Think it Through: Technical Considerations of Corporate Partnerships

University-corporate partnerships can offer higher education institutions many benefits, including exposure to new revenue channels, networking relationships with corporate partners, and continuing educational programming for professionals. However, before engaging in a corporate strategy, there are several technical considerations (and decisions) to evaluate.

Businesses tend to rely pretty heavily on data to drive business decisions. When a company sponsors training and development, they want assurance that their learning programs lead to measurable performance outcomes. To this end, universities should evaluate their data-sharing strategy for corporate partnerships.

Here are a few reasons why data sharing is mutually beneficial for both the university and corporate partner:

  • Aligns university-provided courses and content with company-defined competencies for individual employees
  • Improves visibility about aggregate outcomes from company-sponsored programs with an institution
  • Simplifies the user experience for employees by integrating (aka “federating”) university learning system logins and passwords with employer-based systems
  • Expedites enrollment and payment processing

Once you have determined the reasons for sharing data with your corporate partners, there are several technical questions you now need to ask, including:

  • What are the technical considerations and risks associated with data sharing? How can they be avoided?
  • What kinds of data should be shared and how should it be protected?
  • Should third-party system integration be considered?

Build Your University-Corporate Strategy

Prior to the late nineties, many university-corporate partnerships were relatively simple, from a technology perspective. In a typical relationship, a corporate student would enroll and attend an on-campus program, and upon successful completion, the institution would issue a credential to the student and provide a transcript back to the corporate partner to go in to their HR file. In some instances, the institution would tailor curricula specifically for corporate partners to meet organization-learning goals. From a technical perspective, this was still a very simple, analog transaction.

Move forward to today, the technical landscape in both the university and corporate learning environments are vastly different—and technically complex.

For example, let’s compare two complimentary systems implemented in most higher and corporate education environments today:

Example 1: Information Management Systems

  • Higher Ed: Most institutions have implemented Student Information Systems (SIS) such as DestinyOne to manage student data across the institution.
  • Corporate: Most organizations have implemented similar Enterprise Resource Planning(ERP) systems such as SAP or Oracle to manage data across the organization, typically including learning and HR data for employees.

Although these systems are similar in function, they serve different organizational needs.

Example 2: Course Management and Delivery Systems

  • Higher Ed: Most institutions have now implemented Course Management Systems (CMS)such as BlackboardMoodle or Canvas that allow schools to augment and flip traditional classroom learning, providing an option for institutions to develop and deliver online distance learning courses.
  • Corporate: Similarly, the majority of corporate organizations have implementedLearning Management Systems (LMS) that allow corporations to administer, track, report and deliver online education courses or training programs—developed both internally and externally.

Much like SIS’ and ERPs, these systems perform similar functions. However, they also serve different organizational needs.  

Bridging the Data Divide

As shown in the above examples, most universities and corporations have implemented systems to manage data and learning within their respective environments. So, it should be easy to share data between these two environments, right? Well, not exactly.

Many of these systems share technical standards intended for interoperability and sharing of data across systems (e.g. single sign-on, encryption, API, etc). However, many are not designed to seamlessly bridge the university-corporate divide out-of-the-box.

Every institution and technical environment is unique, and there is no single, correct strategy. Therefore, it’s important for each institution to carefully weigh its university-corporate objectives against its mission, technical infrastructure and resources.

Although there are many factors to consider, the following represent some of the most common technical areas that universities should evaluate before launching their corporate strategy:

Course Delivery

How you intend to deliver your programs to corporate partners can greatly impact the technical factors your institution must consider.  Will you offer Classroom, Online and/or Blended?  Depending upon your approach, consider some of the following questions:

A. Classroom:

  • Can corporate partners batch enroll students?
  • Will partners receive completion data? What formats?

B. Online:

  • Can corporate partners automatically enroll students?
  • How will students access your online system?
  • How will learning data be shared? What methods and formats?

C. Blended (Classroom and Online).

  • Will a blended approach offer consistency for classroom and online?

Student Information

Assuming student data needs to be shared between university-corporate systems, what information is commonly shared/desired by corporate partners? What common data fields and formats?

Which information and just how much of it should be considered carefully when sharing with a partner system. Here are some common data elements shared with partner organizations:

  • Enrollment and payment processing
  • Basic student profile information
  • Registration information
  • Assignment and course completion information
  • Attendance and basic transactional activity

Although this information is typical, corporate partners are becoming more accustomed to having analytics, interactive reports and behavioral/social data (student to student, student to instructor) available for reporting or data analysis. Therefore, institutions need to carefully evaluate the data they are willing and able to share with corporate partners, while considering future data requirements.

When sharing data between a higher education institution and a corporation, it is important to determine and define accountability.

Third-party Integration

Many institutions and corporate organization maintain various third-party systems that relate to employee learning.

