This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).
As Fate Would Have It
Were I looking out on a clear night sky that fall of 2001 I might have seen the stars align. After the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the fall of World Trade Towers, we could not have anticipated the profound effect these mega-events would have on enrollments at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. Or the critical juncture we were about to reach. New to my deanship, I was invited to participate in a conference call with a fledgling company called Embanet, spun off from the University of Toronto’s executive MBA program (hence its name) and from a somewhat more established distance learning firm called Compass.1 With less than ten employees, this start-up pitched a new and compelling model for online education and suggested we take our tiny criminal justice master’s program online.
Their approach addressed several immediate dilemmas. I was anxious to enter the online market (foolishly believing we were late in doing so), but faced the quandary of how to manage the risk of launching any effort. Boston University also confronted a challenge unique to its criminal justice program. Thanks to the Quinn Bill, Massachusetts police officers automatically received pay raises when they received degrees. This generated a slew of “cop shops”—degree programs of dubious academic integrity that exploited this demand. It was far from clear how Boston University could possibly compete in this congested arena of local academic suppliers. As I listened to the proposed revenue sharing model, my thoughts drifted to the solution—one that was uncommon in part-time, continuing education at the time: leapfrog over the now saturated Boston market and go national.
We benefited from naïveté—and from the benign neglect of university leaders in an era before online education was at the forefront of their consciousness. We could not fully fathom the plunge we were taking or how potentially transformative this could be. Academe can be especially unforgiving. Had we failed, it is unlikely that further online initiatives could have been undertaken. Had we forecasted the explosive growth about to occur, we might have been paralyzed by its sheer magnitude. The online criminal justice master’s program was an immediate success and lulled us into thinking it could now proceed smoothly. The MCJ degree catapulted us into distance learning (and Embanet as well) and provided resources to bolster our faculty talent and our confidence to introduce another dozen online degree programs over the next five years. With a paucity of competition, each new program was immediately able to dominate its market.
As local on-campus enrollments plummeted, especially in computer science, we more than offset declines each year with even greater growth in adult learners across the nation. From the start we proudly proclaimed that we had more online students from California than Massachusetts. We experienced net enrollment growth annually—with a student profile that served BU well and provided even greater financial margins. Continuing education deans at other institutions could not grasp why we focused on those beyond our catchment area. Because Boston is a small, academically dense environment, rather than offer online options to our existing student base, Metropolitan College chose to be as cosmopolitan as it was metropolitan. Fellow deans at BU began to work with us to launch their online degree programs as well.2 We took “distance” literally and sought students who could not otherwise commute to BU. By doing so, we could isolate the growth that easily justified the faculty and staff positions needed to support these new students. We had stumbled onto the virtuous cycle to propel our college forward.
I was soon able to announce with pride that the majority of our students were in programs that had not even existed a few years earlier. But I was also keenly aware of the counterfactual reality that, had we not innovated when we did, we could easily have become a ghost town. Such a decline would have been ugly and messy. Instead, through serendipity as much as strategy, Metropolitan College’s enrollment and stature grew. MET’s veteran faculty courageously embraced the challenge of teaching online, and newly recruited faculty were immediately enlisted to engage students asynchronously.
From an early point, we confronted a nagging concern about our deepening dependency on one for-profit company. We gradually insourced key functions and diversified our partnerships.3 We renegotiated each program contract to bring instructional design in-house (in our view, an important academic function and one we could do as well and more economically). On the other hand, we decided that recruiting students nationally was not a skill we were internally equipped to develop. We also stipulated in the contracts our right to negotiate for students directly through businesses, BU alumni, and foreign academic institutions. Boston University began to partner with other fledgling online service providers in order not to be beholden to any one company. These moves improved our financial returns and raised our comfort level with corporate partnerships.
Our programs grew throughout the decade, generating about $40 million of annual revenue (most as contribution margin) and about 40 percent of MET’s enrollments, 8 percent of BU’s total student head count, and the majority of those part-time students seeking master’s degrees at Boston University.
These were the days before distance learning had achieved respectability. I still found myself confronting campus naysayers daily. The final phrase in each conversation with my provost was always his admonition not to become the University of Phoenix. The registrar resisted much-needed systems changes because she thought online courses would be a short-lived fad. I bought many beers for arts and sciences faculty colleagues who needed to be persuaded that online learning wasn’t the work of the devil. I would do the math to demonstrate how much more opportunity online students had to communicate asynchronously than those in-class students seeking a few minutes of precious airtime.
It was all worth the fight. This fundamentally changed our profession as continuing educators and our place on our campuses. Having a school like Metropolitan College on campus helps generate a deep dialogue about pedagogy. Continuing education deans need to be able to speak the language of academe and of the business world—and represent the values of their university with the fire in the belly to pursue initiatives far beyond conventional academic imagination.
