The State University of New York Systems Administration’s Open SUNY department recently put out a Request for Information (RFI) regarding an ambitious set of goals for expanding their online learning programs across the entire 64-campus system. Although the RFI never used the term “Online Program Management (OPM)”, the request is clearly written with OPMs in mind.

This is an area of the market where MindWires is increasingly involved with helping academia understand the options and plan for success, both through our consulting engagements and through our public analysis on e-Literate. As we wrote our response to SUNY’s request, we realized that much of the information in that response could be useful to colleges, universities, and systems that are contemplating ambitious projects that might require contracting with OPMs or other digital enablement services providers. So we decided to release portions of our response publicly.

This document has been edited from the original for clarity, brevity, and general applicability to a broader audience.

SUNY’s Stated Needs

  • Open SUNY’s RFI covers a broad range of goals related to increasing revenues, increasing SUNY’s differentiation in the market, increasing student access to education, including the following:
  • Opportunities to position SUNY as a unique provider of educational opportunities for all learners;
  • Reaching the millions of New York residents currently not enrolled at a SUNY campus, who need higher education to be more effective on their jobs;
  • Significantly expanding SUNY’s online learning experience to serve exclusively online students who are currently not at a SUNY campus;
  • Potential next-generation innovations in online/digital education where SUNY may have a unique opportunity to leapfrog competition;
  • The most appropriate ways to productize SUNY’s vast educational offerings to prospective students;
  • Business and revenue sharing models to incent behaviors, ensure sustainability and provide campus/System revenue growth;
  • Opportunities to capture students SUNY is losing to other online schools generating revenue for investment in our campus operations;
  • Outreach and marketing plans that reach a broad range of key stakeholders, including potential students in-state and out of state, internal staff and professors, and other key stakeholders as identified;
  • Platforms and services to expand SUNY’s current online environment and enrollments to challenge current leaders in the field;
  • Insights into the type and structure of programs appropriate for this platform/business model;
  • Requirements to continually align educational opportunities with labor market needs;
  • How to best integrate SUNY’s 64 campuses and their faculty into this improved platform/business model;
  • The impact of the changing demographics in New York, as well as surrounding states and potential global opportunities;
  • Partnering with interested industry leaders, including other university systems;
  • Consideration of prior learning assessment as part of the improvement to this process.

While many of these requirements are addressed in various manners by vendors that categorize themselves as “Online Program Management (OPM) companies,” we anticipate that SUNY will receive a bewildering array of highly varied responses from companies that look very different from each other and have very different offerings. Sorting through these very different responses, developing a coordinated plan for the collection of different vendors that will likely be needed to meet all these objectives, and doing so with an understanding of the change management challenges in a system of many diverse and independent-minded campuses will be extremely challenging.

This is exactly the type of problem that MindWires excels at solving.

How MindWires Decreases Risk by Increasing Clarity

MindWires is a fee-for-service end-to-end strategic consulting and advisory firm. Academic institutions that go to market for products or services from EdTech vendors often start in the middle of the process by jumping headlong into procurement. This increases the risk of project failure for a variety of reasons, ranging from poor stakeholder buy-in to a poorly designed vendor selection process to a lack of clear success metrics and continuous improvement mechanisms in the implementation design. We can act as a trusted advisor throughout the entire process, from early design to funding proposals to implementation planning and execution, all the way through outcomes monitoring and continuous improvement.

Our focus when helping our clients with strategic planning is to reduce their risk by ensuring the plan meets the following criteria:

  • The problem domain involves real institutional needs – what the strategic objectives are, focused on the outcomes of the educational processes.
  • The solution domain involves technical requirements, system features and organizational structures – architectural approaches to manage learner data, consolidation of platforms, integration of innovative learning apps.

Because MindWires is a fee-for-service consultancy, we can scale our involvement up or down throughout the lifecycle of the initiative as needs change. We can provide focused, affordable support in the early stages and ramp up our involvement as the program reaches the planning and implementation stages. Our fees tend to be a very small fraction of the overall budget for such large initiatives and often pay for themselves quickly through increased efficiency, effectiveness, and funding request success.

What an End-to-End Solution Looks Like

MindWires can increase success of initiatives like SUNY’s across its entire range of ambitious objectives by acting as a trusted advisor throughout the process, including but not limited to the following:

