Recently, we participated in the inaugural meeting of the Noodle Advisory Board. For those of you unfamiliar with Noodle, this is a for-profit (private) online program. Noodle is positioning itself as the alternative to OPMs (online program management providers), as the company emphasizes its preferred positioning as a paid bundled facilitator for university-initiated online programs. The comparison is with traditional cluster OPMs, whose core degree business model relies on revenue-sharing agreements with their partner schools.
In our books and articles, we’ve written extensively about the growth of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in the online learning space. In our analysis of these partnerships, we are both very critical of not-for-profit/for-profit partnerships that cannibalize a university’s ability to build internal capacity for digital learning. If we haven’t learned anything else from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that blended and flexible learning must be a core capability of every college and university.
So why did we agree to participate in the Noodle Advisory Board? 3 reasons:
1 – Influencing
Not-for-profit/for-profit partnerships are part of the fabric of higher education. Many of them are crucial to the ability of higher education to function. We may have concerns about the role for-profit companies play in college and university decisions, such as which programs they choose to take online, and how those programs are designed, marketed, delivered, and priced. . We believe the best way to address these concerns is to help colleges and businesses evolve their practices to be more thoughtful, intentional, and forward-thinking.
This shift should, in our view, require that not-for-profit/for-profit partnerships emphasize long-term institutional capacity building as a central goal of any relationship. We also believe that any school/company partnership should be transparent in its arrangements and that both parties should be committed to engaging in research and analysis of learner and institutional outcomes.
From what we have been able to gather, Noodle is serious about engaging with its advisory board as a strategic partner. Noodle put a lot of effort, time, and attention into building the board (more on that below), bringing everyone together in NYC for a day of meetings, and bringing his leadership team to the conversation. We hope our work on this advisory board will help shape Noodle’s strategy and help us better understand the values, goals and principles that drive these partnerships.
2 – Network
Joining the company’s advisory boards is always something of a chicken and egg process. You just want to be on an advisory board with amazing colleagues, but no one wants to commit until they know who else will join. Luckily, Noodle has dialed in their advisory board perfectly. The advisory board includes both existing Noodle university partners and non-partners. (None of us work at Noodle partner institutions).
The online leaders that Noodle has assembled on the advisory board include a provost, a dean, an associate vice-president and a vice-president. All Advisory Board members are nationally recognized experts in the field of higher education and online learning. More than that, each member of the advisory board is the kind of colleagues and peers that makes building a career in higher education worthwhile. They are thoughtful, passionate, collegial, modest and caring. The relationships we can help build by participating in activities such as the Noodle Advisory Board are key to nurturing this network.
As higher education increasingly becomes entangled with the for-profit sector within our core teaching and learning enterprise, it will become increasingly essential for those of us in the middle. university to strengthen our inter-institutional links. We need to understand what works and what doesn’t in non-profit/for-profit partnerships. And to do that, we need to share as much information as possible between schools. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, corporate advisory boards can be one of the best ways for academic peers to connect, build trust, and share knowledge. For this to work, the company’s advisory board must be structured to prioritize the voices and concerns of academic partners over the short-term, narrower interests of the company. So far, the Noodle Advisory Council seems to be following this positive pattern.
The third reason we agreed to serve on the Noodle Advisory Council is research. Part of our academic portfolio involves studying the growth and impact of not-for-profit/for-profit partnerships in the teaching and learning space. What we learn through our work on the advisory board applies directly to our research. The nature of school/company relations is changing too quickly to be understood from a distance. To get an idea of what is happening now and what things might look like in the near future, it is necessary to go into detail. We need to learn directly from schools and businesses about the motivations for engaging in these partnerships, how collaborations are structured, and the impact they have on schools, students, and educators. Participation in an advisory board allows many questions to be asked of colleagues in schools and companies.
To Noodle’s credit, the company has (so far) been strongly supportive of our research direction. We have argued to Noodle management that what is missing from conversations about non-profit/for-profit partnerships in the online learning space are opportunities to conduct independent research on the outcomes of schools / learners. What this research might look like and the support Noodle will provide is still something we are figuring out. Joining the Noodle Advisory Board and securing their commitment to participate in, among other things, supporting independent research, is a start.
It is a start that suggests a greater role for university partners in helping to understand and address some of the key issues facing higher education, whether cost, demographic change, impact or value. If not-for-profit partnerships are necessary for higher education to function, these partners must help higher education solve its greatest challenges.
Being on the Noodle Board can be a start, but it’s only a start.