Outsourcing Instruction

Let’s set one thing straight right off the bat, outsourcing instruction is not the same as distance learning. Distance learning allows students to take classes online from instructors employed by their university either as tenured faculty or adjunct professors. The instructors set the curriculum and assign readings and assignments. Then they, or their TAs, grade the papers. It has proved so successful a model that taking some classes online is the norm for students both on campus and off. However, outsourcing instruction is a new concept — one where the curriculum and professors are out of the university’s hands and based in the private sector.

Outsourcing, defined as “an institution’s decision to contract with an external organization to provide a traditional function or service,” by Alene Russell in a paper from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), is nothing new. In fact, in 2002 a National Association of College and University Business Officers conference found that more than 90 percent of higher education institutions used some form of outsourcing. However, the survey at that time didn’t even inquire about outsourcing instructional services because it was that far off the radar.

But one year later researchers, looking very hard, found three examples of schools outsourcing credit-bearing courses, all of which required highly specialized or proprietary knowledge or equipment. Now, close to one decade later, the education climate has shifted so much, with for-profit schools gaining prominence and students accumulating credits from multiple sources, that outsourcing instruction may be the next natural step.

Tentative Steps
“Tight fiscal constraints coupled with the demand to maintain or improve student learning outcomes may push outsourcing instruction into viability,” says Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis, AASCU. But it isn’t without controversy. “Faculty doesn’t like it,” continues Hurley. “There is an inherent natural reaction.”

“This is very new and very scary for some schools and some faculty members,” admits Howard Finberg, interactive learning director for the Poynter Institute. “But I say education is ripe for innovation. There is no one definition for a student these days so there shouldn’t be one definition for education.”

The Carnegie and Knight Foundations agree. They gave the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism training organization, a grant to expand their journalism education via an e-learning platform. So far it has signed up Missouri State and Florida Atlantic University to its Journalism 101 course. The two schools have used Poynter’s expertise in different ways.

Florida Atlantic treats Poynter as an adjunct professor providing consistency throughout their program. Missouri State created a hybrid model with Poynter providing weekly lectures, assignments, and activities while students had contact with an on-site mentor for individual coaching. “There was an incredible amount of pushback on the Missouri State campus,” recalls Finberg. “Not from the journalism faculty, they are familiar with us and were excited to have us join. But the other departments were not on board.”

“Poynter’s educators are likely to have superior credentials than would a per-course instructor hired from the local pool of professionals,” says Mark Biggs, head of Missouri State’s media, journalism, and film department when defending the decision in a June 2011 USA Today article. “Schools get our expertise and I won’t be modest, it’s high quality,” continues Finberg. “A good journalist may not necessarily be a good teacher. We provide solid instructional design with an interactive online experience that tracks students.”

It’s Not ‘One Size Fits All’
Finberg doesn’t harbor ideas that large schools with established programs would be interested in this model. But smaller schools that are trying to revamp their program or make it more innovative may be attracted to the turnkey aspect.

Another company providing turnkey education is Straighterline. Founded in 2009, this for-profit, non-accredited institution offers inexpensive college credit for entry-level courses like general calculus, English composition, and pharmacology.  Today they are partnered with 29 online colleges and universities that will give credit for their courses. Fort Hayes State University in Hayes, KS, had a different partnership with Straighterline.

“We wanted more of a marketing relationship with Straighterline,” recalls Dr. Larry Gould, provost, Fort Hayes State University. “We already have a large, developed distance education program in place, so we thought that we could attract Straighterline students to come to us for the rest of their education.”

After 18 months they generated a pool of 514 students and then ended the partnership. “It was an interesting experiment,” continues Gould. “Nothing about the experience was bad, but we weren’t generating the numbers we wanted.”
What does Gould think of the idea of outsourced instruction in general?

“Personalized pathways of learning or a DIY approach fits in with the new reality of swirling matriculation,” he says. Swirling, the word coined by Cliff Adelman, Ph.D., senior associate with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) to describe students’ complex enrollment patterns, means that college credit now comes from a variety of sources. “We have students with Advanced Placement high school credits, military credits, so this just adds to the mix.”

Does It Work?
But does this model work? “The jury is still out on overall effectiveness as far as student learning outcomes are concerned,” says Hurley. “There will be very low tolerance for the model if student learning is diminished in any way.”

With two semesters under their belt, Poynter has some interesting results to report. “We did a pre- and post-assessment of three sections of a traditional classroom vs. one section of our online students in Missouri, and we learned that our effectiveness was equal to or better than the classroom instruction. And it held true for non-journalism majors as well. That was satisfying.”

Finberg feels that outsourcing instruction will give schools more freedom. “You can put personalization where it matters, mentoring and coaching students while removing the drudgery of teaching entry-level courses. This is what innovation is about; finding new ways to deliver equal or better results.”