Updated 6/2/2011 – There’s a new company making some waves in the field of higher education for its innovative approach to
turnkey online graduate programs. 2tor is partnering with some of the best colleges in the country in order to bring their competitive advantage to a school’s program and is turning them into graduation centers for business, education, social work and nursing (http://2tor.com/partners/). 2tor’s model is to partner with a college and give them exclusive rights to the program/programs (no other college will enter a 2tor partnership now that they’ve identified UNC as their business school partner). In return for a percentage of the tuition fees 2tor provides a customized turnkey technology-based platform and support operation for providing a completely scale-able online graduate program.
What makes 2tor unique from other online educational outsource companies and services is that they bring much more to the table than a learning management system provider or educational consulting service. 2tor brings together expertise in technology, support services and a platform which is entirely designed from the ground up to facilitate what the CTO says is the key to great educational: conversation with and between classmates and professors. For an online program it’s an incredible aim.
2tor has recently amassed a sizeable war chest of venture capital (over 32 million dollars) as it works to build out its partner members and graduate programs from his head quarters in New York City. Interestingly, 2tor seems to be willing to play the behind the scenes role in its educational partnerships, being mentioned (but not the focus) in several recent high-profile articles about innovation in educational programs and higher education: Campus Technology (April 2011) and The Atlantic (May 2011).
I had the pleasure of talking with 2tor CTO James Kenigsberg about their platform and aims from a technology standpoint. If you haven’t guessed already, the online classroom platform that its programs use are built upon Moodle and other open source products freely available on the web. I was most curious about the services and setup that 2tor is home-growing and specifically how Moodle fit into its mix of educational technology.
What’s clear is that 2tor is making heavy investments into its technology to facilitate “real” learning opportunities for students even though they may be taking an online program. Moodle is the foundation of the 2tor educational platform; but the technology that students use goes far beyond the Moodle 1.9 standard modules and activities. In light of its bank account, it’s clear that money is not a factor, which makes the selection of Moodle that much more interesting. According to Mr. Kenigsberg the selection was based on Moodle being easily and readily customize-able. To Moodle has been added a toolbox full of additional (but standardized) educational tools and activities which play upon the 2tor mantra of providing teachers the best way to translate their expertise into online media. The tools include (but are not limited to):
- A proprietary social layer added to Moodle (they did review/try Mahara but opted for creating their own which puts the student and student’s classmates’ activities/progress at the forefront of the educational experience)
- Video conferencing/hosting
- Streaming videos and meetings (Adobe Connect)
- Custom Drupal content management system
- Tagging and commenting systems throughout
- User management/tracking through Salesforce.com
The focus on the student experience gives any student of the partner programs an individualized educational experience that provides loads of features (but none of the headaches, hopefully). Mr. Kenigsberg mentioned that one of the most important considerations in technology is making the system work and not frustrating students with non-functioning links, videos or services.
While higher education’s strengths are educational expertise and academic authority, these programs often lack in the specialized expertise of technological development and support necessary to launch and support a new online program. When partnered with a college 2tor fills the gaps and jumps the hurdles that other wise stand in the way of bringing/launching an educational program online and to the masses. This is quite literally the goal: it’s partnership with the University of Southern California graduate teaching program ([email protected]) now graduates more students than both Stanford and Harvard’s respective programs, combined [source].
This “vendor/partner” role is a growing niche in education. While some are cautioning the “outsourcing of education”¹ it’s clear that partnerships like the ones 2tor is creating are actually strengthening some educational programs and perhaps the realm of online education entirely. According to one commenter at Moodlenews, schools in these types of partnerships can rely on the “vendor to hire and retain the best technical experts who can focus their skills and expertise on specific Moodle technologies. Educational organizations simply do not have the resources to do that.” The ability of businesses and organizations to bend and mold Learning Management Systems (including Moodle) to their needs and add the support services necessary to create turnkey programs might be the saving grace of many programs in the future that struggle to stand out among the 100s of available programs.
The availability of mature open source software is an important pillar to this new educational market.