What You Need to Know About Companies That Run Online Programs for Colleges (Chronicle)

By Steve Kolowich

“Publish or perish” is an old saw that, like so many things in higher education, has been updated to reflect modern wisdom. The revised version of the phrase offers advice not to professors but to colleges: “Partner or perish.”

The growth of online higher education, the breakdown of competitive borders, and the decline of public support for colleges have caused traditional institutions—even sturdy ones—to reflect on their strategies for survival. In the soil of this anxiety, online “enablers” have taken root.

Enablers are companies that help brick-and-mortar colleges build online programs as quickly as possible. The companies, some of which have been around for a decade or more, have positioned themselves as experts in all the things that have allowed for-profit online colleges to flourish: marketing, technology, and customer support.

The individual deals between enablers and colleges are complex, but the proposition for colleges is simple: Benefit from the business savvy of the for-profit sector without relinquishing the soul of the university. It is an enticing offer for a growing number of traditional institutions. For some, it seems like the only option.

Florida Teams Up With Pearson

Take the University of Florida. As a leading research university and one of the flagships of a major public system, Florida is no lightweight. But when the Legislature pushed the university to start putting its undergraduate program online, the university knew it needed help.

“A partnership with an outside vendor will bring to the UF Online deep resources and an experiential base that will be critical in achieving excellence in all aspects immediately,” wrote university officials in a business plan presented last September to the Florida Board of Governors.

Several weeks later, Florida signed an agreement with Pearson Embanet that cedes a substantial amount of responsibility—and money—to the company.

The university is still in charge of admitting students, teaching them, and awarding degrees. The company is in charge of getting students to apply to UF Online, and then it takes on a big role in students’ lives once they enroll, undertaking “logistical and basic technical support to retain students through completion” of the online programs. Pearson also helps the university’s instructors adapt their courses to the web, and it makes sure the program has its papers in order with various regulatory agencies.

And, naturally, the Florida instructors are free to use a selection of premium online teaching tools from Pearson’s commercial product line (though they are not required to use those materials).

The university’s arrangement with Pearson Embanet has drawn some criticism. The Gainesville Sun noted that many details about the deal had been redacted from the public record because they include “trade secrets.” According to the Florida Legislature, “the public and private harm in disclosing trade secrets significantly outweighs any public benefit derived from disclosure.”

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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