OPM Myth Busting: Addressing university concerns about growing their online footprint with a third-party partner

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As higher education optimistically moves toward the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, many universities foresee a lasting impact on their online learning strategy. Inside Higher Ed’s recent survey of 433 college presidents indicates that 79% of presidents are either very or somewhat likely to reassess the long-term mix of in-person versus online education offered.

A year of remote learning has tested students and staff alike, and universities making the pivot to increased online learning have a lot to consider. The next steps will involve moving away from ZoomU and delivering a scalable, effective and efficient online learning experience.

In the process of evaluating technology, online learning expertise and enrollment management strategies, among other things, the question will surely be asked: In order to reach our goals, should we find a partner outside of the university that will help us get there? And if so, how?

Should we supplement our internal functions to strengthen our online programs? The OPM question.

Research from higher education intelligence and analyst firm HolonIQ suggests that some 65 different firms, known as OPMs (or OPEs or OPX), work on over 1,300 online programs at 450+ institutions. This includes more than half of the nation's research universities and many of the most highly selective schools, both public and private. Simply put, such partnerships that support online programs have long since moved from novelty to norm.

However, universities have real and important concerns about forming such close partnerships with OPMs. Everspring’s experienced team of higher education professionals, who themselves have worked for and led functions in university settings, have walked the walk of building and delivering products and services that help to reduce these concerns. Now, we think it’s high time we bust these myths once and for all.

Myth #1: Third-party partnerships are “black box” operations.

Transparency is critical to successful engagements, and third-party partnerships should include robust data sharing and visibility between partner and university. This shared perspective, which enhances understanding of online program management, helps build a university’s capabilities over time.

Any partner should provide transparent and immediate data on how programs are performing. The data should be readily visible and available, and woven into frequent communications and consultations between universities and their partners.

As an example, one area in which transparency is essential is in delivering support to students, who are the central stakeholders in online program delivery. Universities seeking third-party partners that will take on responsibility in student services and program administration must maintain visibility into how their students and programs are performing. Ideally, this relationship looks like intuitive data dashboards that facilitate program benchmarking, as well as constant communication across teams. In some cases, an outside firm can help break down institutional silos by serving as a conduit for collecting, distributing and acting upon data.

Another key area that requires transparency is marketing. Seeing marketing and enrollment “funnel” data about potential prospects (including who is interested in a university’s programs and what content and communications resonates best with these individuals) is a vital part of the university’s internal planning process and a cornerstone of building internal competencies within a university. High quality providers not only share this data, but also freely deliver sessions to review it to gather the university’s perspective on the work that is being done on their behalf in market.

Myth #2: When choosing your partner, you have to choose between enrollment driven or instructional design driven providers.

The level of resources required to raise awareness of a program in the market has given rise to concerns that enrollment-driven providers deliver high quality marketing services, but at the expense of other mission critical elements of online programming—most notably learning and instructional design.

If a university is looking for support in both learning design and enrollment services, one need not be sacrificed for the other. In fact, the two are mutually beneficial to long term program success.

A strong academic program delivers on its defined promise to students and, in turn, helps build the university’s and program’s brand. The Inside Higher Ed presidents survey showed that the majority of respondents are either somewhat concerned (42%) or very concerned (13%) about faculty’s ability to conduct online or hybrid learning. Knowledgeable consultation about learning design, robust instructional design services and strong faculty support are integral parts of any high quality provider’s services, and are essential elements of building an enduring, reputation-enhancing online or hybrid program.

Simply put, learning design must be a priority for any university looking to strengthen online programs. Done effectively, universities can bring faculty expertise online while leveraging technology to efficiently teach and manage a portfolio of courses. This approach can be executed in a way that is distinct from in-person learning, but still effective—or even more effective for some learners! This shift should be made with practiced experts and best-in-class tools.

One size does not fit all, and there is no template for a given academic discipline that “works” for online learning. The development of courses will be one of the most intimate parts of a partnership, and when done with expert support, will cultivate the online learning community within the program, school and beyond.

Myth #3: Universities that partner with an OPM do so at the expense of building their own internal capabilities.

Universities fear that they may slow their digital transformation by partnering with an OPM by “outsourcing” skills that they believe should reside in-house. They may fear that, ultimately, they will render themselves unprepared for the future because of the presence of a third-party or, worse, become beholden to a vendor.

Strong providers build their services specifically to educate their university partners, and use proven principles to build their capabilities over time as the university participates in standing up and scaling a program.

When done well, the expansion into online and hybrid programs will accelerate a university’s broader digital transformation, as faculty increasingly see and experience firsthand what high quality digital enablement can add to the teaching and learning experience. Looking toward the future, building skills by establishing transparent and collaborative processes in critical functions (like learning design and enrollment management) should be concrete priorities for universities in their relationship with OPMs.

Myth #4: Marketing solutions are all the same. One firm’s marketing services are as good as the next, and all are equivalent to a university’s internal support.

There are more than 8,000 marketing platforms available to universities on the market today, and most OPMs offer marketing services. Marketing is often a prospect’s first interaction with a program. It’s expensive, fast moving and complex. Getting it wrong not only involves reputational risk, but also wasted dollars, especially when a university accounts for the cost of a failed program launch.

For universities, the challenge is not just finding a provider of marketing services, but finding the right provider. It is no longer enough to blanket the market with broad-based general ads and expect to attract the best candidates. Marketing is both art and science, requiring brand-enhancing creative campaigns, differentiated content and program information, effective UX/UI design, and strong data science capabilities. Done well, it delivers the broad attention a university’s programs deserves.

A partner’s marketing results should speak for themselves—and not just in terms of program growth, but also in reflecting the university’s values, differentiating its programs and showing a successful track record in cultivating quality prospects and applicants, nurturing them through to enrollment and graduation. A history of success, along with the transparency and collaboration referenced in the paragraphs above, are among the best indicators of an outside partner’s capabilities to perform in the future.

Many universities have robust in-house marketing arms already. However, as noted in a recent UPCEA session, the budget and expertise required to lift a single program to meet its desired goals is often dispersed widely across the university. In these cases, strategically engaging outside expertise can be an advantage to a university. A single department or program can acquire the resources and expertise it needs, while saving the expense of the thousands of learning cycles and the expertise needed to engage effectively in outreach to prospects.

Finding fit to build trust

The four points listed above are intended to highlight common concerns raised by universities as they evaluate bringing on a partner to help in the building and scaling of online programs. By no means is it comprehensive of the considerations universities must undertake in that process.

The concept of finding fit, as is championed by many admissions offices, can be similarly applied here. Fit is what must be assessed in mapping needs and capabilities to strategic goals to identify the right partner. Fit includes identifying an agile partner that can meet your university at its current point on the digital transformation journey and be a partner in taking next steps. In the process of finding fit, the university and the partner will begin to materialize the most important element of any such partnership: trust.

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We hope you found this piece insightful and that it resonated with the decisions you are making on your campus. One of our best resources is the wide network of universities that we work with, and we would like to hear from you. Is your university considering or currently working with a third-party to bolster online education offerings? What are the most important factors in the decision to (or to not) bring on a third-party partner?

Let's continue the conversation.

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