A Response to SUNY's Request for Information (RFI)

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The online program management (OPM) landscape is a confusing one, the result of rapid evolution and an ever-greater assortment of businesses keen on winning their share of what has become a very lucrative market. We do not envy the task of any institution of higher learning seeking to upgrade their online learning program, and even less one considering the launch of their first program.

A few days ago, MindWires — a strategic consultancy and advisory firm — took an unusual step, one that begins to make the task a little easier by increasing transparency among all of these diverse providers: they published their response to a request for information (RFI) from the State University of New York (SUNY).

The action reflects — and begins to correct — concerns expressed by MindWires’ Michael Feldstein in a series of articles regarding the complicated 2018 OPM market. Greater transparency, as modeled by this move, may be exactly what the marketplace needs to make sense of itself.

In fact, the SUNY RFI itself has made a contribution to greater clarity. This RFI was more than a request for information on what various providers could do for them; rather, it asked the question: What do we need to know before we move forward? Asking for this guidance before generating a request for proposal, or RFP (which will come later), was a brilliant and insightful move on SUNY’s part.

The SUNY RFI listed 15 information-gathering objectives. As we formulated our own response, we noticed that we were, in effect, creating a road map through the wilderness of the 2018 OPM market, one that could be valuable to many institutions of higher learning that are thinking of creating or upgrading an online learning program. Some sections are more pertinent to multicampus systems like SUNY’s, but much of the road map applies to any institution, regardless of size.

For those who are not familiar with Extension Engine, we are a professional services organization that designs, builds, launches, and markets Custom Learning Experiences — an integrated, holistic experience designed for learners, pedagogy, vision, and brand. We are a fee-for-service partner — no revenue sharing — and are paid by the hour to provide a full suite of services to help our clients to create successful online learning.

So, in the spirit of transparency inspired by MindWires’ publication of their response, we are following suit to share portions our response to SUNY’s RFI. Below is a substantial excerpt from the road map through the OPM landscape we created for SUNY, shared with their permission.


We will start this off by listing some of our assumptions in order to establish a platform for what is to follow:

  1. Competition: Online learning is a competitive marketplace. This must never be forgotten. SUNY’s online courses compete with New York schools but also with all of the excellent national online schools. Further, in many areas (e.g., business, computing, and education), students have numerous quality and convenience options at many different price points. Degrees from higher education institutions are no longer the only valued learning game in town. This must be recognized when making the move to online learning.
  2. Bases for competition: The bases for competition are the following:
    1. Convenience: This is what has been driving the movement of education online.
    2. Quality of the overall learning experience: This is currently what keeps students from going online (because it’s generally not very good), but we think that it can be what attracts them and keeps them online (because it can be brilliant).
    3. Value of the education (degree, certificate, course) as perceived by both the learner and the employer (potential or current): Again, this is currently what keeps students away from online learning, but in more and more circumstances it is becoming less problematic as it becomes more common.
    4. Cost: As mentioned above, cost can vary widely in online learning — from free to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Value is delivered at all price points.
  3. Portfolio approach: It’s productive to think about the overall SUNY system as having a portfolio of courses, with different emphases, needs, and metrics for success. They should be considered individually, but recognizing that each one can be treated differently provides useful insights.
  4. Service adoption: For centrally provided services to be successful at SUNY (i.e., to be adopted widely across a variety of campuses), they have to provide a needed service and recognize the individual nature of each campus, school, and program.
  5. Limiting technology: Technology acts as a limiting factor in online learning. Using a commercial learning management system (LMS) will both provide a set of common tools and ensure that SUNY’s courses look and feel like courses from other institutions.
  6. Out-of-course experiences: Student services, career services, community building, and any experience that takes place outside of the course itself matters just as much as in-course experiences, if not more, in student retention and success.
  7. Variety of learning models: Within the market for learning, there is a place for pure face-to-face, pure online, and a blended approach.
  8. High quality of online learning: High-quality online learning experiences can be better than face-to-face learning in many situations. This is no longer up for debate — just look at the negotiations course at Harvard Business School Online (HBX) for just one of many examples — but it is not always recognized by all parties in the discussion.

Mandatory Steps for SUNY to Take

The following are steps that SUNY absolutely must take if it hopes to be an influential voice and successful force in online learning in the decades to come.

1. Take a portfolio approach to online learning.

This is probably the most important insight that we can pass along:

SUNY should stay away from the push to standardize all courses across campuses, schools, and/or programs. Each one has an inherent value. Treating the high-value ones similarly to the low-value ones does not make financial, cultural, or pedagogical sense. Some programs deserve and can support extensive investments of money and time.

If you don’t do it, then another online program will; when that happens, your program will die off and you will have wasted your money and time.

Resist the standardization push.

2. Create a superior, centrally provided, SUNY online approach.

The SUNY system’s scale provides a significant advantage over almost all of the competition. However, it must be noted that this scale comes at the overall system level. This makes taking advantage of that scale a more complex political and organizational process than it would be if it were simply one campus.

