December 19, 2014

Sir John crosses to the dark side? Public universities and outsourcing online learning

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PR Newswire (2012) Online Learning Pioneer, Sir John Daniel, Joins Academic Partnerships as Senior Advisor PRNewswire, December 4

From the article:

Academic Partnerships announces that international online learning pioneer Sir John Daniel has joined the company as a Senior Advisor. Sir John Daniel will support Academic Partnerships’ mission of assisting top universities worldwide to increase access to higher education through technology.

If you don’t know anything about Academic Partnerships, you should. From their web site:

Academic Partnerships (AP) serves almost 40 state institutions, making AP the largest representative of public universities’ online learning in the United States…..AP helps its partner institutions convert their traditional on-campus programs into an online learning format and assists them in recruiting qualified students….Online learning provides AP partner universities an additional, sustainable revenue stream to offset the cuts in government funding and enables them to control rising costs. …Academic Partnerships’ services include:

    • Domestic and international student recruitment
    • Student retention services
    • Curriculum conversion and faculty support
    • Language translation
    • Domestic and international compliance services
    • Market research and analysis
    • Establishment and operation of foreign campuses
    • Partnerships with foreign universities

AP also provides a seven day a week help desk at a high service level (most calls are answered within an average of 12 seconds).

Comment

Academic Partnerships is a commercial organization that will enable state universities to ‘outsource’ online learning – for a price. There are several issues here.

  • AP is acting as a recruitment agency for universities, attracting new students through online learning, thus enabling them to increase revenues at a time when state universities are facing dramatic cuts in their public funding. It’s difficult to criticize state universities for taking this route, but there is a serious public policy issue here. This is of course of form of semi-privatization of public universities. If state universities were properly funded, would they need to take this direction?
  • state universities are effectively outsourcing online learning. There are various models for this, but usually ‘outsourcing’ companies take a percentage (often a large percentage) of student tuition fees. The business case of course is that it is quicker and cheaper to use an experienced company such as AP, rather than go through a major start-up in an area where the state university has little experience, and this is all extra money – better 50% of something than 100% of nothing. However, this may be merely taking a short-term gain for long-term pain – you need to look at the business case at least five years down the road
  • which brings me to the crucial issue. The assumption here is that online learning is a totally different ‘business operation’ from campus-based teaching and therefore needs to be run separately. However, this is not my view of the future of universities and colleges. Online learning is becoming an integral part of all post-secondary education, campus-based as well as at a distance. Hybrid learning is the future. By outsourcing, you are giving away your future core business to another organization and making it so much more difficult to integrate digital learning into the mainstream of the institution. All the expertise you need for developing in-house digital learning is now outside the university.

I wish Sir John well in his new venture. I know AP does an excellent job and will enable many institutions to ramp up online learning quickly. Sir John will be a tremendous asset to AP. AP is an interesting alternative model for online learning which is already sharpening focus on online learning for many universities.

However, Sir John may also inadvertently be helping in the demise of the public higher education education system in the United States of America, and possible elsewhere. I sincerely hope not, because, for all its faults, public education is still the best way to open up educational access for all.

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