ExtensionEngine Blog

Is the OPM model dead?

A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published an excellent article on OPMs. The article was critical of both the revenue share model and marketing techniques OPMs use on behalf of not-for-profit higher education institutions. As a leading provider of custom learning experiences to higher education, an alternative to OPMs, we share this point of view.

The article outlines how OPMs are motivated by profit to drive as many students as possible to sign up for courses and programs. With OPMs taking 40%, 50% or more of the revenue, some use “predatory” practices and aggressive sales techniques to recruit students. This can drive up costs to students and can lower admission standards.  And the article accurately states “the practice of sharing online tuition revenue between a company and a college is a holdover from the dark ages of the internet when education institutions first decided they should teach online.”

Our view is that OPMs served a purpose at one time, and are generally good companies that do good work, especially with universities that do not have access to capital and have no other choice. However, we are no longer in the “dark ages of the internet,” and this model should no longer be the default path for higher education institutions. We would argue that “online education” is a redundant phrase. Think about it — what institutions or businesses today consider “online” as a side project, experiment or something that can be outsourced? Very few. And certainly as new generations of children learn online from very early ages, as K-12 schools adapt it, as kids learn on YouTube and Khan Academy, higher education can’t treat “online” as something that can be outsourced. We recognize that online learning has had its ups and downs over the past 20 years, but the future is clear — online has to be as core as on-campus. Not because it offers cost advantages (which, as the article mentions, it may not). Not because it is trendy. But because, if done right, it can improve the educational experience and complement the on-campus experience.

Doing it right is not easy or inexpensive.  We believe that universities should develop internal centers of expertise and develop online education that is unique to them, that captures what makes their institution special and different. Whether it is pedagogy, brand, or academic focus, it should be clear to the student who the course came from — similar to the experience students have when they walk on campus. Students can also have this type of experience when online education is well integrated with on-campus learning and is unique to the institution. We call these “custom learning experiences.

Easier said than done? The Atlantic article states that there is some value in OPMs, that “...schools should be education providers, not tech companies.” Well, yes and no. Technology is becoming core to education. And many of the services offered by OPMs make sense to unbundle and have delivered internally or by specialists. The article went on to mention a new breed of companies who offer fee-for-service instead of tuition-sharing to “help schools assemble the tools, services, and tech to run great programs”. And on this point we could not agree more. Companies like ExtensionEngine offer services and let universities pay for what they need, services that complement internal expertise. And through real partnerships with companies like ExtensionEngine, universities can learn best practices, build internal expertise and focus on creating unique, custom learning experiences that become core to their offering.

If you are considering an OPM, or have an OPM now but want to plan for the future, schedule a 30 minute consultation with Dr. Scott Moore, our Chief Learning Strategist, to learn what other universities are doing with the alternative -  custom learning experiences.