As described below, the SUNY system’s distributed structure has its own benefits, but the drawbacks should not be underestimated.

In any case, scale provides an advantage because it allows more programs (through the multiplicative effect of tuition x students) to be eligible for the greater investment required by brilliant online learning.

The market is currently supporting many low-quality, barely sufficient programs around the world. Few high-quality programs are out there. Given that these programs are more expensive to create, having the scale to support the creation and continued evolution of high-quality programs will win out over time and provides SUNY with an advantage that will be difficult for others to match.

However, brilliant online learning is undeniably expensive. Delivering a superior, centrally provided,  SUNY online approach has several benefits, including:

  • a single brand to take to the market,
  • a single organization to manage, and
  • a single technological foundation to support, build, and evolve.

In addition to providing superior benefits to students, faculty, and leadership, amortizing the expense of the cost of the programs across all of SUNY’s campuses and students creates a more manageable cost structure than trying to replicate it multiple times.

3. Produce a  guide for making online-related strategic decisions.

In addition to developing the portfolio of online programs, SUNY must also create an associated decision guide to determine how to treat each program.

Leadership of the various campuses and programs across all of SUNY would appreciate — and demand — such guidance: 1) for how they might be able to take advantage of the superior, centrally provided, SUNY online approach (which would otherwise be out of reach financially), and 2) for ensuring a fair playing field.

The parameters of the decision guide should be based on the following:

  • Program size
  • Multicampus enrollment (if, indeed, it would be attractive and important to students across many campuses)
  • Importance to the system (for whatever purpose)
  • Available funding
  • Needed pedagogies

The outputs of the decision guide would specify:

  • if the program would be face-to-face, online, or blended;
  • if it would be created and supported by central SUNY or a specific campus;
  • the source and amount of investment that would be made in the program;
  • if the approach would be “custom” or “standard”; and
  • the platform on which the program would be deployed.
4. Create a high-quality “digital campus.”

It’s well understood that out-of-course issues and challenges are more significant causes of retention problems than in-course issues. This should lead campuses to create tools to support and connect with their online learners.

Unfortunately, few universities have taken this challenge seriously enough to do more than simply put links and phone numbers online.

SUNY should create a high-quality “digital campus” across all campuses for online learners. SUNY should treat these students as if they matter just as the students on campus do. Make it easy for them to access student services and to know what courses and programs of study are available to them.

A major step in this direction would be to build a mobile-first app that provides a unified access point for online students across the SUNY system. This should be a personalized app in that it would provide access to only the appropriate services available to a given student, depending on his/her enrollment status.

This is a major development effort, one that should be considered as seriously as a major physical building effort on a campus.

Further, this is a much bigger idea than providing an online course catalog; we’re envisioning digital access to student services, career services, community building, speakers, and strictly online events, and so on.

5. Build a high-quality, SUNY-specific online learning platform.

SUNY should create a high-quality, SUNY-specific platform for online learning experiences. This will allow for the delivery of premium online programs that are differentiated and a source of pride for all stakeholders.

This can be a service provided to all campuses for programs that SUNY makes available to the entire system; it can also be a way for SUNY to give individual campuses, in the appropriate circumstances, the access to a means of designing, creating, and delivering brilliant online learning.

6. Develop high-quality programs.

As mentioned above, SUNY should create custom, high-quality learning experiences for any program that warrants one:

  • The program is entering into a market in which there is a high quality and/or quantity of competition.
  • The program is important to the system’s portfolio (for whatever reason; what counts as “important” would have to be delineated and debated).
  • The program has to have the support and interest of school leadership. Without this, resources (time, effort, and money) would be squandered in the effort to create a high-quality online learning program that has only lackluster support.
  • The program needs a sufficient number of students. Again, these high-quality programs are expensive to create (though generally not as expensive to deliver as their face-to-face counterparts), so having enough students (with their associated tuition and/or fees) is really the only way that a program can justify the needed investment.
7. Create an internal service organization for “standard” online programs.

It is definitely not the case that it would make financial sense to put a high investment into all programs. SUNY would go bankrupt if it tried to do so.

SUNY should define and support an internal centralized consulting approach for handling the “standard” SUNY online programs. Some of the larger SUNY campuses might be able to maintain their own support staff, but that should be the exception rather than the rule.

These courses and programs will receive a much lower investment than the custom courses mentioned above, but that does not mean that they should be low-quality, haphazard experiences that are difficult to navigate.

