The Decade of the 'Dis-Enablers'

The last decade has seen a proliferation of “enablers” in the higher education ecosystem. These commercial ventures were set up with the express purpose of supporting institutions to manage those activities where they lacked the necessary knowledge and resources. Given the pace of commercial and technology opportunities in the sector, enabling services may seem at first glance to be a fruitful and meaningful use of resources.

 Photo by Wim Aarys

Photo by Wim Aarys

Hundreds of institutions have used “online program managers” (OPM). The industry includes Pearson Online Services, Wiley Deltak, and Everspring. There are critical differences between players in the industry, but each acts as a means by which educational institutions can outsource various responsibilities required for online education.

My concern is that it is unlikely that these enablers - as they provide these services, simultaneously increase the talent and future capabilities of the institution. Potentially, this variety of outsourcing ultimately weakens the ability of the institution to deliver services and content that is at the core of the institution. In our experience, institutions are not always suitably prepared - in the context of online education - to distinguish between what constitutes the core of the institution from what is non-core. And in their haste to respond to market pressures, they sign agreements that meet only short-term objectives, which weaken their long-term prospects.

We can safely assume that institutions using enablers are seeking an efficient means of supporting the management of specific services which in and of themselves are not viewed as core to the institution's offering.  They believed that the supported services do not impact the core academic, pedagogic and research offering.

It would be reasonable to assume that the institutions would see value in having aspects of their infrastructure such as property management etc delivered by external parties that could better leverage asset and resources scale efficiencies. These could then be tied into tight service level agreements to ensure the institution was getting value for money.However, one has to wonder whether the core proposition that defines a higher education institution such as content delivery or curriculum design should be delivered by parties who are not embedded within the institution.

I would take it one step further and with a commercial lens would challenge the basis on which service level agreements and success criteria are set and met in such aspects of the offering which are qualitative by their very nature.

It's also worth noting that competitive pressures will encourage enablers to expand the range of services they provide, at times encroaching on more of the institution's core value-based offerings. This tendency can potentially weaken the very essence of the institution. In the worst case scenario, institutions will lose what makes them unique and essential - leaving them with nothing but the brand and accreditation. One wonders what the students would benefit from in such a scenario when there is limited emotional or cultural vested interest in the deliverables or for the outcomes achieved by the students.

Let's also, though, consider what the so-called enabler is offering and whether elements thereof can be adapted or adopted by the institution to provide a blend of an academic and commercial outcome.

In some cases, institutions will be better investing more in their people and processes, rather than turning to enablers. The online education market is not so sophisticated as of 2018 that laggard institutions can no longer catch-up.  Institutions may better expend their resources developing the fundamental skills and resources they need. Having external parties supplement and augment is a good use of time and effort; to replace and undermine is not. 

By Dan Sandhu

Based in the City of London, UK, Dan Sandhu was voted one of Education Technology’s 100 most influential leaders globally. Dan has worked in education technology in the UK, US, Australia and India as an investor, executive, mentor and advisor. Most recently, he was Chairman and CEO of Digital Assess, which through an evidence-based assessment product, delivered reliable assessment while engaging the learner. 

Keith HampsonComment