The EvoLLLution | Providing an Alternative to OPMs: Non-Traditional Divisions as Online Service Providers
As a revenue-neutral administrative unit, University College’s Center for Online and Digital Learning provides a low-risk alternative to OPMs for launching niche online programs across the institution.
In May 2018, Syracuse University launched the Center for Online and Digital Learning, a unit that works with academic departments across Syracuse University to evaluate, develop and deliver online programming. Situated within University College, the Center operates on an administrative (rather than revenue-sharing) model, which makes it suitable for launching niche programming that wouldn’t otherwise have the demand necessary to launch through a traditional OPM partnership. In this interview, the Center for Online and Digital Learning’s leadership team discusses Syracuse University’s decision to house the Center within its non-traditional college, and outlines the challenges and opportunities involved in taking an “insourcing” approach to online program delivery.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did Syracuse University decide to use an insourcing model to help other divisions put their niche offerings online, and why was University College the best place to host it?

Jim Gaffey (JG): University College was selected as the home for the Center for Online and Digital Learning because it functions primarily as an administrative unit within an RCM budget environment. We are partially funded from the administrative pool, and so we’re poised to provide support across all schools and colleges within the university without pulling revenue from them.

Second, we play well with other schools and colleges. As the home of part-time study at Syracuse University, University College regularly works with all academic units, so we’re able to leverage those existing relationships to advance online learning for the wider campus.

Eileen Julian (EJ): The impetus behind developing the Center for Online and Digital Learning was that there was rising demand for more flexible and accessible program options from our students.

Evo: Did University College explore whether an OPM would be a good university-wide partner for diversifying program options before deciding to take an insourcing approach? 

Karen Bull (KB): Syracuse University does partner with external vendors to offer graduate-level academic programs. This helped to inform our decision to leverage an internal unit.

EJ: We do have some departments on campus that work with outside vendors to build their online programming, but in many cases the scale of offerings isn’t large enough to justify an external partnership. We needed a place at Syracuse University where we could develop, implement and run our own online programs in-house.

Evo: What have been some of the most significant benefits in taking an internal approach to online program development?

JG: We opened the Center for Online and Digital Learning a year ago, but given the logistics involved in launching we’re only a few months into actual program production. University College, however, is actually a client of the Center, and we have benefited from the Center’s breadth and depth of experience in helping to launch our newest online degree program and refresh our existing programs. The Center has also raised University College’s profile as a service unit and helped us build new relationships across the campus.

Evo: How do you sell the idea of partnering with the Center for Online and Digital Learning to program and divisional leaders across Syracuse University?

EJ: Our major strength lies in being a one-stop shop for units looking to put a program online.

We know the systems, we know the people, we know the units. We can give them a timeline of what they need to do to reach their launch date, we can help them develop their courses for online delivery, and we can help them identify and connect with the other impacted units on campus. We walk them through necessary university and New York State approvals. Most of the time, the departments don’t understand all of the connecting pieces that are so important for getting an online program up and running.

In addition to that, we also have the ability to support these new programs. When we talk to a department about what they envision for a new online program, they let us know how involved they want the Center to be. Do they want course development only, or do they want us to be involved with inquiry and enrollment management, or student support? Our value lies in understanding connections across campus, and knowing all the various pieces that have to be put into place to launch an online program.

Having said that, a department will often “shop around” with outside vendors before deciding how they want to proceed. Most external vendors provide services on a revenue-sharing basis, whereas we do not. We’re an internal organization of Syracuse University, so we don’t collect fees for putting programs online. That’s very attractive, because that means the department receives all associated enrollment revenue.

Evo: How is the Center supported? Does it generate revenue or operate on a cost recovery basis?

