Online Education Partners: Why Does a University Need One—and How Do You Choose?

Online Education Partners: Why Does a University Need One—and How Do You Choose?

Depending on who you talk to, online education is either the big man on campus (BMOC, for the acronym-minded) or the elephant in the classroom. Colleges and universities are launching new or expanded online programs for a multitude of worthwhile—and sometimes hotly debated—reasons, but the basics come down to these: to attract new students, boost enrollments, diversify student populations and increase tuition revenues.

What most institutions realize very early on, however, is that offering quality online programs isn’t as easy as throwing some faculty members in front of computers. There are a number of logistical hurdles to overcome, including how to:

1)     Provide 24/7 tech support to students and faculty

2)     Train faculty in the pedagogy of online instruction

3)     Assist faculty in developing high quality online courses

4)     Market new online programs

5)     Recruit online students

What do these challenges have in common? They each cost money. For institutions with little or no experience in launching and running online education programs, the resources needed may be staggering. Additionally, an institution’s natural learning curve due to its lack of online education experience will likely result in working with an inexperienced internal team or partnering with an outside organization. In the case of my institution, St. Bonaventure University, we decided to engage a vendor partner to help us get our very first fully online program off the ground.



Why partner with a third party to launch online learning programs? A big reason is the time factor. Vendor partners, such as The Learning House, Embanet and Bisk Education can offer expertise and resources to quickly launch a new online program. These vendors are experts in providing solutions for the aforementioned logistical hurdles and offer training and support for your faculty, curriculum development and quality control services, marketing services and, in some cases, enrollment services. They exist to help higher education institutions bridge the online education knowledge/resource gap.

Why then wouldn’t a higher education institution opt for a vendor partner in favor of going it alone? Vendor partners are expensive. And I mean very expensive. In my experience, I can say that an institution can assume a vendor partner to cost from 20 to 60 percent of the gross tuition revenue generated by online students. And realize that the cost is typically based on gross tuition revenue. Does your institution allow employees to take free classes? Great! But realize that the vendor partner will still want its cut of the sticker price, even if you aren’t charging.

Let’s assume that your institution can afford to spring for a vendor partner. How do you select the right one? This question formed the basis of a published research paper I wrote as part of my doctoral studies at the College of Professional Studies. One approach might be to write the names of several potential vendor partners on small scraps of paper and draw one out of a hat (guaranteed to be the fastest method). Or, if you are a bit more methodical, you could read my CPS research paper on this very subject. If instead you prefer a middle-of-the road approach, please read on…

Based on my experience, I recommend the following:

1)     Define decision criteria and utilize a process. First, identify which criteria are most important to your institution. For example, is assistance with the marketing of online programs a priority? Or is the need for faculty development assistance paramount? Defining the pecking order of priorities will help ensure that each of your potential partners is evaluated on similar criteria, and that you are evaluating them on the criteria that are most important to your institution.

2)     Ensure that the appropriate people are included. Selecting an online education vendor partner is a big deal. This organization will most likely be working with your administrators as well as your faculty. Be sure to include the key people from each area when making the selection decision, including adequate representation from academics. Not only will this likely result in the best fit for your institution, it will also help inoculate you from the inevitable criticisms that the vendor selection process wasn’t “open”.

3)      Solicit vendor feedback. Probably the main reason to consider working with an online education vendor partner is your own institution’s lack of experience in offering online education programs. As such, I highly recommend you use the selection process itself as a way to engage your partners about your online programming plans. These partners are experts in the online education marketplace. Consider vendor interviews as a free way to solicit top-notch advice about your online market plans.

Online education vendor partners are probably not the right choice for every institution. But if your institution’s online education plan needs a kick-start, a partner may be just what you need. They aren’t cheap, but what is in the higher education business? The cost may be worth getting out of the gate with a successful online program, as opposed to crashing and burning on your own.

About Michael Hoffman

Dr. Michael Hoffman is the executive director for Information Technology at St. Bonaventure University, and has also taught courses in the School of Business at St. Bonaventure on business information systems and internet marketing. In 2013, he received the Dean's Medal for Outstanding Doctoral Work, the highest honor awarded by the Northeastern University College Professional Studies to a doctoral student.

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