  • SUNY should create an online program (with an associated online reference and how-to manual) to train faculty in the “SUNY way” of creating online courses.
  • SUNY should hire lots of low-level instructional designers (potentially student interns) to support the faculty in this process.
  • SUNY should provide its faculty with a standard set of tools for creating online courses.
  • SUNY should license a modern, flexible, commercial LMS (with appropriate learning tool interoperability [LTI] integrations for a wide variety of programs). Canvas makes the most sense here as the future of Blackboard is very much in doubt.
  • SUNY should engage with a third-party creative company to provide guidance on interface design and user experience for this platform. This should be a one time, not ongoing, engagement.
8. Deliver value with the physical campuses.

SUNY should not discount the value of all of its campuses. These allow the creation of both pure online and blended programs. SUNY’s wide geographical footprint is a clear point of differentiation over pure online (and geographically distant) competitors.

Some pedagogies (think lab-focused courses) currently require the learning to be done in a specific location. This will likely change over time, but it must be recognized.

Further, SUNY can use these campuses for student services, events, course or program get-togethers, mentoring, and career services. People like face-to-face events, and the inconvenience of travel is frequently outweighed by the benefit of face-to-face networking.

9. Understand, and employ, the value of marketing.

The value of marketing simply cannot be underestimated. Online learning is way past the days of “build it and they will come.”

SUNY should not make any investment in any online programs that it cares about unless it is willing to invest in the marketing to make it successful.

This marketing should not be simply focused on Google AdWords. This is a highly competitive ad marketplace, and the costs of advertising can be prohibitive in some degree areas. (Again, think business, computing, or education.)

Many standardized, low-quality degrees are already out there; in order to build a lasting presence, SUNY has to be clear about the differentiation and value that it brings to the marketplace before building the program.

Once its value is clear, and a clear statement of that value can be made, then it would be appropriate to build a marketing strategy and campaign around it.

10. Form partnerships with New York–based employers.

This is a seemingly extraneous recommendation, but it can provide a strong point of differentiation to SUNY if it can be accomplished.

As SUNY surely knows, many of its students pursue online learning as a way of advancing their career prospects. A partnership with employers, specifically New York–based employers, would have the following benefits:

  • Employers are looking for qualified employees whom they can recruit and hire, and students within the SUNY system would be an obvious source for them.
  • Students are looking for companies for whom they might want to work, and New York–based employers are a reasonable target for them. Seeing specific companies who have recognized the value of the SUNY degree would thereby raise the perceived value of that degree in the eyes of potential students.
  • Partner employers could provide data, expertise, and career services to the programs they are interested in.
  • Partner employers could contribute funds needed to develop better learning experiences in the programs they are interested in.

Finances: Limit Revenue Sharing

We have one simple but all-encompassing piece of advice related to finances: limit revenue sharing as much as possible.

Online learning is a significant part of the future of education. SUNY’s leaders would be abdicating their responsibilities to taxpayers and learners by choosing revenue sharing, because learning is SUNY’s main business and online learning is the future.

It is absolutely possible for SUNY to create and support a large portfolio of online learning programs in a much less expensive and more effective approach than by using revenue sharing.

Expertise related to all facets of online learning is widely available. The only way to gain experience and to build your expertise is to do it, sometimes by hiring leaders to train others and sometimes by hiring consultants for a period of time to mentor and train your own employees.

While large programs are the ones attractive to OPMs (and others interested in revenue sharing), these are the programs whose revenue can go on to fund the creation of smaller programs (which OPMs are not interested in working on). SUNY should not give in to the temptation to let a revenue-sharing OPM manage the large programs, because doing so chokes off the revenues that could otherwise feed the rest of the organization’s online needs.

Certainly, by forgoing an OPM SUNY is committing to providing the funds for these programs itself. The actual problem is the up-front investment, the money needed to get a program up and running before the first tuition money is received.

In general, after that first investment the incoming tuition will easily cover the ongoing expenses. However, alternatives are still needed.

The three common approaches that Extension Engine partners have taken are as follows:

  • Use funds from the endowment. Consider the investment in an online program as you would any major capital expenditure; sometimes endowment funds are used to kick-start an important university effort.
  • Raise money through the pooling of funds from many alumni, or target a donor for a major gift to create a named custom platform.
  • Use corporate partnerships and/or gifts to fund specific high-quality programs.

These sections of Extension Engine’s RFI for SUNY focused on what an institution needs to do to navigate the OPM landscape and how they might finance those efforts.

In our submission, we followed this with our thoughts on how to manage various pieces of the puzzle, including video production, student services, instructional design, information technology, marketing, faculty training, project management, and strategizing — with an eye on when and where SUNY might want to develop those capabilities in-house and where they might want to rely on third-party providers.

If you would like to see our thoughts regarding these topics, feel free to contact me.

Keep Learning

A Financial Model for Online Programs: Revenue Sharing vs. Fee-for-Services Engagements

Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of online program manager (OPM) engagement models, which one is best suited for your institution, and how you can receive a custom-tailored financial model for your institution.

[WHITE PAPER COVER] A Financial Model for Online Programs: Revenue Sharing vs. Fee-for-Service (Higher Ed)*


Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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