Service Providers Support Small Institution Innovation
The following interview is with Wayne Parkins, former executive director of new business development in global business education with Pearson Learning Solutions and consultant for business schools and online graduate schools. Parkins has been active throughout his career in creating innovative graduate-level programs alongside institutional partners and supporting their entrance into the marketplace. In this interview, Parkins discusses the role service providers can play in helping small universities become bigger players in the highly competitive graduate education marketplace.
1. What are the most significant challenges small universities have when trying to compete in the graduate education marketplace?
Their biggest challenge is differentiating themselves in the changing landscape in the competition for students. You read all the time about the return on tuition investment for both students and parents, and small private schools with annual tuition rates of anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 a year are being challenged more readily to be relevant and differentiate their offerings.
2. Do they have any specific competitive advantages over bigger schools?
They do in the face-to-face area but, in the world of online education, they’ve got to work twice as hard to differentiate themselves, especially smaller schools that may not have some of the brand name faculty they can promote based on research interests or areas of specialization.
Using the University of Tennessee at Knoxville as an example, they’ve got several faculty members who are experts in supply chain management and provide lots of consulting services for both FedEx and UPS. Most smaller schools don’t have that type of well-known faculty who advertise and leverage their brand. They’ve got to find ways to be more unique and provide some value to the students they’re pursuing.
3. How can partnering with a vendor on content development help a smaller institution succeed in this market?
Up until a year or so ago, there were multiple reasons to do that. One of the biggest ones was the internal bandwidth necessary to actually provide instructional design and project management services of a program launch for a fully online program in graduate education. Now, there’s been a proliferation of instructional design shops that have popped up. You can now outsource that component relatively cheaply and still get really nice, elegant, pedagogically sound courses and programs. The big component around content as a service is that most schools don’t have enough knowledge base in their faculty and the niche areas that are really becoming hot areas for graduate education — supply chain management, business analytics, project management, health care administration — to actually provide the necessary relevant content that maps to the learning objectives for a program.
To leverage one or two faculty members’ knowledge base over 12 courses and the number of learning objectives and outcomes that would comply [with] each of the objectives in that program would be a daunting task. A school can partner with a third party that either has existing stable subject matter experts on hand and leading thought leaders and faculty members that write for them, or they can partner with a third-party vendor that can take a program outline and learning objectives and hire specific thought leaders to offer customized content.
Schools could take that on but by the time they actually complete all the activities involved in doing so, it will probably be two or three years later and they would have missed the boat in launching some of these innovative programs to attractively engage and pursue students in their area of reach.
4. In your experience, what kinds of roles and responsibilities do successful small institutions keep in-house in such partnerships, and what roles do they outsource?
The biggest area that especially a small institution [can keep in-house] is their teaching and learning brand. It’s what they own and what they can control the most. The area of continued learning is the one core area that schools, especially the smaller privates, should continue to own. Now, it’s one thing if you’ve got 12 courses and eight or nine of them are being taught by your internal faculty and you’re using an adjunct to teach one or two of those courses, but if you’ve got two or three faculty full-time teaching and you outsource the remaining amount, then you run into challenges in maintaining the brand you’ve built and are promoting in the marketplace. All schools should focus on managing the [production] of the online courses by the internal stakeholders and then look at outsourcing the instructional design, the program development, student acquisition, retention services. There’s a lot of things that aren’t really an institution’s core competency, but the more they focus on their core competencies and find partnerships that allow them to focus on that, the better off they’ll be in the new competitive landscape.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of service providers to helping smaller and mid-sized institutions become more competitive, especially in the graduate education market?
As recently as two to three years ago, the only opportunity smaller schools had to outsource these types of services were to bundle all of them in what’s known as online program management (OPM). And there’s a variety of vendors that do that. Up until the last year, it was a ‘soup to nuts’ offering. Schools had to outsource that entire operation for a revenue share of that tuition around that program.
Now, as the landscape has evolved, schools can actually look at what they do well internally and outsource the areas they need the most help in, and create a different financial model based on their needs and not based on just what the OPM companies are willing to offer in this arena. There’s more choices for schools. That’s critical, especially for the smaller schools that have the most at stake. The schools that look at that holistically and acknowledge they can’t do everything themselves anymore to be successful will be the ones that come out three to five years from now as growing competitors in the educational marketplace.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Business