JG: Because the Center is a department of University College, and University College is considered an administrative unit within Syracuse University, we’re seen as a sunk or fixed cost. Under this budgetary model, the enrollment and revenue targets for each of the programs that we’re working on belong to the individual school or college. The revenues belong to them as well. This makes us a great alternative for those who don’t want to break the bank in getting a program online. As Eileen said, a lot of OPMs require large volumes of enrollments; we’re not interested in taking the large volume programs away from the OPMs. We’re available to take on some of the smaller or niche programs that a school or college may want to put online, but which aren’t driven by revenue or enrollment targets.

KB: Syracuse University leadership understands and values online education, and has made it a priority to invest in this endeavor for the future of Syracuse University and the students we serve.

Evo: With the Center for Online and Digital Learning in place, how do you think the role of University College will evolve within the broader context of Syracuse University?

KB: As University College is not funded by enrollment or revenue targets, we can be fairly nimble and assume some of the risks for other schools and colleges. By partnering with us, academic units don’t have to commit to a long-term, revenue-sharing agreement for a program that may not generate the volume they’re hoping for. It gives us the ability to allow schools and colleges to take more risks in that regard.

JG: As with most universities across the country, Syracuse University’s residential enrollments are limited by physical space. Online programming provides an opportunity to grow substantially without adding significant costs. As schools and colleges within Syracuse University look for new opportunities to generate revenue, the Center will become a really attractive alternative. In that sense, you could say that the Center and University College are becoming more central to the mission of the university by making the university as a whole more accessible.

Evo: For other colleges and universities where CE leaders might be looking to launch a similar online initiative, what kinds of roadblocks might they face in trying to develop this kind of service model?

EJ: First, people have to be realistic about the timeline that an online program needs before its launch date. Second, faculty need to understand the load they’re taking on in developing and teaching online courses. Third, faculty who buy into online education and want to teach in online programs need to be adequately compensated for their efforts. Online programs are a big commitment.

Nichole Henry (NH): You also have to make sure that you have the technical expertise required to launch. The back-end systems need to be aligned. In our case, we spend a lot of time making sure that the tools the university is using as a whole and the tools we need to move online can work together.

KB: An institution’s culture will often indicate the challenges or roadblocks that CE leaders might face. Be well aware of cultural perceptions of online programming at your institution to help identify potential roadblocks and determine strategies for navigating around them.

JG: Budgetary models can also be a significant disincentive. In our case, since we act as an administrative unit that’s underwritten by the university, the revenues for our programs flow directly to the school or college involved. If our counterpart at another institution is not similarly set up, it could be a real roadblock for them.

We were also lucky enough to have top-down support for the Center. If our leadership team had not been as supportive as they were, we probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. Proposals for the Center were actually submitted on at least three previous occasions over the last fifteen years with no success. Having that buy-in and support at the top level made all the difference.

EJ: Staffing the Center has also been crucial. Hiring the most appropriate people and looking at their attitude as well as their skills is necessary to building a collaborative team. I can’t underscore that enough: the staff makes the unit, and it’s important to pick the right people.

NH: University College has always been a fertile ground for incubating new programs across the university. It made sense to use University College as the launching point for this program.

EJ: Unlike an external vendor, we can have more creativity and flexibility in building online programs. We can work with departments to help them determine all aspects of their program and leverage our expertise to help them envision how they can deliver it online. One of the first things we did at the Center was build our own video studio to develop online content. That flexibility is a very big benefit to the units across the campus.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about launching an internal service provider and how you see it impacting Syracuse University as a whole?

JG: In some cases, insourcing gives faculty a bit more of a comfort level than partnering with an OPM, particularly those who are already reluctant to offer online programming. I think in some cases units have an aversion to working with a “for profit” company, even though we’ve had excellent partnerships with OPMs at Syracuse University for many years. Faculty who may be averse to that kind of change have an additional level of comfort knowing that we’re a colleague. We know Syracuse University and we’re rowing in the same direction. In some cases, that can really help sell online programming.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Insourcing can provide a comfortable alternative for change-averse faculty who might otherwise object to partnering with external vendors.
  • In launching an internal online program provider, continuing education departments must ensure they have the technical expertise—and realistic expectations—to support it.