When the Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

I have written several blogs and articles on the concept of a “networked” institution. The core argument is that, as we move forward into an increasingly complex and fast-paced world and technology and data analytics, colleges and institutions are being forced to a decision point. What services can they invest in and excel at to promote their brand?  And for what services should they join partnerships in order to access and serve their learners. In this conception, the student-facing institution would still look and behave like a coherent set of integrated services. Behind the scenes, however, the organizational structure would be far more horizontal and would include multiple partners providing integrated services.

There are at least three drivers of this move towards networked institutions.

  • First, much of the technology and data analytics being developed are coming from off-campus, outside the traditional institutional and governance structure of the institutions. These innovations constitute transformative change that can be managed, but not controlled.
  • Second, most colleges and universities do not have the resources to compete with external companies and non-profits. These external players are investing with laser-like focus in specific products and services that serve learners of all ages in the emerging eco-system of higher education and lifelong learning.
  • And third, working with partners and in consortia, the “home” institution has access to a deeper well of resources in which the whole of what they can access and offer learners is greater than any of the parts taken individually or collectively. It is the dynamic interplay of these resources, unimaginable even ten years ago, that creates a new dimension of quality.

In one such partnership, the University System of Maryland, funded by University of Maryland University College, has joined the edX consortium of institutions. The relationship is governed by a contract which includes revenue splits and fees as well as expectations for performance. All twelve of the diverse USM institutions are eligible to participate and most have expressed an interest in doing so. This includes our research-intensive institutions (University of Maryland College Park, University of Maryland Baltimore, and University of Maryland Baltimore County), as well as our HBCUs (University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Coppin State University, and Bowie State University), and our comprehensives (University of Baltimore, Frostburg State University , Salisbury University, and Towson University). Our degree-granting center for environmental studies (University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science) is involved as well.

USMx, as the group is called, brings the system together to explore strategies and practices that will benefit all involved. For example, by summer 2017, UMUC will have launched five MicroMasters programs  – Accounting, Bioinformatics, Cloud Computing, Instructional Design and Technology, Software Testing and Verification, an Entrepreneurship course and competition, and a budding partnership with UM Eastern Shore in Hospitality and Tourism Management. There are about 5 MOOCs in development as well, including the first MOOC ever from an HBCU.  This partnership will also give USM institutions the opportunity to create and participate in small, private courses that could be used for training and professional development.

The advantages for participating institutions include access to courses and degrees they might not otherwise have had, exposing their institutional brand to new students, exploring international markets, and providing continuing education to alumni. For an institution like UMUC, with its evidence-based undergraduate and graduate programs, the opportunity to establish a welcoming posture involving prior learning assessment and recognition of learning done elsewhere that can be documented is significant.

The edX Consortium is a win-win for everyone. edX gets academic partners who provide learning pathways for edX learners. The academic partners get access to global resources, learners, and expertise, not to mention a global operating system. And edX’s learners get more high quality, less expensive academic pathways forward that meet their life circumstances and learning needs.

The whole is certainly larger than the sum of the parts. And networked institutions are a thing of the future.

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