ExtensionEngine Blog

Disenablement and the Loss of the Higher Ed Soul

It’s a well-known physiological fact that if you don’t continually use a muscle, it becomes weaker and will eventually atrophy.

If you do your child’s homework (some parents actually do this), chances are they will have trouble making it on their own in college.

If you are in Paris and everyone speaks English to you, you may forget what French you know.

What is not as obvious is that the same principle can be applied to institutions of higher learning that have long-term contracts with traditional online program management (OPM) providers — those with a bundle of standardized services and revenue sharing.

That’s the key message of the article The Decade of the ‘Dis-enablers’,  by Dan Sandhu, one of the co-founders of Higher Ed Management.

I get this. I happen to agree with Sandhu's main point:

If an institution outsources everything turnkey, then its ability to deliver on its own atrophies or it never even develops in the first place.

We're seeing this now with universities that have signed ten-year deals with OPM vendors.

Those contracts are coming up for renewal in two or three years. What will these institutions do? After seven or eight years on the OPM bandwagon, they are not one millimeter closer to delivering their own online programs.

This presents these universities with a stark choice at renewal time: sign for another ten years on onerous terms, or cut loose and hope they can figure something out.

There is actually a whole body of research on this topic. It's called the overjustification effect.

If you rely upon external incentives, you'll perform better in the short term, but once the external reward disappears, you'll perform worse than you did before because you lose the intrinsic motivation to excel.

In the defense of institutions of higher learning, signing with OPMs seven or eight years ago made sense at the time.  

Online learning burst on the scene fairly rapidly, and institutions were caught between an intense desire to provide online programs to eager students and the lack of resources and expertise to make it so.

Going with an OPM meant the up-front cost was minimal (OPMs make their money through revenue sharing), and the institutions received solid, well-produced, pedagogically sound programs that even made some money for them. 

But this convenience came with a price.

Disenablement is just the first   and perhaps not even the most serious cost.

As Sandhu points out, in outsourcing their educational offerings, institutions may also have lost, in our words, a bit of their soul.

I think he has a point here too.

While OPMs may work with an institution’s faculty to ensure that the courses meet quality standards and achieve the desired learning outcomes, the courses themselves are not customized for each institution.

I have seen courses that that are virtually identical across institutions, differentiated only by appearance.

I’ve seen little in these cookie-cutter courses that conveys an individual institution’s distinctive approach to education. A logo is not a brand — and with the OPM one-size-fits-all approach, unique branding virtually disappears.

When this happens, what is an institution offering students that is distinctive or unique? Are we getting to a point where price and financial aid are the only differentiators in higher education?

I think it is time for colleges and universities to take a second look at where their online programs are going and their satisfaction with that direction.

Is running with the crowd really what they want to be doing? Or do they want to move in another direction, one that not only distinguishes their program but helps them to develop their own expertise — and make substantially more money in the long run?

At ExtensionEngine, our fee-for-service model is decidedly different from the OPM model.

We work with a client institution to design, build, launch, and operate their program. The client is put in the position of having to develop internal skills when working with us — and, in fact, we help them in that process.

To paraphrase the old adage, we help them learn to fish rather than just giving them fish. The up-front costs are higher, but then so is the return on that investment.


Continue reading:  There are two popular partnership models for outsourcing the development of online programs — revenue sharing and fee-for-service. Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of each model and which is best suited for your institution.

A Financial Model for Online Programs:

Revenue Sharing vs. Fee-for-Service

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