Online Learning: The Benefits and Pitfalls of Third-Party Partnerships

min read

Deciding whether to develop or outsource the expertise and technological infrastructure necessary to launch an online degree program requires a thorough evaluation of costs and careful consideration about which approach will provide a solution that aligns with institutional mission, values, and culture.

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Credit: retrorocket / © 2019

Imagine you are a top-level administrator looking to add blended or fully online courses and programs to your institution's catalog but don't know where to start. There's no infrastructure on campus for designing, developing, or supporting online learning experiences. Overall, the faculty and other administrators are divided: most agree that the market is there but are concerned that online programs are not aligned with the mission, values, and culture of the school. You hire a consultant to help project the costs associated with building in-house capacity to get an online program off the ground for the first time.

The cost? Over $5 million. Head spinning, you do a little digging into third-party partnerships. One vendor approaches you with an opportunity to use its curriculum and Moodle packages to get your first online program off the ground in a matter of months at a very reasonable price. What do you do?

This was the situation in 2017 at Bryant University, a small, private, liberal arts and business college in New England. By the summer of 2018, the campus had contracted with a third-party content provider to launch a 10-course online MBA program with off-the-shelf syllabi, Moodle course packages imported into Blackboard, and a dedicated student-support system for technical troubleshooting. The campus had advertised the program for a January 2019 launch, and by the summer of 2018, it had already received dozens of applications and deposits from eager, aspiring MBA students.

It is within this context that I interviewed for the role of director of online learning, accepted an offer to join the team, and came onboard in late September 2018. Now, roughly one year into this adventure, I can share that the team of staff, faculty, and administrators involved in launching the Bryant University Professional MBA (PMBA) have gained valuable insights into the steps to take, questions to ask, and resources to gather when offering online programs for the first time.

To Outsource or to Build?

Whether due to resource constraints or a lack of specific types of expertise, institutional and program leaders seeking to develop new online programs sometimes have no option but to look for external support. If you find yourself in such a position and are going to outsource content development, I offer the following advice:

  • Ensure that key faculty are involved in the vetting and approval of the material. Few instructors will jump at the opportunity to teach a course they did not design, or at least review and have the opportunity to modify, in advance. In particular, if your institution places a premium on teaching and the caliber of its faculty, spoon-feeding them a syllabus is not likely to go well.
  • Ensure that key technical staff are involved in the vetting and approval of the integration. Testing should be conducted against existing learning, security, evaluation, reporting, and support systems. Will students have a seamless experience between your platforms and the provider's platforms?
  • Ensure that key instructional staff are involved in the vetting and approval of the overall learner experience. If the content provider has built interactive experiences as part of its courses, are those experiences up to the quality standards you expect? If the content provider has used open educational resources (OER), are they instructionally effective? In general, how has the vendor measured the quality and efficacy of its curriculum?

Some higher education institutions may be able to shift resources in order to accomplish this internally. I offer the following advice to institutions that decide to build in-house capacity but don't have $5 million to spare:

  • Make one to two critical hiring decisions right away. First, hire an instructional designer with dedicated expertise in designing and developing online courses. This person should be able to work alongside faculty as a thought partner and coach and help to translate faculty learning objectives to the online learning environment. In addition, hire or train someone who can build a coalition among technical, library, student support, and other campus staff to support online students. Ideally, the instructional designer can do both, but note that this staff member will require a highly engaged administration. An instructional designer cannot be the only person on campus driving the initiative forward; like any change effort, this work requires sufficient top cover from the administration and consistent, positive messaging about the reasons the campus is going down this road and how the institution will benefit from the ability to reach new and different students. 
  • Identify champions among the faculty and administration who can bring the enthusiasm and motivation needed to sustain the initiative through the early stages. Fortunately, the president, provost, and deans were fully behind the addition of an online program to Bryant University's offerings. However, this is not the case at all institutions. In situations where there is a lack of institutional buy-in, campus champions can work closely with influential faculty members to build a groundswell of support that is based as much on data as it is on emotional appeals to build a solid future for the institution in an increasingly competitive landscape.
  • Establish a budget and short- and long-term projections for growth. How many students will you need to break even? How many students will you need to make a profit? How will you reinvest revenue into the program to ensure continuous improvement?

Whether your institution chooses to outsource or build its online courses or programs, you must ensure that you have the necessary staff in place to support online students from technical, research, instructional, and logistical perspectives. Decide whether your online students will be perceived and treated the same as on-campus students.

The Both-And Approach

At Bryant University, we essentially ended up going down both roads at once. After just two terms, it became clear to all involved—especially the students—that the third-party content was not a match for the program we wanted to provide. According to weekly anonymous feedback surveys, student satisfaction rose dramatically when we moved away from the third-party content and relied on our faculty members' expertise for curating resources, creating activities, and building to their own learning objectives.

We also found that engaged faculty dove into the work of creating new courses when they were given clear guidance on and support for doing so. This included usable templates for course syllabi, thoughtful video production and editing, development support for the course site, and a course design checklist divided into major milestones to keep faculty on track. In short, when our faculty were freed to focus on the content and instruction over and above the technology, they shined at doing what they do best: teaching.

While the contract with the content vendor was terminated very early on, the initial partnership enabled Bryant University to get moving on its first online degree program. It provided the impetus to generate buzz, create marketing messages, and lay the foundational infrastructure to support online learning on campus. It gave our faculty a launchpad from which to design their ideal courses.

What followed was a highly entrepreneurial, lean startup approach to online teaching and learning at Bryant University. The first-year expenses—including the early use of third-party content, faculty stipends, staff salaries, and other costs related to the program—totaled less than half of the originally quoted figure of more than $5 million. The university also invested in film studio equipment, including a lightboard, backdrops, cameras, and lights; software licenses for VoiceThread, Zoom, and Articulate; and a 24x7 support line to assist online students who were engaging with coursework outside of normal office hours.

The total revenue for our inaugural online program was higher than we had originally projected, and more students have begun the online program in the past year than the one- and two-year campus-based MBA programs combined. As of this writing, the Bryant University online MBA program is ranked ninth in the College Consensus list of 50 Best Online MBA Programs 2019.1

Time to Experiment!

The big takeaway from this, and thus my advice to other institutions looking to create high-quality online degree programs for the first time, is to do what works best within the parameters of your campus' mission, values, and culture. Invest strategically in vendor partnerships where it makes sense, while at the same time looking to leverage and build upon the strengths of your institution. Maybe you have excellent teachers who just need the right level of technical support, professional development, and coaching. Perhaps you have world-class student services that just need to be scaled to support an off-campus student body. Maybe you only require some help with marketing and student recruitment. Value and respect your brand while moving into this new space and avoid letting a vendor sell you more than you need in the name of expediency. Instead, identify a few specific needs, take action, learn as you go, and keep moving forward.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative page.


  1. 50 Best Online MBA Programs 2019, College Consensus, n.d.

Bonnie Budd is Director of Online Learning at Bryant University.

© 2019 Bonnie Budd. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.