The Great OPM Controversy

So if you have been following OPMs for a while, you are probably asking yourself “which particular controversy are you referring to?” Good point. Over the past week, there has been some controversy over an article by Kevin Carey that takes a harsh look at the pricing and income from online courses, especially related to OPMs. I took issue with the way the article throws all OPMs into the same bucket – Carey mentions 2U and iDesign in the same sentence, but doesn’t cover the massive differences between the two companies. Personally, I have concerns over even labeling companies like iDesign as OPMs, because they don’t offer to take over the entire online program creation process. They serve more as a specialty service for contract, a type of company that has existed for a long time in HigherEd and that adds great value when priced right.

(also, full disclosure: I have worked for iDesign in the past as a part-time side gig, and still would if their current employment model allowed for work on nights and weekends).

Carey also falls for the assumption that online courses should be cheaper, something that Matt Reed effectively discusses in his own response (just ignore where he briefly falls into the “MOOC attrition rate” misunderstanding). Despite these two points of disagreement, Carey does raise some legitimate hard questions about OPMs that we as a field should discuss.

Of course, with all of this attention, 2U was bound to respond. Today their CEO Chip Paucek wrote an article for Inside HigherEd. While I am glad that Paucek wants to have a constructive dialogue, there were problems with his response as well. Paucek starts off (after selling his company some) by stating that any real conversation about cost or value in online education has to be “grounded” in four specific principles: quality, access, outcomes, and sustainability (personally, I would add ethics and privacy concerns as well). But those are four good ones, and Paucek states that Carey’s article did not focus on those.

Okay, the quality aspect – as related to costs – he did miss. But access, outcomes, and sustainability are all important aspects of the cost of online access – and by addressing cost Carey is also focusing on those three aspects. I think it would be more accurate to say that Paucek felt that Carey did not focus on those aspects the way he wanted him to. They were still there, just not in a format that Paucek recognized maybe? Hard to say. But I felt that point was too forced in Paucek’s response. You can’t separate any discussion of cost from access, outcomes, and sustainability.

Paucek goes on to point out that face-to-face returning students typically have to quit their job and lose income to get a degree while still paying for living expenses. Which is still the case in some places, but not as much as it used to be. For example, I earned my Ph.D. while still working full time because the traditional on-campus program I was a part of adjusted their courses to be on nights and weekends. But the point by Paucek is:

Most master’s and doctorate-level students are working adults who historically had to quit a job, and often move, in order to attend a top-tier university for graduate school…. the average actual cost and debt burden of attending a 2U-powered program is significantly less once you factor in ongoing income and the room and board savings, which in some cities can be as high as 25 to 40 percent of tuition.

Which is true – for all online programs. If the 2U partner schools had built their own online programs, this statement would still be true. Its a bit disingenuous for an OPM to claim a historical benefit of all online / distance education as their own like this. It would be like a website designer claiming they personally are saving clients money by using WordPress, even though WordPress was free long before they started a web design company. Paucek also does this again by claiming that, on average, their partner programs students “are more diverse from both a race and gender perspective than students in comparable on-campus programs.” Again, that was typically true of many online programs long before OPMs came along.

Paucek also goes on the attack against schools that want to build in-house capability for online programs, because he sees this as being wasteful of institutional funds. This is partially true and partially not true. Paucek’s point is that

“…it’s also critical to discuss whether it’s reasonable, rational and appropriate for that investment and risk capital to be shouldered exclusively by schools or in collaboration with a strategic partner like 2U…. each one of our program partners would need to invest their own scarce capital and hire in-house talent to expertly deliver what we deliver.”

Yes, it is true that it takes a lot of money to build online programs in-house. But it also takes a lot of money to hire an OPM like 2U. However, here is the counterpoint: you can hire people that are already experts in online course design, online program management, accessibility, privacy, cybersecurity, etc. You don’t have to start from scratch even if you go the in-house route. I know this, because I am one of many, many experts out there that has the ability to do so. And we are not as expensive as one would think :)

And while Paucek tried to make it seem like it takes 10 years and nearly a billion dollars to develop a quality online program, the truth is that a lot of that went towards building a company – which is different from building an online program. Yes, it does take a lot of time and money to build a quality online program, but it takes a whole lot more to build a national / international company – and those are mostly costs that HigherEd programs will not have to shoulder. To be cliche, it is comparing apples to oranges to make this point. There is some financial overlap between building an OPM and building an online program at an existing institution, but there is a lot that is extra to build a company from scratch.

There are also many other important benefits to building programs in-house that few are talking about. Usually, these programs are built in-house by hiring local talent, which helps local economies. Then there are all of the schools that hire GRAs, GTAs, student assistants of all kinds to help build and administrate and even teach the courses. This helps to empower students by giving them valuable life and employment skills of all kinds. Then there are all of the research articles, blog posts, think pieces, etc that various instructors, staff, and students produce while participating in the process. When these are published through OER models, the additions to the global knowledge space of online learning are immense. Some OPMs participate in some of these benefits, but many keep the whole process behind closed doors to protect proprietary processes and products.

Of course, Paucek’s overarching points that creating quality online courses is expensive, and that we need to have open conversations about the process, are both important. However, I am of the opinion that OPMs should not be the one’s hosting this conversation (as Paucek suggests), as the points outlined in this article make apparent. We as the education community have been hosting it, and all disagreements aside, we have been doing a pretty good job of doing so.