  • Strategic plan definition: Before SUNY Systems Administration can make a budgetary request to the governor and legislature, it must first design a clearly articulated plan. Further, that plan must be developed through a process that will foster campus buy-in from the very beginning. MindWires has extensive experience in this sort of process, including our early and ongoing work advising the 114-campus California Community College System’s Online Education Initiative (CCC OEI), as well as a range of other state colleges, universities, and systems, ranging from Colorado Community Colleges Online (CCCOnline) to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to Louisiana State University (LSU), among others.
  • Budget request: MindWires can help craft a budget request for the plan that will align with the goals set by the state’s governor and legislature, as we did with several successful CCC OEI budgetary requests.
  • Strategic implementation planning: Once a budget has been approved, MindWires can facilitate our client’s development of a strategic plan at a level that is more detailed than is necessary for funding approval but essential before vendor procurement and program implementation can begin in earnest. For each aspect of the program, MindWires will help our clients to set appropriate goals and match those goals with metrics, means for gathering those metrics, and a continuous improvement plan designed to respond to those metrics. Strategic planning of an initiative as ambitious as the one SUNY is contemplating typically must support three parallel tracks:
    • Catalyzing and supporting individual campus initiatives: The range of responses to SUNY’s RFI will undoubtedly show tremendous variation even among the group vendors that squarely fall within the OPM solution category. Since one of SUNY’s goals is to foster innovation to “leapfrog competition,” it will be important to empower campuses to take advantage of innovation within the marketplace by giving them a choice of partners for certain online programs—particularly in areas that are still developing, such as competency-based education (CBE), stackable credentials, micro-degrees, and code academies. Ultimately, this process will look like other SUNY system-assisted procurement processes, where SUNY takes advantage of its collective buying power to negotiate favorable terms from a range of vendors from which individual campuses—or individual schools within campuses—may choose. (This is quite similar to a process that MindWires recently facilitated for UCLA.) If the curated selection of system-preferred vendors is to have its intended effect regarding innovation, then the pre-procurement needs assessment and criteria definition processes will be particularly important. MindWires frequently facilitates such processes.
    • Designing system-wide initiatives that will be successfully embraced and implemented by the campuses: Reaching millions of students who are not enrolled at a SUNY campus or attracting some back for advanced degrees and certificates will require creative cooperation and collaboration among the campuses, who often have intimate knowledge of the local needs but lack the resources to meet some of those needs. While the SUNY system has done some of the hard work for building the foundation necessary for the taking advantage of its “systemness,” MindWires can work with clients like SUNY to develop a plan that knits together these initiatives into a coherent whole that incentivizes more collective action. For example, the design of MindWires client CCC OEI’s initiative enabled them to persuade all 114 campuses to migrate to a common LMS system ahead of schedule using only incentives with no directives at all. The program was so successful at motivating quick and substantial collective action that the California Community College System had to go back to the legislature to (successfully) request a funding adjustment to support the rapid adoption. CCC OEI is now using that common infrastructure as the basis for a course exchange that will speed up student time to graduation by eliminating bottleneck courses while helping campus leaders manage over- and under-enrollment problems in critical classes. MindWires can help our clients craft incentives to leverage their strengths to achieve similarly dramatic progress toward ambitious goals.
    • Designing necessary common infrastructure: System-wide goals require system-wide infrastructure. For example, CCC OEI’s goals of eliminating bottleneck courses while relieving campus over- and under-enrollment problems ultimately require an easy-to-use, easy-to-search student registration portal with back-end integration across SISs in order to work and scale (and to assure various campus stakeholders that they will get proper tuition accounting, credit attribution, and so on). Each client’s goals are somewhat different, as are the strengths it has to build upon. Nevertheless, systemwide initiatives at the level of ambition that SUNY envisions will require common infrastructure planning, which includes gaining stakeholder buy-in, needs assessment, technical planning. MindWires can facilitate that work.
  • Procurement facilitation: Once the strategic planning and needs assessment has been completed, it will be time to contract with various vendors for solution components. As one of very few higher education advisory firms that works with both academic institutions and EdTech vendors, we are uniquely well positioned to facilitate effective procurement processes. Our intimate knowledge of the vendors and their offerings will helps our clients to get better answers to critical questions, while our experience with and reputation for running fair and transparent processes will help them enlist campus stakeholders as allies in even the most challenging of decision-making processes. In doing so, we enable our clients’ procurement professionals to focus on the aspects of the process that they do best while we provide domain-specific expertise in a way that helps build consensus.
  • Project management: Ambitious initiatives like SUNY’s are likely to need an array of vendors to support multiple related but distinct initiatives. While each vendor may bring substantial project management capabilities to the table, the overarching initiative will need a separate project management function to ensure that all the pieces are moving forward and working together as intended. MindWires can support the initiative owners at the system and campus levels in identifying milestones, facilitating progress toward goals, and solving problems as they arise.
  • Fostering ongoing campus stakeholder awareness, buy-in, and active participation: Even the best-run procurement process will only have limited uptake if campus stakeholders, often down to individual faculty members and even students, do not understand and buy into the larger goals. Achieving this level of alignment can be a difficult task even at far smaller, more top-down organized institutions than the SUNY system. MindWires can help design and execute an ongoing campus outreach plan. For example, we developed a set of explainer videos for CCC OEI to help explain and evangelize the course exchange to their stakeholders on the campuses as part of a more comprehensive outreach plan.
  • Developing and facilitating a research- and data-backed continuous improvement plan: Many of the programs we have seen in academia have had the fatal flaw of a “fire and forget” design without a lot of thought given to analytics or accountability for results. MindWires can help design the initiative from the beginning for transparency and continuous improvement. By itself, that transparency helps with stakeholder buy-in and funding requests to continue and build on early accomplishments. But it needs to be augmented with an active research and feedback component designed to help decision-makers and other stakeholders identify bottlenecks for success, as well as identifying new opportunities. MindWires can provide ongoing independent analysis of program success both through our staff and through our unparalleled network of academic and industry experts from which we can draw to supplement internal expertise and provide SUNY with constructive peer review.

