“EMU is expanding online degree programs” with the help of “Academic Partnerships”

I was actually out and about today when I heard this story on Michigan Public Radio, “EMU is expanding online degree programs.” A quote:

Eastern Michigan University has entered into a 5 year agreement with Academic Partnerships, a private company, to offer four fully online degree programs.

According to Kevin Kuchera, EMU’s Vice President for Enrollment Management, the programs will increase educational opportunities for non-traditional students while generating revenue for the University.

The four programs are RN2BSN (Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing), Master’s in Educational Leadership, Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction and Bachelor of General Studies (degree completion).

It is “interesting” to say the least that a) this is coming out at the very end of the semester, hours before the beginning of the Christmas break, and b) there was nothing about this from EMU about this; rather, the story broke from Michigan Public Radio. Anyway, a couple of thoughts and then I hope others have comments and such:

  • Personally, I have no problem with online programs/online courses in principle as long as they are done well. I’ve been teaching online for about ten years and I think it can be a legitimate way to learn and educate– with lots of caveats that I won’t get into right now. However, I worry a lot about the partnership that EMU has entered into with Academic Partnerships, which strikes me as the worst kind of “Edu-preneur,” interested in trying to suck as much money out of the education sector as possible. The Atlantic had a pretty good article about this, “How Companies Profit Off Education at Nonprofit Schools.” The short version is this is a sketchy arrangement, one where Academic Partnerships is likely to profit a lot more out of this deal than EMU, and also a deal where students generally are the losers/pawns.
  • I had heard some rumors about this coming about, but it sounds like these programs went through with pretty minimal faculty input. That’s kinda bad.
  • I’m not sure I worry much about the nursing program or the graduate programs in Education, but the Bachelor of General Studies degree has lots of potential for problems. This was actually something I wrote about on the old EMUTalk back here, which is when this “General Studies” degree was first floated. Back then I pointed out we already have a program in “Individualized Studies” at EMU, so I don’t know what this degree is supposed to be about. In any event, I’ve had students in the current “Individualized Studies” program– particularly in some of my online classes– and I have to say these students tend to be kind of misfit toys with a ton of credits (usually from three or four different community colleges and universities) who are trying to figure out a way to be a college graduate. I guess it’s good that we should try to help them out, but I’m not sure making this a degree program with lots of students in it.
  • My current work/book project is on Massive Online Open Courses, and I’ve done a fair amount of research looking back at the history of previous movements in distance education. Long-story short: higher education has been trying to come up with a way to bring education to students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to college for a long time, and simultaneously to increase revenue. There were correspondence programs in the late 19th/early 20th century, courses by radio and television in the middle of the 20th century, and of course “traditional” online courses starting around the early 1990s. Sometimes, these delivery methods just became “normal” (correspondence and online courses), and sometimes these methods morphed into something else (courses by radio and TV became public radio and public TV).  But one thing has proven to be consistent with these earlier movements and with things like MOOCs: they didn’t “transform” education as we know it and they ended up not being nearly as profitable as the edu-preneurs promised and/or hoped.

6 thoughts on ““EMU is expanding online degree programs” with the help of “Academic Partnerships”

  1. The press release suggests instructional responsibility (“development and delivery”) falls to faculty and instructors, whereas “promoting the programs and recruiting students” is in the hands of Academic Partnerships. I for one would have appreciated more direct acknowledgement of who will be responsible for support (one of the great pitfalls of academic programs over the past two decades) and who will be answerable to retention. That is, we have underway initiatives related to improving retention, and yet online programs have demonstrably higher rates of attrition, dropout, and discontinuation. The OLC in 2012 noted, “A majority of chief academic officers at all types of institutions continue to believe that lower retention rates for online courses are a barrier to the wide-spread adoption of online education.” As such, some discussion of retention and support is conspicuously absent in the announcement. It’s sort of like you can have low-cost and convenient online programming, or you can have high-contact, high-quality, well-supported programming with a chance at improving retention. But are there any examples of a university doing both at the same time?

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  2. Someone posted a comment on the Facebook site for EMUTalk (and since deleted it) asking me about how this move with Academic Partnerships fits into the ongoing narrative about MOOCs and the chances of EMU expanding its “market reach” beyond SE Michigan– basically, I think that was the gist of it.

