Choosing your online education strategy

An interesting recent WONKHE article written by Ant Bagshaw and Andrea Burrows of OES UK asks universities “5 questions about your online education portfolio”.

I do recommend reading it. The two main points I took from it were:

  1. “Sector leaders should be looking ahead to identify, and then implement, the online education strategies which will set them on the right course for the next few years. As each institution each has its own corporate strategies and areas of focus, that differentiation should be no less true in online education.”

    and also…

  2. “Universities have choices when it comes to building capability and capacity in-house or partnering selectively. In working with partners, some institutions choose the online programme management (OPM) approach to take advantage of external expertise and investment to establish a strong market position. Others prefer the unbundled OPX approach for selected support across one or more dimensions of delivery.”

CAPDM’s recommended choice of strategic approach has always been a self-build, enabling one.  Having spun out of Heriot-Watt university back in 2001, after building their very successful early suite of online MBA, DBA and MA programmes in management education, we have experienced first-hand why the harder DIY approach is the best one for universities. 

I could have added ”in the long-term”’ to the end of the last sentence, but in truth the quicker you get on with the hard work of developing your own OPM capabilities the better. If you do feel the need to get things started with an OPM deal, make sure you put at least an equivalent start-up effort into developing your own in-house alternative, with your own people and stakeholders.

If you’d asked us “Why in-house?” back in 2001, we would have said “because the £100 million+ revenues generated by those early online management programmes was money better kept by the university”. Successful strategy Q.E.D.

If you ask us today “Why in-house?”, we’d probably refer you to the recent Penn State University’s College of Education report EXAMINING THE OPM: Form, Function, and Policy Implications. This report hints that future online delivery of education will likely expose universities to great scrutiny of their actual capability.   Why should future students choose a particular institution if 50% or more of their fee is being given to a recognisable third party OPM company, successfully failing to hide their extensive involvement?  

Another strategic temptation to jump onto at present is the emerging selection of emerging online education platforms like edX, FutureLearn and Canvas.  The Penn State report suggests that it is likely the growing linkage of OPM services and education platforms will lead to an unhealthy small number of firms dominating the OPM market.  There is much to be said for developing your own courses, capability and assets outside of such platforms, and having your own people evolve them independently.

In sum; a thought-provoking article and a great opportunity to reflect on the potential costs of dodging hard strategic choices.