OPM Companies Should Think Like an Industry

Thoughts from a Pearson event about the responsibility of individual companies to advance their industry.

April 11, 2018
 

This week I’m in Chicago, speaking at the Pearson Higher Education Executive Leadership Forum.

Many of you know -- and some of you don’t -- that Pearson is a major player in the OPM (online program management) industry. Currently, Pearson has about 45 campus partners and 250 online programs. Many of the schools that partner with Pearson to run online programs, such as ASU, Maryville and George Washington, are here at this meeting.

Unlike most representatives of universities at this meeting, my school is not a Pearson partner. While we have some small, high-quality, low-residency master's programs in health care delivery science and public health, we have not gone the OPM route in building these programs.

While I am an online learning evangelist, I am also an OPM industry critic.

To Pearson’s credit, it is my critique of the OPM industry that largely motivated the company to have me come speak at their online learning event.

It is not that I’m against the idea of a partnership model. My openness to the idea of school/company partnerships in developing and running online programs already sets me apart from many of my colleagues in the online learning space.

It is more that I’m concerned about the direction of the OPM industry as a whole.

Today, the online programs management industry is fragmented and chaotic. There are few agreed-upon standards of transparency in contracts. We have no independent sources that I know of, aggregating data on both student and institutional outcomes from across all school/company online partnerships.

It is not clear, at least to me, how the different OPM providers in the sector are differentiated from another.

Every for-profit online program management company will tell you that they put the needs of the institution and the learner first. That they are willing to be flexible and nimble. That they know how to build quality programs and market to prospective students better than their competitors. And that their partner schools are not only happy with the partnership, but happier than the average school/OPM provider partnership.

This can’t all be true. Every OPM can’t be above average.

Like universities, the various OPM providers (and there are something like 25) must have strengths and weaknesses.

So I’m here in Chicago to advocate that the OPM players, including Pearson, begin to think about their industry as a whole -- rather than only on their own business.

Leadership in the for-profit online learning space means not only building out a range of services that are both attractive to partner universities and serve the needs of students (and faculty), but also advance the OPM sector as a whole.

I think the various companies in the OPM space need to recognize that there is a growing level of distrust among many in higher education about the OPM model. Many people on campuses that I speak with are concerned about the revenue sharing, long-term contracts, and outsourcing of core capabilities (such as learning design) that characterize many school/OPM contracts.

The various companies in the OPM industry also need to recognize that the people (like me) who evangelize the development of new online programs talk to our counterparts at other schools. A bad experience with a single OPM provider can sour us on the model for the entire industry. The presence of bad actors in the OPM space, or at least bad fits between schools and companies, is not a competitive advantage for the other OPM providers.

In short, I think that individual OPM companies need to make the transition to thinking in terms of an industry. They need to focus on growing the potential partnership pie as much as competing with other companies. They need to move toward a middle ground in being willing to share data and methods that today they hold as proprietary.

This is the message that I’m delivering at the Pearson event, and again, to Pearson’s credit, they still invited me to their meeting. I’m hoping to participate in other OPM events and to spend time with other OPM providers.

The work that I’m hoping to do with the OPM industry is motivated by my desire to see more high quality low-residency and online programs. As I mentioned, I’m not against the model of school/company partnerships. In many cases, it makes good sense for a school to work with a for-profit partner. Many institutions simply don’t have the resources, expertise or experience to launch a new online program. Some of the core competencies that the OPM providers have, such in figuring out where unmet student demand exists and in marketing, are not ones that many schools have. (At least for programs aimed at working adults).

We are at the point where the OPM industry needs to evolve. The industry as a whole needs to more closely mirror the values and norms of openness and transparency that characterize the culture of higher education.

As an industry, the OPM companies need to do what they can (through sharing of institutional and learner outcomes) to help schools make more informed choices about partnering (or not) with a company.

I’ll be looking to see which OPM player steps up as a leader in the OPM industry.

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