, by unbundling services—say by separating recruitment and retention—outside partners become solely focused on getting students in the door rather than keeping them through graduation.
Michael wrote the second post "The ‘O’ in ‘OPM’ Could Stand for ‘Outsourcing’", where instead of taking the simple pro / con approach to the debate, he argued for some nuance in our analysis. In particular, he took issue with the quoted description above.
Michael's historical context story differed from Best and Pastides, describing John Sperling's history creating the University of Phoenix and how the current context for bundling and revenue models.
The essential OPM characteristics of bundling and revenue sharing, both of which Pastides and Best tout as almost inherently good, contain trade-offs just like any other proposed solution to a complex problem. They balance growth opportunity against a range of risks, including risk that the up-front costs of launching the program would not be repaid, or that the universities could not execute well on essential aspects of the project (like student recruitment), or that they would let down the students by failing to maintain good quality of technology platform support or service at scale.
There’s nothing inherently bad about managing these trade-offs through a full-service, bundled revenue sharing agreement. But there’s nothing inherently superior about the approach either. For example, universities that are more worried about the risk of failing to grow fast enough than they are about minimizing the expense of using an external vendor are often well served by finding a high-quality OPM partner, while universities with different risk profiles may come to different yet equally appropriate conclusions.
Both posts are worth reading, and it is interesting to see the same issue described here and in the UCT briefing - about colleges and universities managing trade-offs when deciding which model is appropriate when selecting private partners to help with online programs.
Education Dive is running a three-part series on the issues involved with federal rule-making debates, and the first deep dive is "As traditional colleges grow online, OPM relationships shift", describing the broadening market while traditional schools and systems like SUNY look to develop a strategy for online education.
The State University of New York (SUNY) is one of several public systems looking to raise its profile online. An early pioneer with its Open SUNY platform, the 64-campus system in July issued a request for information about how it could "take the next step in creating a comprehensive environment" for online learning within and beyond New York state. [snip]
The document, which Education Dive obtained, mentions a desire to "leapfrog competition" and "challenge current leaders in the field."
The article explores several of the OPM-related topics as well as motivations for traditional institutions developing online strategy, based on a series of interviews that included Michael. The key theme of the article described how the OPM market is changing, and the boundaries between online and face-to-face education are blurring.
Soliciting OPM services for ground-based and hybrid programs can help colleges present a unified face in the market when they offer both on-campus and online versions of a program. Wiley, for example, provides full-service marketing support targeting prospective students for George Mason's online and campus-based MBAs. That includes SEO, paid search, online advertising and social media.
"The dialogues (are) more and more moving toward broadening the services to be more than just about the fully online student (but) to be about the student at the university no matter what their modality," [co-president of Wiley Education Services and Learning House] Hillman said.
That could lead to an uptick in blended and hybrid experiences, [co-founder and CEO of iDesign] Riter predicts, where learners navigate instruction online and on campus.
"Over time there's going to be less difference between online and face-to-face education," he said. "It's just going to be education, and even face-to-face residential education that exists today is going to be much more technologically infused."
It's good to see four separate articles all worth reading about the emerging and broadening OPM market, with useful context.