    First off, as far as MOOCs go: as I understand it, Academic Partnerships is not in the same kind of MOOC business as companies like Coursera, though those two companies did go through an effort to partner together back in 2014 and they’re both interested in trying to reach into what is essentially the “job training” market by offering specialized training certificates that are not actually degrees but might be useful for people with degrees seeking particular kinds of jobs. These kinds of certifications are fairly common in the realm of IT.

    It gets kind of confusing nowadays because its a rapidly evolving space, but from my point of view, a Massive Online Open Course is simply not the same thing as the kind of fairly conventional online courses we offer at EMU. That said, I don’t really know what Academic Partnerships has in mind, and I did hear through the grapevine that one of the courses that had been floated for one of these programs was a writing course with 100+ students and one instructor. That’s a bad idea.

    MOOCs have a lot of potentially interesting uses in Higher Ed as we know it, and for me, they highlight the difference between a “learning opportunity” and “Education” as a certification bureaucracy and a culturally valued institution. These two things don’t always overlap, but basically, MOOCs are good as learning opportunities and terrible as Education, IMO.

    Second and in terms of the whole “increase revenue” angle here: past attempts would suggest that this is not likely to happen. The most recent historical moment of this effort is one that I am sure many of us still remember, which was the first big wave of online programs/courses in the 1990s. The idea was that places like EMU (or wherever) would put their courses and degrees online and they’d be able to attract students from all over the world. Well, that didn’t happen. Sure, you have the University of Phoenixes of the world, but those kinds of proprietary school programs have been running in parallel with conventional higher education since the early 1900s. And there are some higher profile institutions and unique programs that have had some success in this regard. But generally, what has happened is students who take online classes at a particular university take f2f classes there too, and/or they know about that university because of the region. We don’t get students from Alaska in online programs at EMU, but we might have students who were at EMU who then moved to Alaska who are trying to finish their degree with online courses.

    BTW, anyone interested in a particularly scathing and occasionally too alarmist view on all of this for my tastes should read David Noble’s *Digital Diploma Mills.* I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s more right than wrong.

    What I don’t know much about yet– I’ll have to do some more research and it fits with the book project– is what’s the advantages to EMU with a partnership with the likes of Academic Partnerships. They do some marketing and collect half or more of the tuition revenue? That just seems like a generally bad deal.

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  3. This company “Academic Partnerships” seeks universities with accredited programs that AP can exploit for online education classes, repeating profit for AP’s owners. Okay, that’s the capitalist profit drive expanding into education; this has been going on for 20 years, furiously, despite the near total lack of evidence supporting the ideological claim that educational goals can be achieved when the main goal is profit. (Remember the EAA? Lots of Detroit people do.)

    So, what is EMU in this deal for? Why did EMU’s Top Management make the deal with absolutely no true faculty input? Two urgent questions for all at EMU who truly value education.

    Right now, I’ll venture a theory on my first question: Academic Partnerships may have induced EMU to sign the deal with some kind of signing fee. Top Management at EMU is anxiously seeking quick money (hence the outsourcing of food services and the possible sell of Fish Lake, two things with no educational or nutritional value, but the Chartwells deal brought in quick cash, and selling Fish Lake would too, if completed. (This is a theory for the origins of the otherwise very hard to explain “Academic Partnerships” deal, not an established fact.)

    Top Management at EMU has few options. Sue Martin ran EMU’s bonded debt up to the max, and we have to repay it. Few obvious options, when the sacred cow of the Division of Red Ink costing so much to operate, but is NEVER held accountable to a meaningful cost-benefit performance standard. (And no, getting to the Bahamas Bowl is not relevant to any TruEMU purposes, even if the Eagles had won.)

    Any other theories to explain this very odd deal?

    Top Management is made up of nice people. Very well paid nice people, but mostly folks who lack a deep grounding either in education, academic life, or EMU. So, if they see an EMU asset to sell off — say, food services, which has for years, amazingly, remained popular with students — they do so for the short term gain,and with no sense of the risk of harm to the university’s true institutional interests.

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  4. Pingback: Responding to “Setting the Record Straight From Susan Moeller, Outgoing EMU-AAUP” | EMYoutalk.org

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