As I think back to that fateful 2001 phone conversation, I realize now that this was the beginning of a conspiracy of internal and external entrepreneurs. Although we redefined and reduced the role of for-profit partners, I pay homage to the instrumental role they played. That might be my major lesson learned: we probably could not have succeeded without the intervention of a few start-up companies. While these online service providers even now support only a small share of America’s academic institutions and a miniscule portion of US academic degree programs (even those online), their impact has been pivotal. To appease those in academe, they set the bar high for this emerging movement. They were the catalysts that brought a new modality of instruction to otherwise recalcitrant institutions. They helped earn respect as much as financial reward for distance learning.
When the definitive history of online distance learning is written, a critical factor in that success will be from those outside the academy, in it for the money as much as the mission—who taught us to innovate in ways we were, frankly, incapable of doing ourselves.
A New Model Emerges
What allows third-party companies like Embanet and Deltak to convince universities like mine to enter the distance learning market?
They provide the impetus to act, in particular, the upfront market research and capital needed to launch a new distance learning program. It can take a year or more to court universities, negotiate revenue-sharing contracts, add staff, develop the first few online courses, and recruit the first group of students—and then several more years just to recoup that investment. Few companies have the patience, capital, and respect for academic values to play this role.
They aggressively seek a high volume of mature, admissible students on a national scale. Academic quality may be the university’s imperative, but high volume is the key nonnegotiable in this business model. If this partnership falls short of its potential, the company’s financial forecasts and commitments suffer. With only a small portfolio of institutions and programs, this shortfall can be fatal.
These service providers engage and support full-time faculty (who become the main authors of the online courses) and, by doing so, help soothe the skeptics and technophobes. Significant upfront investment occurs not only in recruiting students but in working deferentially with faculty.
Remarkably, for-profit companies helped create a now common national curricular foundation for delivering online programs. Through an ever-rotating carousel of online courses, offered consecutively in half-semester terms, students can start their studies at six points during the academic year, taking one course at a time. (Prerequisites and electives were discouraged as complicating this simple and smooth course cycle.) This lockstep carousel helps retain students by keeping them on track—and makes course design and delivery predictable.
By developing and offering the lowest number of courses possible, with the highest allowable volume, and then sectioning these large courses into small clusters of about a dozen students, overseen by instructional facilitators, this model became immensely scalable and efficient. The master’s curriculum can be prescribed and concise, with a small set of courses developed with high production values. MET was able to modestly grow the size of its full-time faculty and leverage them over ever-increasing student enrollments. The part-time master’s degree emerged as the sweet spot for this escalation of quality distance learning, which anticipated the national trend
From the first point of inquiry the online student experience was intended to replicate and even elevate that of the typical part-time evening student. Fully online students paid on-campus tuition (perhaps even a premium) and received comparable access to advisors, instructors, and services. In contrast to pre-Internet distance learning, where remote students were marginalized viewers of the physical classroom, this model set the gold standard for allowing busy, accomplished students to feel like equal citizens in a new mode of learning. We in turn learned a great deal about how to market, recruit, respond to, analyze, and serve students, online and otherwise, by watching the efforts of our corporate partners. Online students soon had far greater connection to Boston University than typically isolated part-time evening students.
I soon appreciated that we were now seeing a very different species of student. I would point out to faculty that although they encountered more students online, I met face-to-face with many more than they ever could. I invited current distance learning students to alumni events in cities I visited and grilled them on their backgrounds, motivations, and impressions of the particular program in which they were enrolled. Distance learners were far more likely to attend graduation events and seek out their faculty and fellow students in person. We also conducted biennial student surveys on who they were and what they thought of their program.
These students, we learned, were older, more accomplished and discerning, and led far more complicated lives than those we typically saw on campus. They equated rigor with value. Their educational journey was as important as the outcome: these students valued the intrinsic learning experience even more than the extrinsic, transactional aspect of gaining another credential. Although they had access to schools in their own region, they wanted education on their terms. Distance learning programs gave them that control—within a nationwide cohort of similar online students. This was revolutionary for part-time learners, who were previously dependent on limited local opportunities to be with others from their region. They could now join a geographically dispersed and diverse virtual student community.
I also began to see a new self-consciousness and excitement develop among the faculty about the art and science of teaching, which rejuvenated those who had been conducting the same courses the same way year after year. Though intentionally only a small part of MET, online distance learning now permeated everything we did and had become.
Through one singular, somewhat innocent foray into distance education, a model emerged that allowed us to recruit students nationally, deliver high-quality online courses, and reap the financial rewards that helped to underwrite the growth of a college. This changed the profile of part-time students and the education they experienced. This also helped elevate the role of continuing education deans and of those faculty who participated, who were now appreciated as pedagogical innovators by their peers throughout the university. This ecosystem beautifully blended the business and academic facets of a new model for part-time higher education. And it was created, remarkably, by for-profit firms working in close collaboration with deans and their faculty—initially in an otherwise skeptical era.
