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What Went Wrong with AllLearn?

Three elite universities have quietly folded their joint online venture.
University Business, Jun 2006

Oxford, Yale and Stanford closed their joint not-for-profit online venture, AllLearn (Alliance for Lifelong Learning) citing insufficient enrollments and funding as the primary reasons. AllLearn was established in 2001 at the peak of the dot-com boom to offer online non-credit courses in general interest subject areas. The initial audience was the alumni of the three institutions, but as of the autumn semester 2002, provision was opened to the general public. After almost five years in operation, the three universities have released a joint statement concluding that "the cost of offering top-quality enrichment courses at affordable prices was not sustainable over time." Following a series of collapsed e-university ventures from U.S. universities (e.g. NYU Online, Fathom, Virtual Temple, and University of Maryland University College Online), AllLearn is another major product of the dot-com boom to fold.

AllLearn, an enterprise based in New York state, released a press statement in March 2006 claiming that "the cost of offering top-quality enrichment courses at affordable prices was not sustainable over time." AllLearn was launched to offer non-credit courses in general interest subject areas. The online venture was initially established as the Alliance for Lifelong Learning with alumni as the target audience, but in the autumn of 2002, the online venture adopted its current name in an effort to improve brand visibility and opened its provision to the general public. Provision focused on general interest courses rather than conventional higher education qualifications, primarily in humanities and social sciences. The venture's website claimed to offer the full range of academic subjects from "archaeology to zoology," with sample courses including "The History of Spies," "Understanding Beethoven" and "Poets of the First World War." Course content was developed by faculty members of the three universities, and free public access was made available to a unique online library of some 12,000 academic websites. According to the press release, the three universities will continue to independently offer online continuing learning courses, with "[lessons from the AllLearn experience] now integrated into the universities' teachings, where they will continue to benefit students and faculty for years to come."

Starting small and focusing on a more receptive alumni market, AllLearn exhibited several important characteristics as a potentially successful online venture. Over the past five years, AllLearn offered 110 online courses to more than 10,000 students from 70 countries. The median age of learners was around 47. The business model was based on a flexible approach to delivery and technology. AllLearn offered shorter duration courses lasting from five to 10 weeks. In order to ensure access to students with a slow internet connection, AllLearn provided the option of substituting high-bandwidth features such as rich media.

A range of delivery modes (e.g. CD-ROM) were made available, although the internet was the central medium of instruction. The AllLearn brand was backed by its association with three elite universities and gained visibility through extensive marketing initiatives such as advertising in specialized and general interest magazines, pre-established links with university networks, etc. According to former Director of Marketing Nancy D. Kelly, what set AllLearn apart from other online ventures was also the direct involvement and support of the partner universities. Top-level professors and subject-area experts from all three institutions were active in course content creation. AllLearn courses were also more cost-effective than the online continuous study program offered independently by the three universities, although there was a rise in costs over the five-year period.

From the outset, there were signs that AllLearn's enrollment targets were not being met. Princeton (N.J.) had initially been an institutional partner in the venture, but backed down on plans within a few months following an initial intake of 600 students. According to Betty B. Leydon, Princeton's vice president for Information Technology, "[AllLearn was launched] at a time when there was a belief that online education was going to be a very important vehicle for distributing learning. Because of the economic situation today, that hasn't turned out to be the case--at least not yet." Some argue that AllLearn's decision to expand provision to the general public was testament to a lack of interest among the alumni market, although the company insists that public access had always formed part of the business plan. News coverage suggests that AllLearn continuously stepped up marketing initiatives to reach out to a wider audience, including advertising to alumni from other universities, targeting business and government employees, and affiliating with high-profile companies.

In March 2005, AllLearn announced plans to expand its global pool of potential learners by offering courses to high school students. The pre-university component of the program was launched in Summer 2005 with a course entitled "Mastering the Essay," although no details on initial intake are forthcoming. AllLearn ceased its operations in December 2005, and is in the process of making its dissolution official.

Unlike many other international online learning providers (e.g. Universitas 21 Global and Global University Alliance), AllLearn was an explicitly not-for-profit venture with no significant commercial partners or private investment. Very few financial details have been disclosed, but AllLearn is reported to have been backed by $12 million U.S. dollars for start-up funding and "operated on a budget that is much smaller than many other online education ventures." Tuition fees were initially set at a standard rate of $195 for alumni and $250 for the general public, plus variable "material fees" ranging from $11.95 to $49.95.

