Published on 2014/01/09

Differentiating the Players in the Online Education Marketplace

Differentiating the Players in the Online Education Marketplace
While new entrants in online education may look for vendors to provide comprehensive services, institutions with mature online offerings are more likely to use vendors for tools that increase operational efficiency
Roam the exhibit halls at online learning conferences and you might be surprised at the greatly increased number of companies (with products and services boasting incomprehensible names) available in the online learning market. It must be a challenge for administrators of online education and training programs, those well experienced with online education as well as those new to the field, to make sense of this rapidly changing landscape. Much is in flux, including who is offering what products and services, how it is offered, for what purpose or outcome and for what learners. Even the boundaries between online and physical classroom-based technologies are blurring.

Today we see for-credit and non-credit courses offered by for-profit accredited institutions, non-profit accredited institutions and non-accredited businesses; innovative learning experiences developed by community colleges, public and private universities and top-tier research institutions; businessmen as academics and academics as businessmen. Educational opportunities that are open and free, free but not open, massive and customized, self-paced, instructor facilitated or peer led. Measurement of student achievement is expanding from certifications and the credit-hour standard to defined learning outcomes and competency-based evaluation. Educational content is increasingly accessible on a global scale and customizable by and for the individual learner. Vendors in this market have many different stakeholders to serve and need to remain nimble to keep pace with, and perhaps help lead, the innovations rapidly occurring in teaching and learning.

All of this is not terribly surprising if you view the field of online learning from a business perspective. No longer in its infancy, online learning presents a strong growth market with plenty of room for new entrants and well as opportunities for existing vendors in the education space to reinvent themselves — a matter of survival for some. Digital and online technology has brought disruptive change to the vendor community as much as, or more than, for education providers. There are many needs to be filled, from new apps to marketing of entire programs. Almost all online education providers will look to the vendor community for technology platforms such as learning management systems. We understand the business logic in outsourcing such infrastructure. More surprisingly, we are even seeing services provided that have long been the purview of academic institutions, such as institutional management and curriculum planning and faculty development. At the risk of oversimplification, online education providers (as clients in the market) can be placed into two categories:

  1. Those just entering, who need to catch up in a rapid deployment of online offerings; or
  2. Experienced institutions with mature online programs looking to continue growing while rationalizing their ongoing investments.

The former are looking for vendors that can provide comprehensive services and manpower to develop courses, train instructors, market programs, manage enrollments and provide technical and student support. For these institutions, outsourcing may be the only way to enter the market at speed and scale, and there are vendors who are very effective at providing these services.

In the other category, the institutions with mature online offerings may be interested in tools and services that make them more effective and efficient in providing and growing their programs. The focus here is on increasing quality and decreasing costs by adopting new tools and strategically outsourcing limited functions that are not (yet) the core competency of the institution. Depending on their internal capacity, they look to outsource specific services such as tutoring, proctoring, student relationship management, student authentication or student assessment.

If categorizing the needs of online education providers is challenging, it’s even more problematic to categorize vendors. Of the great variety of approaches to serving a new and fast-growing market, two are notable. Some vendors follow the pain principle: understand the pain points of client institutions and create products and services to relieve it. This can quickly lead to expanded customer markets and product lines. Others are trying to position their organizations as thought leaders in the field and partner with educational institutions to develop the innovations of tomorrow.

Everyone, however, is interested in tools and apps, which explains their proliferation. Instructional designers at both vendor and client institutions are looking for tools that help them more efficiently design courses or otherwise support specific learning objectives and create high-quality learning experiences. Free and for-purchase, the array of tools is already bountiful and increasing at dizzying speed. Yes, indeed, there is an app for that; if not today, then most certainly tomorrow. The challenge now lies in helping consumers effectively and efficiently navigate this marketplace for tools and services. We still have much work to do.

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Readers Comments

Becka 2014/01/09 at 8:32 am

I definitely agree with Adair that there are two types of institution (novice and experienced) . An interesting point I think she’s missed is the vendors who can support the novice institutions. I think experienced institutions could be very successful in serving as a vendor to these colleges and universities looking to enter the marketplace.

    Jeff P 2014/01/09 at 1:47 pm

    Maybe they would be, but what shrewd businessperson would give their competitors the tools to compete and succeed in their marketplace?

    As much as higher ed is about collegiality, leaders need to understand that they are in a highly competitive industry and they need to protect their competitive advantages.

Mike H 2014/01/09 at 1:04 pm

In both instances, institutions are better served by PARTNERS than VENDORS. It’s not about selling a product. It’s about bringing on a strategic partner who can help an institution enter or grow in a marketplace.

Deb Adair 2014/01/10 at 3:48 pm

The partner v vendor label is, to some extent, a matter of perspective. I would say that most academic institutions see most (not all) of their relationships as client-vendor while most corporations will speak of their partnerships with academic institutions. Although I was usuing the term generically in this article, I do think there is a real difference between a vendor v partner relationship. I am wondering if you would share your views on this.

    Mike H 2014/01/13 at 10:18 am

    Absolutely. The difference in terminology between what institutions say they’re looking for and what businesses know they need is interesting.

    I think a partner is willing to work with an institution to understand their various needs, and to not just sell but adapt and create products that meet those needs. They also provide strategic advice and best practice knowledge that helps their partner institution compete with the rest of the market.

    A vendor, on the other hand, sells a product. They may serve that product very well and keep the institution apprised of updates, but it’s all about the product.

    A partner sees the institution as a feather in its cap. They want the school to get as big as possible so they can say “look, we worked with them!” The vendor sees the school as a cash pinata waiting to be whacked open.

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