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Colleges Finding Partners for Online Course Development

Making digital course development work
University Business, June 2013

Higher ed institutions driving courses online to meet increasing demand sometimes need outside help in developing or designing their digital curriculum. Of more than 2,000 colleges and universities with online programs, about 10 percent have used third-party vendors for any course development, estimates Richard Garrett, vice president and principal analyst for online higher education at the consulting firm Eduventures.

Institutions may decide to outsource when they  want to move quickly or don’t have adequate in-house expertise. But those that seek help creating courses generally retain sole responsibility for content, Garrett says. “Schools tend to be leery of handing over too much.”

Eduventures estimates that about 3 million students—about 14 percent of higher education students—have taken their education mostly or completely online. Yet, the growth rate of online enrollment has slowed to single-digit percentages the past few years, adds Garrett.

Here’s a look at why leaders at some institutions seek external help with online course development, and how they are making those partnerships work. 

Selective Outsourcing

Notre Dame College (Ohio) has used Learning House “for a number of years”— longer than Nick Santilli, vice president for academic and student affairs, has been with the school. Most faculty develop their own online courses, Santilli says, “so they are authentic Notre Dame College courses from people who are full-time employees for us. We also have our own instructional designers to help us with making the courses online-appropriate.”

But on occasion, Notre Dame has either used courses from Learning House’s online library or worked with an outside curriculum designer, Santilli says. “It’s the minority of work we do. Before we accept a course, we have our own faculty review it and give it approval. There still is a check here on our side. It’s not that we simply run out, find a content expert and just accept it.”

When deciding to outsource, Santilli talks with division and department chairs to find the best faculty member to oversee the project. “In some cases, it’s a matter of workload,” he says. “We have individuals whom we identify as course masters, who oversee that class.”

George Mason University (Va.) administrators and faculty worked with Colloquy to develop its online executive MBA program about three years ago, says Goodlett McDaniel, associate provost of distance education. But George Mason hasn’t used third-party vendors otherwise, McDaniel says, adding that there was initial pushback from faculty and the need to spend time educating the partner about campus culture and the institution’s mission and values.  “As our market changes and as we have less and less revenue—and publics especially have a cap on tuition increases—we may have other partners to do other things,” he says.

McDaniel says the executive MBA faculty “self-selected in some respects, but their dean was also pretty directive about [the work with Colloquy].” The school held a half-day training session where faculty members and representatives of Colloquy set up the courses and tackled other issues, such as the division of labor. Since then, both sides have continued to meet and review as “part of ongoing relationship building and trust building,” he says.

Western New England University (Mass.) has contracted with Educators Serving Educators to develop courses for its master of communications program. Other master’s programs might follow as the institution, formerly undergraduate only, continues to expand its graduate offerings, says Richard Keating, vice president for strategic initiatives. “We need master’s programs. We’re a university now.”

But Keating doesn’t envision Western New England needing additional assistance from Educators Serving Educators or any other third-party vendors again for a long time. “We’re eventually going to be able to shed all of the elements of these supports,” he says. “They’ve allowed us to jump-start our way into distance learning. ... My vision is that the only thing we’ll need is the market research function in another three or four years.” (The agreement is for five years.)

In the meantime, the school will tell new faculty members they will do some work with an outside vendor, Keating says. “They’re responsible for the course development, setting standards, making sure they keep up with timelines.”

Preserving Academic Integrity

These design projects are more likely to succeed when faculty members are engaged, well-trained and have an opportunity to drive the process, says Katie Blot, president of Blackboard Global Services.

While call centers or recruitment—two aspects of online programs that can be outsourced—aren’t at the core of a college or university’s mission, “instructional design is.”

Where schools might want to “put a flag in the ground,” even over faculty objections, is when it comes to how the courses look and work online, she says.

“You need to be willing to say, ‘You’re going to retain academic control, but there are going to be templates, there is going to be common navigation,’ so the user ... feels like we’re one cohesive education provider to them, and not that they’re going to need to re-navigate when they go from biology to sociology,” Blot says. “You need to make some calls that seem like they’re going to fly in the face of faculty autonomy. You need to pick those sparingly. ... If you get the balance right, you can probably get the faculty to come with you.”

Notre Dame’s Santilli advises his higher ed peers to remember that academic program integrity is the core of their institutions’ identities. “You take that reputation with you online. You have to continue to provide the same quality of educational experience. … In a lot of ways, the online environment is a pedagogical modality. It’s not just posting a bunch of PowerPoints with a lecture talk-over.”

Contract Talking Points

In McDaniel’s experience, vendors will sometimes “over-promise and under-deliver” results to higher ed administrators who don’t have significant business world experience. “There can be a natural tendency to be excited and think that all of their problems will be solved by the contract,” he says.

Administrators should check companies’ references, pay close attention to the revenue split, and make sure the length of the contract seems right, with an “out-clause” if the school thinks it might need one.

Garrett sees contracts typically lasting in the seven-year range given the “significant upfront investment from the vendor, which requires a number of years to pay off.”

“The schools largely feel that’s a reasonable trade-off,” he says. “They like the sense of predictability down the road.” There’s some downward pressure on that timeframe as schools want to keep their options open, Garrett adds. At a certain point, “Schools say, ‘We now feel we can do this ourselves.’ ”