Saturday, September 06, 2014

Academic Innovators as Community Organizers -- Part 2

Last update: Saturday 9/6/14 @ 3:16 pm
Note to the reader -- Please read Part 1 before reading these pages.

II. Marketing and Recruitment ==> Strategic Partnership ==> Pearson PLC
As the other pieces fell into place, there was no denying that the university's strained finances could not support the kind of multimillion dollar marketing and recruitment campaigns required to launch a comprehensive array of online degree and certificate programs. We needed a strategic partner who could invest the substantial funds required for the launch in exchange for a negotiated share of the subsequent tuition revenue.

Note: Had the university's finances not been so deeply troubled, it might have been able to finance a multimillion dollar marketing and recruitment effort from its own resources, as had been done by Southern New Hampshire University. In that case I would have strongly recommended that we retain EOServe -- a small black provider of online services -- to guide our marketing and recruitment efforts because EOServe had far more experience and success in promoting online programs for HBCUs than any of its competitors.

Pearson offered a stronger profile of strengths vs. weaknesses than the other large companies we considered:
  • Strengths
    As a global colossus that earned over $9 billion in annual revenue, Pearson had greater access to the kind of patient capital that our start-up operation would require. As one of the world's leading publishers of textbooks, Pearson could also provide our faculty with access to a vast digital warehouse of learning objects that could greatly enhance the effectiveness of their online courses. And Pearson exuded a palpable determination to become the world's leading provider of online educational services.
  • Weaknesses
    To my knowledge, most of Pearson's previous partnerships had been with large public institutions that had already launched online programs that enrolled hundreds, even thousands of students. In other words most of its previous partners had engaged Pearson to help them scale-up their enrollments. And most of the students enrolled in these programs were not black; whereas Howard's on-campus enrollment was still over 90 percent black, a strong indicator that the vast majority of the students likely to enroll in its off-campus programs would also be black.
Although I was convinced that Pearson's strengths outweighed its weaknesses, I was concerned that its prior experience with larger scale-up operations might not prepare it for the inevitable messiness of a small start-up like Howard-Online. To be specific, I was concerned about our capacity to consistently develop the number of new programs year after year that Pearson expected.  On the other hand, I was also concerned that Pearson's inexperience in recruiting black students might impede its capacity to meet the enrollment targets. My solution for all of these concerns was patience. Given enough time, I was sure that Howard-Online would produce the number of programs that Pearson expected, and given enough time Pearson would learn how to recruit the number of qualified black applicants that Howard-Online expected.

Unfortunately, there wouldn't be enough time for patience to work its healing magic. Pearson's small sales team had been remarkably accommodating throughout the protracted contract negotiations that took far longer than either partner had anticipated. The contract was not signed until early July 2013. By that time it was too late for our faculty to devote their summer 2013 "free time" to developing and enhancing many of the courses that would be required for the new programs that would be launched in the fall 2014 semester. 

Therefore Howard-Online would not be able to launch as many online programs as had been planned.  A smaller number of programs implied substantially lower enrollments, and substantially lower enrollments meant substantially lower tuition revenue, revenue that would be even lower if my concerns about Pearson's initial capacity to recruit qualified black applicants proved to be correct. Accordingly, the partnership was suspended in January 2014.
Apologies and Satisfactions
No matter whether the partnership is revived at some future date or not, its initial activation must be judged to be a failure, a failure for which I, as its community organizer/planner, must assume responsibility.  I grossly underestimated the time that would be required to conclude the contract negotiations, and I grossly underestimated the negative impact that the loss of the 2013 summer session for course development would have on the capacity of Howard-Online to meet its initial program targets.  

The clarity of 20-20 hindsight leaves no doubt in my mind that Howard-Online was a classic case of "less is more" ==> Had we initiated a less ambitious program, i.e., one that would have offered fewer online degrees and certificates in its first few years, we would have been more successful. Therefore I sincerely apologize to my colleagues at Howard University for persuading so many of them to invest so much of their valuable time and creative energies into the development of off-campus programs for a venture whose initial ambitions were larger than we could sustain. To paraphrase the great Professor Einstein, HBCUs should develop online programs for off-campus students as fast as possible ... but no faster ... :-(

On the other hand, the same logic that compels my apologies also allows me to claim some measure of credit for redirecting most of HU-LEARN's energies to its on-campus HU-Teach component, which is what I think this initiative should have done in the first place. I can also derive satisfaction from my role in facilitating discussions that led to the development of a credible draft of a "Faculty Bill of Rights" with regards to blended and online courses. The draft embodies policy recommendations that would guarantee that faculty would receive the required the training, workstations, software, and network connectivity that would enable them to offer high quality blended and online courses; it provided guarantees that developing and teaching such courses would be valued as highly as developing and teaching traditional courses during promotion and merit reviews; and it acknowledged faculty ownership of a substantial share of the intellectual property embodied in the online and blended courses they developed.

Back to the Future
The failure of the strategic partnership between Howard University, one of nation's preeminent HBCUs, and Pearson PLC, one of the world's leading providers of online educational content and services, strongly suggests that such partnerships may be inherently unworkable, but especially unworkable if the HBCU's goal is to assume national and global leadership roles in the provision of effective online and blended learning opportunities for black students. Some current high tech conventional wisdom decrees that would-be leaders must:
  • Take substantial risks ==> We did that.
  • Fail Fast ==> We certainly did that ... :-)
  • Learn from failure ==> Figure out what we would do differently if given another chance.
The reader is referred to Part 3 of these notes ==> Back to the Future -- for strategies that I think would be more likely to enable HBCUs to assume leadership roles in online and blended education than either going it alone or forming strategic partnerships.

Related Blog Notes:
Roy L. Beasley, PhD, the author of this note, is the former Coordinator of Faculty Support Services for HU-LEARN. His 41 years of productive service to Howard University, first as a member of its tenured faculty and then as a member of its senior staff, ended abruptly on 1/30/14 when his position was eliminated.