No, Mr University, I expect you to die

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George Siemens tweeted a link to this report the other day from HolonIQ, about Online Program Managers (OPMs), Online Program Enablers (OPEs), MOOC-as-an-OPM which they’re collectively calling OPX. I think it’s fair to say Brian Lamb wasn’t enamoured of this take. It’s difficult when reading such reports to disentangle one’s own eye-rolling response to language such as “we connected some dots by identifying OPX as a new meta-category. Collectively defining the entire spectrum of tech-enabled services models,” from some of the useful data analysis contained within.

Whilst it may seem that the authors love acquisitions and mergers far more than any family members, the uptake of third party digital providers they report on is not inconsequential (about 450 institutions signing new deals of some sort this year), and with Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn all having done commercial acquisition deals, then the role of third party in higher ed has grown substantially.

Perhaps this brings us to the long game for MOOCs, which many warned about back in the heady days of 2012: develop a model that ‘defines’ online learning, make that model unsustainable for HEIs, get them to sign long term partnership deals, take over higher ed by the back door.

That is a bit of an evil Bond-villain take, but having been repeatedly trying to grab a juicy slice of that higher ed market, big business had found it quite resistant. Private online universities never really swept away the old providers as many feared in the 00s. So if you can’t take it over by setting up competitors then the next approach is to do it by working with, and then undermining the existing providers. The online pivot has given the Bond villain scenario its own secret volcano lair and army.

To be fair to the HolonIQ report, it lists four scenarios. The first of these is OPM Oligopoly whereby a few global OPM providers control and dominate the market. Sounds like a lot of fun. Their 4th scenario is University DIY wherein unis develop their own capacity in-house. I kinda object to the DIY tag here, as it has connotations of low quality, and implies unis are’t doing this already. The other ‘not shit’ option is University Network, whereby unis develop content in networks.

The latter option brings back the possibility of OER coming to the fore post-pandemic. But let’s be honest, we’ve also been knocking at that door for some time, and as David Wiley argues, there are fundamental issues with community based approaches to content. But that doesn’t mean a model based around re-allocating existing funding can’t be successful, as David and others have shown with open textbooks.

So, the HolonIQ report should be read like dystopian fiction – it’s a warning of what might happen. It is unlikely that Government’s will act to help fund scenarios 3 and 4, particularly in the UK where the only discernible Government policy in any sector seems to be ‘how can we subvert this to channel money to our chums?’ (which favours scenario 1). So it’s down to HEIs themselves – as I argued before the OPM option is no magic button, and developing networks of content and skills will prove more sustainable in the long term I’d contend.

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