Parry, M. (2010) Outsourced Ed: Colleges Hire Companies to Build Their Online Courses Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18
This article suggests a change in corporate tactics regarding the commercialization of online learning. The article argues that due to the increased pressure from the US Department of Education on for-profit online institutions such as Kaplan and the University of Phoenix, investors are turning to companies that will outsource e-learning for not-for-profit private and public campus-based institutions, such as the University of Southern California, Northeastern University and Boston University.
For many who work as learning technology support staff in public universities, this is often a nightmare scenario. How do you deal with a VP Development or VP Academic who thinks the outsourcing of online learning is a great idea? (I know, because I worked for one where this happened).
For a start, for some institutions without any previous track record of developing online learning, it may be a sensible option, particularly for continuing education or extension departments that are expected to generate revenue, but don’t have experience in this area. It may even make sense where there is a history of online teaching, but it’s not been a good one, in terms of quality or student satisfaction.
However, here is a set of questions that need to be asked before any ‘deal’ is signed:
1. Will online learning remain a peripheral activity in this institution, or is it likely to become a core part of our teaching? The more integral online learning becomes to an institution, the weaker the case for outsourcing. (Another way of putting this is: would it make sense for an institution to outsource its teaching so it can concentrate on research? If not, then why outsource online learning, which is just one way of teaching?)
2. How important is it for the institution to develop its own expertise in online learning, from a teaching and learning perspective? If the institution is to remain entirely classroom or campus based in all its programs, outsourcing may make sense. In this case, though, will the outsourced online courses have the same status and respect as the campus-based programs?
3. Is online learning a way to gain market share and enhance the reputation of the university, or is it seen mainly as a way to generate extra revenues? If extra revenues are the main goal, outsourcing may make sense, but then:
4. If the aim is to make money from online offerings, will we make more money by developing our own in-house expertise than by outsourcing? Do we have business cases for both options? What is the best business case over the long-term compared to the short-term (one to five years)?
5. If the aim is to increase market share or enhance the reputation of the university, what impact will outsourcing have on the control and management of teaching? What role if any will tenured faculty play if online learning is outsourced? What impact will that have on the reputation of the university?
6. How are key stakeholders (faculty, students, employers, the board, the government) likely to respond to outsourcing? Will they support or oppose it?
7. What controls will the institution have over the quality of the outsourced teaching? For instance, who will select instructors to teach in the program and on what basis?
I am not arguing against outsourcing on principle. Some outsourcing companies are flexible enough to develop contracts that will ensure high quality and a good return to the institution, and there are situations where this will make sense. The key question though is: what is your ‘core’ mission? Are we a teaching and learning institution, and if so, why would we contract this out to someone else? If they can do teaching and learning better than us, why are we doing it? Or is our mission to become just an accreditation agency that also does research?
Underlying all this is the belief that online teaching is second rate and therefore can be contracted out without loss to the institution. Big mistake.
Bok, D. (2003) Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press