’Til Teach-Out Do Us Part
On a day-to-day basis, though, these partnerships have been far from the turnkey relationships we were promised. In our innocence, we thought this would just happen through the gentle management of our partners, who would tell us what they needed on a prescribed schedule. In fact, we soon became painfully aware that these relationships were complex and labor intensive, often volatile and frustrating, fundamentally challenging, and constantly in need of nurturing.
Universities are built to last centuries, while growing companies are built to be sold every few years. As each service provider grew, ownership changed, and we would have to adapt to a new regime. The intricacies of building rapport between organizations constantly demanded protocols, oversight committees, weekly conference calls, summits, and sometimes even delicate lobbying and mediation. We had to hire staff just to work with their staff.
Over time, these service providers developed their own critical mass of in-house professionals who could share their expertise and pursuit of innovative tools and techniques. However, this concentration of staff became a double-edged sword: while promoting continuous improvement, these companies also became more complex and bureaucratic, and partners were forced to learn more names, navigate more mazes, and become more assertive in getting attention and resources.
We were always in search of the right metaphor or label to characterize our ties to outside service providers. They are something less than true partnerships but more than conventional vendor relationships. The university and the corporation have different vested interests—and it is imperative that the university exert the upper hand in defining the message, standards, and attributes of its academic programs. Academic leaders must be willing to assume a significant, persistent watchdog role when they outsource critical and visible mainstream components of their public presence. Unlike other vendor agreements, universities are ceding more than just narrow, marginal activities of campus life. Every marketing piece, every conversation with a prospective student, every interaction with current learners, and every facet of the academic experience reflects on the reputation of the school. An online degree program makes a bold statement in the academic marketplace. The stakes are high and require constant vigilance.
Quickly, many of our online degree programs were copied by others. With enrollments on the rise, we could be less involved in the operations of our partners. But when numbers began to ebb in a more-competitive marketplace, this became a wake-up call that BU had to be more engaged in marketing strategy. One frustration was that these service providers never moved much beyond North America. I hoped that our virtual community of adult learners would extend globally as well. Most of MET’s tuition dollars come from employer tuition reimbursement, and until corporate tuition benefits become more universal, adult higher education will not be nearly as prevalent abroad. But the maturation of the market shattered the mystique of the online service providers and forced many of us to challenge their marketing savvy. They in turn pointed the finger back at us to further differentiate our programs through new courses, concentrations, and tracks. Through this tension and these growing pains both organizations were forced to look critically at themselves.
Occasionally I would hear the metaphor that these academic/business distance learning alliances were “marriages.” They are, at best, open marriages. With so few companies in this business, these firms found that their ambitious financial model required nonexclusivity to pursue many schools with potentially overlapping programs. Their ability to rationalize program differences was matched by our paranoia that we were losing students to other universities supported by the same company. Despite the claims of internal firewalls, faculty simply could not believe that two similar degree programs could be marketed ethically by the same for-profit.
Some naively assumed these corporate partnerships would be easy to reevaluate and even exit, but the reality is that there would be a long teach-out tail to any nonrenewed contract. It takes several years to see those in the pipeline through to graduation. The financial risks of enrollment decline during any transition could be devastating. As a result, these online program alliances have an innate inertia—which, in retrospect, made these potentially long-term, perpetual decisions even more consequential.
Another facet of entrenchment was the need for ongoing faculty commitment to distance learning. Early on, online teaching fatigue began to set in. We had grossly underestimated the time required to build quality online courses and revise them before each iteration. We realized that scalability was somewhat of a myth: there were diminishing returns the larger courses became. Students did not respond as favorably in course evaluations when class size was too high and the head of the course too remote. But building in enrollment caps meant offering even more courses. To alleviate faculty strain, we invested far more in instructional support. Our innocence had foisted us onto a path we had barely understood.
In the first era of nationwide, fully online distance learning, companies like Embanet, Compass, Deltak, and 2Tor (now 2U) were almost undetectable catalysts in enabling college deans to take the leap into e-learning. Their “white label” concealed their identity from the public, but not their impact on campus. In this pre-strategic period, deans could not anticipate the roller coaster ride they had launched.
The End of the Beginning
For-profits have found several vacuums to fill within the academic landscape. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, for-profits were most visible and controversial in the dramatic surge of proprietary universities. These for-profit schools rose from a negligible presence to having more than 10 percent of the market share of the nation’s students in less than ten years. They were fueled by the power and reach of the Internet, a willingness to exploit federal aid for those who succumbed to predatory recruiting tactics, and the neglect of traditional nonprofit universities to accommodate the rising student demand for accessible higher education.