For example, consider some of the following third-party integrations:

Human Capital Management.Many corporate organizations have implemented Human Resource Management (HRMS) and Human Capitol Management (HCM) systems such as Workday or SuccessFactors to manage employees, including the mapping of learning outcomes to career advancement, competencies, and rewards.

Enterprise Social Networks. With the advent of consumer social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, many organizations have implemented Enterprise Social Networks such as Yammer or Chatter that allow coworkers to follow each other and share updates, including learning achievements.

Industry Certifications. Many industries have developed their own set of recognized learning credentials such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) or Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) that allow institutions to map their outcomes to core certification requirements.

Is Human Capital Management important to your core corporate prospects? Do your programs align to industry-specific certifications or competencies to provide additional value to corporate partners? Is social networking important to your prospects?

Depending upon your overall university-corporate strategy and prospective partners, your institution may want to consider integration with other third-party systems.


Whether your institution decides to offer programs via classroom or online, most of your corporate partners will want to either send and/or receive data from your systems, such as single sign-on for online students, automatic enrollment, student results, etc. Therefore, to do this in a secure (and compliant) manner, you’ll need to determine the authentication methods you will offer to your corporate partners.

If you plan to offer online delivery, most organizations (like yours) want to avoid employees maintaining separate usernames and passwords for various systems. To solve this, most organizations use single sign-on to seamlessly log users into internal and third-party systems. This can also be used for non-human interaction with systems, where one application talks with another to share data.

Everyone does not use the same authentication methods. However, there are several authentication protocols (aka “federated authentication”) that allow organizations to authenticate with each other across the web, such as CASADFS, and Crowd. If you’re just getting started, there are also cloud-based “identity” providers to consider, such as PingIdentity and Okta that strive to make these interactions easier.

Data Security and Privacy

What are the security, personal identification and privacy issues that need to be considered in a university-corporate partnership? Security is one of the most important and overlooked areas surrounding integration between systems and organizations. And, as a result of serious data breaches over the past decade, there are now several information security regulations that require it, including:

Your first reaction might be; why do we need to be concerned with non-education specific security regulations such as PCI or HIPAA? Well, if you are accepting payments (e.g. PCI) and sharing data with corporate partners (e.g. SOX), they are responsible for maintaining compliance with all information and data systems.

No two information security policies look alike, and chances are one or both parties will have to compromise on one issue or another. Depending on the nature of the relationship, accountability is one of the most important issues to consider. Defining accountability will determine who is ultimately responsible for data loss, breach or other failure due to software or system vulnerability.

Therefore, it’s important for your institution to perform a risk analysis of the integration point(s) you’re considering sharing with your corporate partners, so that both parties are fully aware of their security requirements and shared responsibility.

Every institution and working environment is unique. There are myriad technical considerations and few easy solutions when working with corporate partners.

So it’s important that you carefully evaluate your overall strategy, resources, and systems to determine what’s best for both university and corporate partners.

Corporate partnerships can be fruitful and bring about huge beneficial change. But institutions need to weigh their ability and understand very clearly their capacity to meet the technical needs/requirements of the corporate environment.


Learning Technologies & Transforming Your Workforce

Join eCornell and Connie Malamed, industry veteran and publisher of the popular blogazine, The eLearning Coach, as she spotlights trends that have the potential to provide more meaningful and relevant learning experiences to your workforce.

This webinar will help your organization—from executives and managers to IT departments and training professionals—prepare for future generations of independent and active learners.

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM EST

The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring

Perhaps no idea has captivated the imagination of change agents within higher ed to the same degree as Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” His central observation is that seemingly invulnerable incumbents are displaced not by evolutionary better technologies, what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations,” but by cheaper and simpler technologies that are initially of lower quality. Over time, the simpler and cheaper technology improves to a point that it displaces the incumbent. Large companies are designed to produce sustaining innovations, and can seldom introduce the disruptive innovations that will result in lower profits and service levels in the short-to-medium term.

According to Christensen and Eyring, online learning is a classic disruptive innovation. Initially of lower quality than traditional face-to-face courses, the quality of online learning has progressed to a point where its cost advantages (both in fixed and opportunity costs) are set to disrupt the incumbent providers of higher ed. Institutions that figure out how to lower costs while increasing access and quality, through a combination of blended and online learning and a focus on student needs, will replace colleges and universities that fail to embrace the new technology and/or do not re-organize around the demands of non-traditional, adult and digitally savvy learners.

The Innovative University builds its case for the coming disruption of higher ed, one in which “consumers” (students) have far greater educational choice, through a close examination of the evolution of both Harvard and BYU-Idaho. The authors’ goal is demonstrate how the Harvard model rose to pre-eminence, and why this model makes a poor choice for emulation. Harvard and a few other wealthy institutions of higher learning can afford to bundle discovery research (in every subject) with teaching (in every major). For schools lacking billion dollar endowments, the design of BYU-Idaho, with its emphasis on teaching and learning and its aggressive use of blended and online learning, may be a better model.

