Op-Ed: Why innovation-desperate higher ed needs to break its shackles

Colleges and universities need to stop ceding their independence in the name of tech and innovation—here’s how to do it.

Outsourcing and technology adoption are booming in higher education, as student demographics change and learning models evolve. There’s an inherent challenge: as the complexity of delivering personalized, student-centered education increases, institutions run the risk of ceding their independence to outside entities in the name of innovation.

Facing pressure from policymakers and accreditors to show movement on outcomes and a tangible return on academic investments, colleges and universities have an imperative to test and scale new approaches to improve outcomes, casting a hopeful eye to solution providers and experts.

As technology becomes a more entrenched component of efforts to improve student outcomes, relationships have grown testy. Institutions feel beholden to consultants, software vendors and services firms instead of the most important stakeholders: students.

The risks and tensions involved in outsourcing are well known to higher education, and institutions would do well to remember that tech is ultimately the vehicle for supporting students, not the master. But many in higher education see a third path between “buy” and “build”. The future of private sector-higher education collaboration will be most beneficial to businesses that can help us build—and then go away.

The Innovation Opportunities That Can Support Insourcing

Online Learning: Online education is often stereotyped as a field dominated by private businesses that run online programs on behalf of institutions on a revenue share basis. In truth, the migration of learning experiences to online and blended courses is a powerful example of how the higher education sector is adapting in the market and fueling innovation from within its own ranks.

When access to web development and digital marketing services were scarce commodities, institutions relied on multi-year revenue-share agreements required by online program management (OPM) firms as a necessary part of launching online programs. This model placed aspiring online providers at a disadvantage by diverting resources from the institution to outside developers.

Today, colleges and universities looking to move their programs online are getting closer to launching their online initiatives internally, even if they aren’t prepared to fully go it alone. As technology and design services have become increasingly commoditized and available at much lower prices, institutions are able to develop and launch online initiatives with growing independence.

Online education leaders are instead focusing on co-developing skills and technology in ways that generate equity and intellectual property for the institution. Over time, institutions are slowly, but surely, starting to unshackle themselves from entangled relationships with outside entities.

(Next page: 2 other innovation opps ripe for insourcing)

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