For organizations that produce and commercialize learning products, from pieces of content to courses to complete programs, online education is the next frontier. But if the reasons why going digital are as appealing as straightforward, lots of critical decisions must be made with care. Perhaps the first and foremost of all is finding the expertise that can translate a top-of-the-line educational offering delivered face-to-face into a virtual environment. The landscape is changing and becomes more competitive by the minute. As institutions spend months and pour millions into online education products and marketing, new trends quickly shift the paradigm. For instance, many organizations are currently struggling with the definitive arrival of mobile learning, which in some cases is “mobile-first” or “mobile-only.”
To ease the pain of the transition, and add leadership value that responds to the dynamics of digital learning, a new batch of companies have come to fill the void: Online Program Managers, or OPMs. They bring a mix of technological and instructional expertise and facilitate the delivery of online learning for traditional schools, universities, and colleges. Their cost effectiveness prevents organizations from taking on the sizeable investment of having their own online team, but many large and forward-thinking institutions have also sought the help of OPMs.
The role of OPMs has evolved quickly. The past year has seen an increase of EdTech investment into OPMs, which by 2015 was already worth over $1 billion USD. EdTech-focused venture capital firm Noodle Partners is dabbling into OPM duties in-house, starting with Wake Forest University School of Business for an online MBA in Analytics.
It is not difficult to shift perspectives and see OPMs as yet another intermediary, ready to take advantage of a sprawling state of venture capital, but also skilled in convincing publicly-funded institutions about the urgent need to jump into the turbulent and highly concentrated digital marketplace. Virtually all OPMs are for-profit companies, which reportedly can take up to 80% of tuition fees and hold contracts of up to 10 years. To date, it is unclear that investing on OPMs will have a positive return, through new online tuition revenues, every time. Anecdotal accounts suggest most OPMs today offer too standardized solutions, often focused on pre-recorded videos of classroom lectures, where little differentiation between universities is a common sight. Going forward, a growing concern is the fact that OPMs capture the online learning know-how, as their business model relies on technological overdependence, a danger public institutions seem to be particularly at-risk. Lastly, at least in one instance professors have objected to university partnerships with OPM due to the dangerous proximity of “profit-seeking (…) with actual teaching.”
As the developer of a robust software application, the Moodle organization is in a technologically sound position to become an OPM that could bring institutional expertise into virtual classrooms for its hundred-million-strong userbase. Which is not to say it’s a trivial decision, laced with tricky challenges ahead. Besides managing an LMS, OPMs are often responsible for designing instructional content, provide student support, and in some cases lead marketing and partnerships as well.
As OPMs begin to be the subject of higher scrutiny, Moodle HQ would have to veer into uncharted territory. Perhaps the first challenge, one the dominant OPMs still struggle with, is to capture a unique organizational culture inside an online offering that can prove it delivers on competencies as advertised. Other key challenges or opportunities for OPMs include credentials, hybrid programs, lifelong learning, professional development and networking, and specialization into niche segments.
This Moodle Practice related post is made possible by: eThink Education, a Certified Moodle Partner that provides a fully-managed Moodle experience including implementation, integration, cloud-hosting, and management services. To learn more about eThink, click here.