Read the full article.

NY Times Expands Involvement in Online Learning

The New York Times Company plans to continue its slow advance into the realm of higher education, teaming with with the University of Southern California this fall to offer continuing-education programs in an effort to tap a growing market of adults looking to pick up new skills.

The new programs will comprise sequences of online courses taught by USC faculty through the Times Company’s online learning platform. While the programs will not count toward any degree, they represent the media company’s first foray into multicourse online sequences intended to confer a coherent body of knowledge. And that is yet another step toward full-fledged degree programs, which are coming, according to Felice Nudelman, the company’s executive director of education.

The Times Company, which has seen its annual revenues fall by about 30 percent in the last five years, has waded into the waters of higher education more deliberately than some of its peers—most notably the Washington Post Company, which now pays for its journalism operations largely off the back of Kaplan Inc., one of the country’s largest degree-granting enterprises.

To the extent that credentials are what many online learners want for their money, the Times Company’s new collaboration with USC represents a step backward from the certificate programs it is undertaking with institutions such as Fairleigh Dickinson University and Ball State University.

But Nudelman says the Times believes there is also a market for lifelong learners who are willing to pay to learn for learning’s sake. USC already runs face-to-face, noncredit continuing education courses that it says are profitable. The idea would be for the Times Company to help USC increase the scale of those programs by offering them online, while bolstering them by letting instructors draw on the New York Timesarchive and occasionally tap Times journalists for guest lectures.

There will be seven programs and 40 courses total in the NYT/USC partnership. The programs are in architecture, arts and culture, cinematic arts, global health, American politics, business and leadership, and executive education in business. There will also be a program in journalism aimed at high school students. But for the most part, the programs are tailored toward students “probably in their mid-20s through late 50s,” says Eileen Kohan, executive director of continuing education at USC. The length and price vary by course, but most last about four weeks and cost between $195 and $275, she says. Courses commence October 13.

Read the full article.


Disruptive Innovation and Higher Education

Clayton M. Christensen, the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, coined the term “disruptive innovation” in a series of books (among them The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution) that examined how technological changes altered existing markets for key products and services, usually by lowering prices or making them available to a different (and usually broader) audience. While Christensen’s early work focused on manufacturing industries and commercial services like restaurants, he and his colleagues, in their more recent studies, have turned to key social enterprises such as K-12 education and health care.

. . . [W]hile the complex and multifaceted higher education “system” has grown and expanded its role over time, the authors argue, it has done so largely without any major disruption to the pattern in which colleges and universities are rewarded largely based on selectivity, research and wealth. Given that definition of “quality,” reinforced by rankings and other proxy measures, most institutions join the chase up that ladder.

Though those circumstances have “rendered higher education impossible to disrupt in the past,” the situation is changing, the authors write. Policy makers are demanding that they enroll and successfully educate many more students at a time when their “economic model is already broken”—with public pressure mounting against increasing tuitions and their ability to use “government dollars, . . . endowments and gifts . . . to paper over cost increases” waning, Horn said.

That environment creates an opening for the “disruptive innovation” that has unfolded in so many other industries, from airlines to health care, the authors write. . . . This is typically accomplished through what the authors call an “upwardly scalable technology driver.”

A set of institutions—many, but not all, of them for-profit—have grown significantly over the years by embracing online education more than their peers. Online learning, the authors write, “constitutes such a technology driver” and is essential, they say, as policy makers shift their focus away from “how we can enable more students to afford higher education no matter the cost” and toward “how we can make a quality postsecondary education affordable.

The key question the authors pose is whether traditional institutions can adapt themselves enough to fill this role or “whether community colleges, for-profit universities and other entrant organizations aggressively using online learning will do it instead — and ultimately grow to replace many of today’s traditional institutions.”

. . . [T]he report acknowledges . . . that the expansion-through-disruption they envision will be meaningful and productive only if students receive an education that is both affordable and of high quality “that delivers on a student’s given job.”

One possible way to do so, the authors write, would be to create a new index that would allow innovative institutions to gain access to federal student aid not through accreditation, but by meeting a new set of metrics.

The “quality-value index formula,” as they call it, would rate an institution on four measures:

  • Its 90-day job-placement or school-placement rate.
  • A ratio determined through dividing the increase in its students’ salaries over a period of time after leaving the college by a measure of students’ cost (such as the total cost of attendance or revenue per student).
  • An alumni satisfaction rating (“would you repeat your experience at X university?”).
  • Its cohort default rate.

Read the full article.