Courses are reported to have cost between $10,000-$150,000 to produce--which based on tuition income alone would have required between 40 and 600 enrollments per course to break even. By 2004-05, tuition costs had risen significantly and varied by course, but examples include $975 plus $83 in materials' fees for an eight-week "Travel and Adventure Writing" course or $895 (up from $249 in 2002-03) for a 10-week course on "Encountering Homer's Odyssey." By June 2005, AllLearn had incurred a deficit of $783,410, with a revenue of $2.5 million and expenses totalling $3.28 million. The project's founders appear to have underestimated the costs of designing online courses and overestimated the number of students willing to pay tuition costs. Lack of interest, rather than lack of status or brand visibility, has been cited as the primary reason behind AllLearn's failure to meet enrollment targets.

Some argue that AllLearn's demise can be in large part attributed to its non-credit course offerings. Many who enroll in online courses are vying for jobs in a competitive market. They are seeking university qualifications, particularly from "elite universities," such as those involved in the venture. AllLearn was backed by the prestige of its partner institutions, but the company might have been hard-pressed to "sell" the value of the non-credit courses rather than a degree with the "elite university" seal. The Global Education Network, a U.S.-based for-profit online provider, has seen some success in offering non-credit courses partly developed by college professors, but a significant part of its clientele is comprised of high school students. Established and wholly-owned by Cornell University (N.Y.), the for-profit eCornell operates a wide range of non-credit, professionally focused courses offered by "any top-20 university in the United States," and has relied on close links with high-profile corporations to attract enrollments.

AllLearn attempted to tap into both the pre-university and business markets, but with limited success. As "edutainment," online learning still finds it difficult to compete with television for consistency and familiarity. Evidence suggests that those enrolled in continuing learning programs want to watch television-quality broadcasts online, and might find the more cost-efficient audio-taped lectures generally used by online providers less exciting and engaging. Institutions offering non-credit courses must generally charge lower tuition fees than providers operating credit courses leading up to a qualification, and the shorter duration of courses compared to degree program suggests less tuition revenue. AllLearn's closing suggests that the "general interest"market for online provision remains unproven, although this may change over time as the educational value of broadband is further explored.

As the latest in a series of failed online learning university ventures, AllLearn's demise raises interesting questions over the viability of online learning in general, and not-for-profit versus for-profit status in particular. A large proportion of the collapsed online ventures initiated in the dot-com era have had explicitly for-profit motives. Columbia's Fathom (N.Y.) was perhaps the most high-profile e-learning venture by an American university and closed in 2003 despite attracting 65,000 students to over 2,000 online courses and $25 million in investment funds. New York University invested $25 million to establish the for-profit distance learning company NYU Online, but this collapsed in 2001 due to its alleged inability to break from its academic roots and operate as a business. The University of Maryland University College closed its for-profit arm, UMUConline, in October 2001 after attracting more than 63,000 enrollments, and Virtual Temple, the for-profit company of Temple University (Pa.), folded in July of the same year.

In 2006, the for-profit university-related online ventures that remain include e-Cornell, UNext/Cardean University, Global Education Network (with a loose affiliation to Williams College (Mass.), and the National University of California's Spectrum Pacific Learning Company, although the current profitability and long-term viability of these initiatives remains unclear. For-profit status might be aimed at enhancing the financial competitiveness of the parent institution, but there might be certain risks attached to creating a spin-off for-profit online venture separate from the university. These could include tension with the parent institution over straying away from traditional values and institutional identity, lack of faculty involvement, and concerns over assuring the quality of provision.

The few apparently more successful university online ventures are either non-profit (e.g. UMass Online, Penn State World Campus) or are backed by a private company to run the business (e.g. Bisk Education and University Alliance). By avoiding for-profit status, maintaining close links with core faculty and component campuses, and brokering mutually acceptable intellectual property/compensation agreements, online ventures such as UMass Online and World Campus seem to have avoided many of the pitfalls that plagued for-profit online counterparts such as NYU Online and Columbia's Fathom.

AllLearn's failure to move beyond the "edutainment" market appears to have been the main reason behind its demise. Until now, Oxford, Yale, and Stanford have kept quiet about the collapse of their joint e-learning venture, with next to no news coverage on AllLearn's demise. This is most likely based on concerns over the potential impact on institutional reputations, particularly on public perceptions of the partner universities' online learning capabilities. However, AllLearn's closure could offer an unprecedented opportunity to step back and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the business model, along the lines of the publicly released UKeU documents, aimed at distilling lessons learned from the venture to take e-learning forward in the United Kingdom. Oxford, Yale, and Stanford might wish to consider being as open as possible about AllLearn's progress to date and the decision to close, and put forth observations and recommendations on how a more sustainable and informed approach to the e-learning market might have been achieved. Further research into the series of collapsed online ventures may shed some light on what makes a successful distance education program, and enable some of the surviving online providers to redefine their business models and marketing strategies accordingly.