Published on 2014/01/06
AUDIO | Vendor Partnerships Central to Fast Launches
Vendor partnerships for peripheral services were key to the University of Florida launching an online division in seven months’ time.

The following interview is with Andrew McCollough, associate provost for teaching and technology at the University of Florida (UF). McCollough, a central figure in UF’s plan to build an online campus in seven months, recently discussed how collaborating with service providers on administrative tasks could allow an institution to focus on content creation. In this interview, he expands on this topic and shares his thoughts on the value of service providers.

Click here to read key takeaways

1. Why did your leadership team decide to work with vendors to provide administrative services during the planning phases of UF Online?

You’ve already alluded to one of the challenges that the University faced when it was given this mandate to deliver online baccalaureate degrees within the six months after notification, and that was: we had a very aggressive collapsed timeline and during the period of time available, we had many tasks to accomplish.

So we sat down to evaluate where our comparative advantages were, that is, where we were accustomed to working and trained to work and where we would have to learn in order to get a level of expertise that we thought was appropriate.

We decided we would outsource those areas where we did not have in-house expertise and did not have time to learn it. We turned to vendors who had the abilities and were willing to work with us in a partnership.

2. Do you plan to retain these partnerships long after launch or do you expect your team to learn how these services work and eventually integrate them in-house?

What you have implied is certainly what develops. … You gain more experience in the particular domain that you’re working in, then you have some in-house expertise that you could use perhaps as effectively as the vendor.

But the truth of the matter is the administration of these kinds of tasks is not what we are all about in higher education. We are about developing content and pedagogy and platforms that maximize the learning opportunity for our students.

When we do that, we do not concentrate our resources, to the same extent that a vendor may, on the administration aspect to the problem. So working with them over time is probably something we can do, although, certainly, as we gain more experience, we will have developed in-house expertise should we choose that alternative at some point in time at the end of the contract.

3. What were the benefits of this approach to your launch and to your current operation?

Certainly it expedited the launch. It gave us a launch that had quality that we would not be able to capture if we had to train ourselves up to do some of the things we were not accustomed to doing.

An expeditious, quality launch was an absolute necessity. This was part of the charge from the state when they gave us this opportunity; they were looking for excellence in online education at an affordable price. … We had to develop for online deliveries some 48 courses at the time we received the mandate to the time we launched. The utilization of the partnership seemed to be a reasonable way to accomplish our objective.

4. How did you determine which services to outsource and which to retain in-house?

What we retained in-house were those things we knew how to do and had been doing for some time. It starts with content development and pedagogical expertise. We’re in the teaching and learning business and we have experts on staff who are content experts both nationally and internationally. … We did not need that expertise from a vendor.

What we did not know a great deal about, although we are learning, was marketing. Marketing is not one of the things that this public institution has had to do a lot of. Generally, our marketing challenge is trying to draw the line; we get about 30,000 applicants for 6,000 places. … The primary benefit to the partnership was their expertise and experience in marketing and they also had some additional expertise in terms of what they call ‘coaching.’ They had some in-house tutorial services. They had some in-house digital content that was useful. They had some in-house research development that they wanted to partner with us for.

5. Would you say these service partnerships are a mechanism for institutions to begin operating in a more business-like manner in a competitive marketplace, or is it a response to the demand for a greater quality in the importance of focusing on content as opposed to administration?

Given those two options, I would say the latter, [though] it’s probably some combination of the two. We do not see ourselves as a business enterprise. We see ourselves as a social function of delivering quality education for the learning opportunity to the students in the State of Florida and the United States and internationally.

6. Were there any particular challenges with taking a partnership approach from square one, as opposed to building a unit in-house and then outsourcing?

The challenge is a challenge that faces any entity that is going to work with another entity in a partnership. That is, first aligning objectives — making sure objectives were not orthogonal — and then reaching an agreement that was well understood and fair to both parties.

That’s not something that happens overnight and we spent many hours in conversation — one might call it negotiation — trying to reach an agreement on the matters having to do with who does what and in what order. Those were the challenges; not the same kind of challenges we would have if we were doing it all in-house, but we thought the benefits were sufficient to stand the costs.

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Key Takeaways

  • Partnerships are important for colleges and universities when it comes to providing services for which there is no institutional history.
  • By partnering with a vendor, institutions can focus on delivering their main objectives and mission in the knowledge that peripheral services critical to student experience are being handled.
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Readers Comments

Vera Matthews 2014/01/06 at 4:05 pm

It’s good to read about a real-life example of a successful (thus far) partnership between a public institution and private vendors. McCullough touches on one benefit that isn’t often touted in these types of agreements: that, over time, the institution develops in-house expertise simply by working with the vendor. It is presumably to the vendor’s benefit that the institution continue to lack in-house expertise in the service agreement area so that the contract can be renewed. But the reality is that by working closely with the vendor to deliver services customized to the institution’s needs, institutional staff will, over time, develop at least some of this expertise. This paves the way for the institution to opt out of a contract renewal and move the function in-house if it so desires.

Charlene L 2014/01/07 at 3:49 am

I had read about the University of Florida’s launch of an online division so it’s interesting to read about some of the behind-the-scenes decision making around it. In this case, it likely would have been next to impossible to launch in only seven months’ time had it not been for external vendors assisting in certain functions. With the success of this launch, it would not surprise me if, more and more, public institutions are expected to pursue these public-private partnerships seeing as they seem to expedite program development and improve institutional capacity.

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