In response to my piece, Thinking About the Warren/Brown Letter to OPM CEOs, Trace Urdan tweeted:

If you don’t know Trace, you can get to know him and his ideas a bit in the Q&A he and I did last year. 7 Questions for Trace Urdan on OPMs: A conversation with a managing director at Tyton Partners.

Trace…..good question. What should the role of OPM companies be in creating the infrastructure for independent scholarship on non-profit/for-profit collaborations in the online learning space?

I appreciate Trace asking this question, as it advances our conversation, and forces me to clarify my thinking.

To get us all on the same page, what I’m proposing is the creation of an organization or entity dedicated to providing independent, data-driven analysis around trends, drivers, and outcomes related to university/company partnerships in the learning/credentialing space.

This organization, or institute or center, should (I believe) be situated within a university. Call it The Center for Online Learning Scholarship (COLS – pronounced “coals”). Catchy? I just made it up.

COLS should be university-based, as it needs to fully align with standards of academic openness, independence, and communication. COLS is not an advocacy organization, or a think tank with a perspective, but an entity devoted to hypotheses testing through data-driven scholarship.

Okay, so what role should Online Program Management companies play in COLS?

I’d say that the OPM companies bring at least three essential attributes to the table: money, expertise, and networks.

Money: No use being coy here, COLS needs OPM money. (Unless some foundation officer reads this post, and wants to get in touch). The thing is, the OPM companies should want to help underwrite independent research. The brand of the OPM industry is not good. The industry faces an existential risk if anti-OPM feelings end up resulting in a regulatory or legislative attack. And the lousy image that OPM companies have at many schools, and with many faculty and non-faculty educators, will make it more difficult for these companies to gain new partners. If the OPM companies believe that their business model is truly in the best interest of schools and learners, then they will welcome credible and independent research on institutional and student outcomes.

Expertise: Critics of the OPM industry may not want to hear this, but the people who work for OPM companies know a great deal about online learning and the business of higher education. To truly understand the causes and outcomes of university/OPM partnerships, it is essential to get the perspective of the OPM providers. An institute like COLS would provide a structure in which knowledge and information across the for-profit/non-profit divide might be exchanged and analyzed. An organization committed to independent non-ideological research, leveraging anonymized data, would be a safe place that OPM companies could share their knowledge.

Networks: Universities indeed own the data that underpin OPM partnerships. I’m not clear what universities can share partnership agreements and business arrangements. How much is under NDA? COLS would be able to work with both schools and companies to bring forth as much data as possible, which can then be anonymized and placed in a data warehouse. Data elements could also include contracts, agreements, budgets, business plans, and reports. Again, all of these can be anonymized to enable scholarship and publication. Getting a critical mass of schools to bring these data forward will only be possible if that effort is made in collaboration with OPM companies. Ideally, COLS would also be able to gather data from universities that launch online programs without OPM partners. Any valid and reliable research on the causes and consequences of university/OPM partnerships will require a comparison group.

What do you think?

Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.

It is a relatively trivial exercise to come up with the idea for COLS. What is needed is a way to make a pitch to some university to host this Center, and for companies to both fund and participate in its work.

How much money would COLS need to get off the ground? What are the staffing requirements? Are there other sources of funds available behind company underwriting? How many OPMs would need to contribute? How much money should the OPM companies provide each year? Who would go first? What models do we have of this sort of company-funded university-based research center?

How do we take COLS (or whatever it ends up being called) from idea to reality?

Inside Higher Ed