Again, because we a have a flexible fee-for-service model, we can customize the engagement to provide some or all of these elements at different stages of the project, with pricing tailored to the needs and budgetary constraints of the program at any given phase.

The Cost of Support

As was described earlier, MindWires provides a simple set of tailored fee-for-service pricing models.

We are aware that many of the firms likely to offer services to address needs like SUNY’s have varied and often complex pricing models, including revenue sharing, loans, and complex combinations that are designed to provide start-up capital and risk-sharing to their academic clients in exchange for future revenues and some control over program design. These arrangements are inherently neither good nor bad; they simply are a better or worse fit for the fine-grained needs of individual programs and institutions. Typically, revenue sharing and its many variations are best fit for supporting new, differentiated, revenue-generating online degree or certificate programs. The variations within the general model can be complex but are generally designed to enable universities to balance different risks. We do advise our clients on these differences as part of our portfolio of services.

There are also financing models that may be appropriate for initiative’s like Open SUNY’s that may not show up in typical RFI responses. For example, custom digital curricular materials vendors do not generally bid for jobs that look like request for OPM services. But a core part of a custom courseware development service is essentially course (re)design for improved student access and success. One of the financial models to support this service is that vendors recoup the cost of this service through student curricular materials fees, either directly from the students or mediated by the institution through an inclusive access or similar sort of deal.

Financing models are proliferating in higher education, to the point of creating a great deal of market confusion, in part because one size does not fit all. Universities will likely have to evaluate a wide range of financial models and make sure that their approved portfolio of solutions providers includes a substantial subset of those models. MindWires can help sort through those details.

Critical Success Factors

Given our broad perspective as analysts as well as consultants, we are acutely aware of the level of media attention surrounding the success of programs like Arizona State University (ASU), SNHU, and WGU. While these are indeed remarkable success stories that deserve attention, their operating environments are entirely different than that of many colleges, universities, and systems with shared governance, a strong faculty voice in decision-making, and/or multiple schools or campuses which operate with significant autonomy from the parent institution. Most of the high-profile models that get regular media attention will not readily graft onto these contexts, and most of the OPM vendors that sell highly successful full-service solutions do so with programs at a vastly different scale and far less heterogeneity than initiatives such as the one that Open SUNY has outlined in its RFI.

That said, all successful initiatives we have seen, regardless of context, share a few common characteristics that are critical success factors:

  • Political support for long-term investment: The juggernaut that is ASU wasn’t built overnight. President Michael Crow and his leadership team have been building it since 2002. And as remarkable a success as ASU is, it didn’t have to be achieved through a system of 64 independent and diverse campuses, ranging from rural community colleges to top-tier R1 universities and everything in between. SUNY will need to build its own success piece by piece, program by program, over a period of years or even decades. While each milestone can be its own victory, setting the system up for its next success, the vision and commitment will need to be long-term.
  • Savvy and relentless communication:There are institutions that have achieved remarkable success but do not get the same level of credit as some of their peers. Georgia State University is only now beginning to get the attention that it deserves for its incredible progress in closing achievement gaps and increasing student success across multiple measures. University of Central Florida receives only a fraction of the credit it deserves for achieving remarkable online growth while maintaining very high levels of student success. In a world where continuing progress depends on continuing public funding, success without credit makes those achievements more brittle. Any plan with the scale of ambition that SUNY is contemplating must include a strong outreach and communication plan.
  • Planning for and commitment to continuous improvement through data and analytics: No plan, no matter how well-conceived, will achieve all of SUNY’s stated ambitions in its first iteration. To truly have a significant impact at the scale of the entire State of New York, the program must be designed from the beginning with goals, metrics that align for the goals, measurement tools that deliver the metrics in a timely and useful form, and an organizational structure that supports continuous improvement based on feedback loops that are designed into the effort from the beginning.

There are more case studies to consider, often with mixed results. University of Florida Online violated all three rules above, pivoted, and now seems to be much more successful, in part because they are following these principles. Purdue University, in buying Kaplan, acquired one of the best data-driven online programs in the country. But their poor performance on the other two principles has led to decidedly mixed early results. (As a side note, we would be wary of trying to duplicate Purdue’s strategy by acquiring another for-profit provider, in part because Kaplan was a standout in terms of their extensive institutional effectiveness research with its close ties to operational planning.)

One of our core competencies at MindWires is sense-making. When institutions contemplate ambitious new programs with few direct examples to follow and a need to engage with a complex and changing vendor landscape, we enable our clients to filter the confusing swirl of inputs, translate them into the clients’ contexts, and find the actionable lessons for success.