Published on 2012/06/29

Q&A | Navigating Partnerships and the Changing Value Proposition of Higher Education

Before entering into a partnership with a vendor, higher education administrators must be sure their cultures and goals are compatible with those of the vendor. Photo by Buddawiggi.

The following interview was conducted with Wayne Smutz, the Executive Director of Penn State’s World Campus and the Associate Vice President of Academic Outreach at Penn State. Smutz has spoken at length on higher education institutions developing partnerships with vendors and he took some time out to talk to The EvoLLLution. In the interview, Smutz gives some advice on establishing successful partnerships, discusses the impact good partners can have on a college or university’s value proposition and opines on the future of partnerships.

AA: Entering into partnerships with vendors when it comes to creating learning material can be tricky. What are some of the most important elements of a successful partnership between an institution and a vendor?

WS: I think there has to be a compatibility of cultures of the organizations. You have to have compatible, complementary goals—not the same goals, but complementary ones. Additionally, for me, whoever you partner with has to be somebody who is really good at what they do.

If you just take those three things, one of the important underlying issues is that you have to get to know the people before you make those judgments and you have to know the organizations. I don’t think people should rush partnerships; they need to take their time and carefully evaluate their potential partners and themselves.

The worst time to form a partnership is when you’re in a crisis. You need the time to effectively evaluate them. You need to be looking to the future in terms of where your business is going, what you’re trying to do, which areas would be best to partner in. But that takes time; to explore the potential partners, get familiar with them, understand whether their product is any good or not—all these things take time.

When partnering, be prepared to invest time and resources in exploring them.

AA: How do these partnerships change the value proposition of higher education institutions? Do colleges and universities simply become disseminators of knowledge, or is there more to it?

WS: Whether or not they change the value proposition depends on what the nature of the relationship is and whether the partnership results in something good happening.

If the issue is “Can something good happen?”, they can change the value proposition and that’s terrific. But that depends on the factors mentioned earlier.

In general, where partners are increasingly coming into the higher education scene is actually all along the value chain of higher education; from marketing to recruiting to teaching courses to doing grades. Everywhere they’re coming in.

What institutions like Penn State and World Campus are asking themselves is “What are our core competencies?”, “What do we do best?”, “What differentiates us?”, and “Can vendors help us do that or will they actually undermine our ability to add value in the ways we want to do it?”

Certainly it’s possible that vendors will change the value proposition of institutions, but it’s not guaranteed.

AA: Why do vendors like Blackboard not simply open their own learning institutions?

WS: I wouldn’t put it past them to be thinking about creating their own university or thinking about different ways of doing education. All the movements with Udacity and EdX show there’s a lot of activity in the marketplace surrounding the higher education arena.

Some people will probably start to do that. The biggest challenge is the ability to deliver a credible degree. Notice I didn’t say courses—I said degree—and that’s the issue.

Right now higher education has the ability to hand out degrees and thus a stamp of approval. If employers start to trust providers other than higher education institutions, then colleges and universities will have a serious problem on their hands. …

You can see some of that if you look at the University of Phoenix. Their marketing is centering around quality of education right now because a lot of questions have been raised about their learning outcomes. This credentialing thing is a really big issue and I kind of like the progress that’s being made on different fronts.

The other thing that could affect us a lot is that if the new technologies can demonstrate that they can produce learning outcomes beyond what we can do right now in-house. …Right now it’s more hope than reality but there are some definite possibilities out there.

Those kinds of developments will force higher education institutions to take a long, hard look at themselves and see what they do really well.

I think sometimes that non-higher education providers think that all higher education does is deliver content and assess people in that content. But I believe there’s much more going on in the total environmental context of an institution. A series of courses does not necessarily lead to anything. Faculty develop curriculum, institutions develop degrees, there’s different requirements for a reason and that’s centered around a philosophy of education.

Most vendors look at “How do things work?” and that’s different from what we, philosophically, are trying to do.

AA: Do you foresee a large movement from higher education institutions towards vendor partnerships in the future?

WS: It depends on how you want to define “future”. Over the long haul, I think that will be true. Higher education institutions have a history of trying to do everything themselves. They’ve been really self-contained entities, but it’s dawning on many in higher education that they can’t. I’ll give one small example.

We have a student information system that was built in the 1970s in-house here at Penn State. We’ve just gone through a process 40 years later where we’re looking at a new one. This time it looks like there’s a realization that we have to go outside rather than trying to build the whole system in-house… the implications for how we would spend our time are huge.

If we focus on educational matters as opposed to non-educational ones—like the mechanics of technology and other things—then that would be a better path to follow than “Let’s do it all”. That’s where it becomes important to find partners. …

I think the world in general is breaking up systems and putting them back together with multiple partners. I would be surprised if higher education doesn’t follow that path to some extent.

You always have to think about “What do we provide that makes us distinctive?” and you need to make sure you don’t outsource that, or you need to make sure you find vendors that are very, very compatible with you.

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Readers Comments

Rick Poston 2012/06/30 at 9:54 am

This is a very important step for institutions to take, I think. Recognizing that they are not necessarily the best producers of content or technologies and partnering with experts in that area to ensure they are delivering the best product possible is a major move toward more business-like thinking from the higher ed sector.

WA Anderson 2012/07/03 at 1:17 pm

In terms of vendor partnerships it certainly seems as though the end product is beneficial to both institution and student if they get the partnership right. However, if the only thing stopping vendors from opening their own institutions is the possibility of earning credentials, I think higher ed institutions are going to need to really kick their operations into a higher gear. As badges are becoming more accepted in the workforce and alternative credentials are becoming the norm, I think it’s up to institutions to provide a greater value proposition to students than “we offer degrees”

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