When massive open online courses (MOOCs) burst upon the scene, the perception of online education flipped dramatically in the often superficial perceptions of the popular press, university boards of trustees, and even senior university leadership. Prognosticators now claimed they could foretell a future in which online technology would resolve all that ails higher education. Online education went from its former rogue status to being fashionably mainstream, from subterranean to strategic. Ivies-come-lately now dabbled in noncredit online courses and partnerships with even newer third-party start-ups, and overshadowed decades of unsung heroes who had built substantial online learning opportunities for their students, especially at community colleges and comprehensive public institutions, without the resources and visibility now common.
Ironically, the now-mature market for true distance learning degree programs—always a small subset of total online course enrollments— has flattened out in recent years and become more competitive and less hospitable to newcomers. A glut of similar online degrees has emerged, with participation from universities much higher in national rankings. The differentiation of programs, the prestige of the institution, and the quality of the online experience itself have become critical to success in distance learning.
University leaders have been hearing the message from their boards and peers that they need to stake a position in this brave new world, which for many of us did not seem terribly new and required far less bravery. The for-profit online service providers began shifting their conversations from deans to provosts and presidents, from their focus on individual degree programs to enterprise-wide roles.
The university has a long history of engagement with for-profit publishers whose clients were individual faculty. Now as the industry evolves and combines curated content (such as textbooks) with professional services (such as those offered by Deltak and Embanet), its relationship has shifted from faculty members adopting texts to senior university leaders launching distance learning programs, and the focus has shifted from individual courses to major cross-institutional efforts. Ideally, deans of professional and continuing education will continue to insinuate themselves into these alliances on their campuses as they propel their institutions forward.
We are now in a phase of more self-conscious, cautious evolution than the revolution touted frequently in the rhetoric. Universities are scrambling to formulate some internal structure that will facilitate the integration of digital technology. Those with a longer history in online education tend to have stand-alone, all-purpose units dedicated to producing and delivering instruction through the web. Those with less experience are tapping existing units to share their resources or well-regarded faculty to head this virtual effort before putting an infrastructure in place.
The range of functions and facets of online management span advocacy on campus, entrepreneurial initiative, oversight of student services, faculty support, and the technologies needed to deliver quality instruction. Deans of professional and continuing education, some of whom might have had opportunities like mine at Boston University to share their efforts across colleges, are now in an even stronger position to play a more strategic and visible role within their universities.
This is a critical inflection moment in the professional position and stature of continuing education deans. Will they respond successfully to the leadership vacuum created by online education? Or will they revert back to their previous, more comfortable marginality on campus? As an explicit professional role for online management emerges on America’s campuses, continuing educators can either rise further or fall in stature. The UPCEA is itself at a similar inflection point—and can capture a key place nationally as a leading professional association in online education.
In retrospect, I have come to appreciate the instrumental role third parties play in provoking change. The first decade of this century drove many of us out of our complacency and into a more dynamic and less familiar realm. While for-profits and nonprofits might have some inherently incompatible features, these are neither universal nor unmanageable. With different goals and structures, they can share in projects like distance learning and make the otherwise impossible occur.
Are outside for-profits necessary in academe? I would suggest the answer, at least from my vantage point and experience, might very likely be yes. Universities rarely have the will or wherewithal to be innovative without some infusion of outside assistance. Increasingly, start-up companies address specific internal and external needs of the academic community—from international student recruiting to the integration of digital technology. There are at least one hundred start-ups and consultancies, as well as major players, just in the Boston area dedicated to finding niches in student recruiting, fundraising and alumni relations, and educational technology and services to address critical challenges we all face—with creativity, agility, and risk capital not often found in academe. The question for the future will not be whether or not to work with for-profits, but when to do so and how best to manage those relationships.
That memorable 2001 conference call with one such start-up set Metropolitan College on an exciting path, changed my professional fate, and allowed what had been the university’s night school to blossom into its entrepreneurial hub.
- This fateful discussion was convened by then Boston University associate provost John Ebersole, who served as UPCEA’s president in 2002–2003 and now presides over Excelsior College. Along with Metropolitan College, I also acquired those units that previously reported directly to John when he departed in 2006, including the Office of Distance Education, which supports all of BU’s online certificate and degree programs.
- Metropolitan College is one of sixteen degree-granting entities at Boston University and functions as a multidisciplinary university within a university. MET possesses its own degrees and full- and part-time faculty but also collaborates with BU’s other schools and colleges.
- Embanet went through four ownership changes in our first decade working together—including a merger with Compass (once its rival) and a recent acquisition by Pearson Education. Boston University also worked briefly with Datamark and more recently with Deltak (also acquired by a major publisher, John Wiley and Sons), along with several other companies, particularly MindMax, which supports MET’s online noncredit certificate programs.
This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).