Published on 2014/06/16
Vendor Partnerships Support Programmatic Innovation
Engaging in partnership with a service provider can help institutions develop and launch innovative graduate programs with minimal internal resource allocation.
The following email Q&A is with Melora Sundt, executive vice dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC). USC partnered with educational technology company 2U to develop and deliver a number of master’s-level graduate degree programs, and the two organizations recently announced the launch of an online doctorate program. In this Q&A, Sundt reflects on the benefits and roadblocks of entering into the partnership and shares her thoughts on the lessons learned from the experience of partnering to innovate graduate education.

1. What are the most significant challenges involved with developing an innovative graduate education program?

There are challenges in just about every domain; it depends on the institution. First would be gaining support internally for the degree, the delivery mode and the external partnership. That process can be extremely challenging, depending on the type of institution and its governance processes. Beyond seeking support/approval from internal faculty and administrators, there are the alumni (who may have strong feelings and concerns about the innovation and/or the partnership devaluing their degree) and external professional colleagues, such as deans from similar programs/schools. Some early online programs (that shall go unnamed) have done tremendous damage to the general perception of what online education can be. Expect to be countering misconceptions, misinformation, assumptions, biases and bureaucracy as you move the idea forward.

Beyond those, there are logistical challenges, such as ensuring all administrative functions are coordinated for the new program (admissions, financial aid, student support, advising, counseling, etc). Staffing up quickly enough to meet demand and sustain high quality is a challenge, as higher ed tends to staff after proof of concept rather than in anticipation of such. But waiting can be deadly; if students’ needs aren’t met in a timely way — and if the innovation involves online, their expectations for timeliness accelerate exponentially — they will complain and tank your ability to use word-of-mouth positively to help recruit, and tank your reputation internally and externally.

There is also the challenge of securing state authorization. This process involves completing an application — sometimes a thousand pages long — for every state in which you intend to enroll students. No state’s process is the same as another’s. They ask for different materials, use different criteria to trigger different levels of scrutiny and charge wide-ranging fees. Expect this to take time.

2. Why did your team decide to partner with 2U to develop your online master’s degree program?

We didn’t have the internal capacity to create the learning management system (LMS) we wanted, nor did we see what we wanted among other vendors — and at the time there were very few folks to choose from. That’s not meant as a slight against 2U; they were so far above anything else we’d seen, it was a no-brainer. The tricky part for us was that at the time we were negotiating with them, the company was just starting. I had the privilege of working closely with the original five staffers and had a chance to influence elements of the LMS as it hadn’t been built yet.

We liked that they were building not just an LMS, but an LMS that incorporated social networking so we could see how a co-curricular community could be developed.

3. What were the biggest advantages of partnering with a service provider to develop and deliver this program?

Resources: talent, funds and know-how that we didn’t have.

Early on, it was in the content migration process (taking our content and putting it online in creative, engaging ways). More recently, it’s been their analytic capacity. They can help us see all kinds of patterns and trends in our students that help us understand enrollment patterns and adjust accordingly.

4. Conversely, what were the biggest challenges of going this route?

Getting used to each other’s culture. 2U moved very quickly and urged us to as well. “Move quickly? What’s that?” said the University. Seriously, we were able, with their help, to cut our admissions decision rate (from complete application to notification of a decision) from months to two weeks. Their mobile app for admissions allowed me to review applications anywhere, anytime, from my phone. The faculty governance process was, I think, perplexing to them (“If the dean wants to do this, why do we need to ask the faculty?” they sometimes asked). But USC is nimble in that regard, and even that process was able to accelerate, thanks to my colleagues.

5. What advice do you have for other administrators considering whether to work with a vendor to develop their own online graduate program?

It’s important to note that the relationship with 2U is a partnership, not a vendor relationship. There’s too much of both organizations’ DNA in the programs for this to be a one-way vendor relationship. I would suggest the following:

  1. Be realistic about your internal capacity. We have built programs ourselves and built them with 2U. While we know how to do it ourselves now, and can do it, it’s more labor intensive for our faculty and staff, so I prefer doing it with 2U.

  2. Be clear about roles and responsibilities. If faculty are worried about who owns the intellectual property, who hires the faculty and decides who teaches and who sets the admissions standards and admits the students, look for a partner who values those positions and agrees with them contractually.

  3. Doing this work well will be more labor intensive and professionally risky than you think. So get into it for the right reasons. The initiative has to be mission driven. Obviously, it can’t lose money in the long run, but going into this for the money first is the wrong reason — you’ll cut corners and ultimately shoot your institution in the foot because your quality will be schlocky, and the low quality and cut corners will become obvious because you will be under intense scrutiny.

I’m pleased to note that our programs were accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation — including all the online programs — after an in-depth site visit by the examiners. They seemed impressed and pleased with the quality of the educational experience we provide, and that was tremendously vindicating.

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Key Takeaways

  • When considering developing a new online graduate program, institutional leaders need to be realistic about what they can maintain in-house and what must be outsourced.
  • Operational alignment between service providers and universities can prove to be a challenge, as one group typically moves more quickly than the other.
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Readers Comments

Heather Adams 2014/06/16 at 11:44 am

It’s nice to read about an ongoing partnership like the one between 2U and USC. When done right, partnerships can be extremely valuable for both parties, as evidenced by this example. The University really had the ideal scenario, being able to build something essentially from scratch with the vendor. It’s harder to have this kind of hands-on input when working with a more established vendor.

Maria 2014/06/16 at 5:29 pm

It can take a long time to innovate a program at an institution bogged down by a huge bureaucratic structure. Sometimes, the delay is such that a program is already in need of updating by the time it’s launched. Using vendor partnerships can sometimes help you get a program set up quickly. I know departments that have used vendor partnerships creatively to push through what would otherwise be a hard negotiation with administration, faculty, etc. — “The vendor made me do it.”

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