Open Courseware Initiatives Confront Sustainability Challenge

Online education, all but cleansed of its original stigma, has become commonplace. This is especially true among big public universities, which have clamored to capitalize on new markets by enrolling far-flung students. The University of Massachusetts and Penn State University rake in tens of millions of dollars each year from their online programs. The University of California is considering using online education to help recoup the revenue lost to massive cuts in state funding.

But at elite private universities, the online revolution has unfolded differently. . . . Faced with the choice of either offering degrees online at a price or giving away courses for free, the elites took the road less traveled: they would publish the raw materials — and in some cases videotaped lectures — for certain courses on the Web, but would not offer online pathways for their coveted degrees.

Hundreds of millions of non-enrolled visitors, from nearly every country, have availed themselves of free online courseware from top American universities. Some are professors at foreign universities looking to model their own curriculums on the best of the West. In this light, free online courseware might be seen as a game-changing effort to level the playing field of international higher education.

In Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses (Princeton University Press), author Taylor Walsh profiles current online courseware projects at MIT, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California at Berkeley, and India’s National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning. She also reviews the cautionary tales of Fathom and AllLearn, the profit-seeking harbingers of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, and thus lays out the conundrum facing their nominally successful offspring: As pressure mounts on online courseware projects to demonstrate their value and/or become self-supporting, will the world’s premier universities be able to stay above the fray of online degree programs and pay-to-play course materials? Can they afford to stay pure, righteous, and unaccountable?

Read the entire article.


Online Exams and Cheating

The results of a new meta-study on cheating, published in this fall’s edition of the Journal of Distance Learning Administration, indicate that online courses that rely heavily on unproctored, multiple-choice exams are at greater risk of being cheated on than similar face-to-face courses. And while there are mechanisms available to forfend dishonesty in online exams, they can be costly and inconvenient, and may not be widely used.

The meta-study, conducted by researchers at University of Connecticut and Union Graduate College, looked at three prior studies examining cheating as it applies to online courses versus face-to-face, and three studies that looked at cheating as it applies to proctored exams compared to unproctored ones. “The six studies, considered as a group, imply cheating risk is less correlated with instructional format (online v. face-to-face), and more correlated with unproctored online assessments,” the authors write.

The problem, of course, is that online assessments can be hard to proctor. There are companies that offer proctors and testing centers where online students can go to take the exams in the same controlled environment as traditional students customarily use, the authors note. But those centers and proctors come with fees. And since many online students choose distance learning because they need the flexibility of a program that is asynchronous and non-placebound, having to show up at a certain time and place to take exams tends to defeat the purpose.

The efforts of many online programs to enroll international students might also undermine the secure-site method. For an online student taking a course from some far-flung locale, showing up at a testing center could go beyond mere inconvenience.

Software companies provide some potential fixes for the problem of proctoring online exams. Starting at $2,000 for an institutional license, a company called Respondus offers a product, which can be downloaded remotely, that integrates with the institution’s learning-management system and locks down an online test-taker’s ability to browse the Internet while taking an exam.

Of course, this does nothing to prevent students from Googling answers on another computer or on their smartphones — which is why another company, called Software Secure, Inc., offers similar anti-browsing software with its Securexam Remote Proctor — along with a $200 piece of hardware that takes periodic fingerprint readings as well as audio and 360-degree video recordings of the test-taking environment to make sure test-takers are not being fed answers the old-fashioned way.

Read the entire article.

New Learning Platform from the University of Phoenix

In an effort ambitiously dubbed the “Learning Genome Project,” the for-profit powerhouse says it is building a new learning interface that gets to know each of its 400,000 students personally and adapts to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of their “learning DNA.”

Unlike analog forms of student profiling—such as surveys, which are only as effective as the students’ ability to diagnose their own learning needs—Phoenix’s Learning Genome Project will be designed to infer details about students from how they behave in the online classroom . . . If students grasp content more quickly when they learn it from a video than when they have to read a text, the system will feed them more videos. If a student is bad at interpreting graphs, the system will recognize that and present information accordingly—or connect the student with another Phoenix student who is better at graph-reading. The idea is to take the model of personal attention now only possible in the smallest classrooms and with the most responsive professors, make it even more perceptive and precise, and scale it to the largest student body in higher education.

. . . [I]n order to make the platform as flexible as it needs to be, Phoenix plans to phase out its current in-house learning management system and build the new one with open-source tools. It even plans to share some (but not all) of what it builds with other institutions . . .

Being so attentive for all its students at once will require a lot of data processing; whether the system—as Phoenix envisions it—can work reliably at scale remains to be seen. In any case . . . it will be expensive to make. And then there are the inevitable privacy issues: Some Facebook users have become more guarded in recent years about the personal data they feed the system due to concerns about how that data might be used; one could imagine a similar backlash against an online learning platform built on the same principles. A for-profit company that collects data not only on what students like but also on how their minds work might make some people uneasy. (. . . Phoenix is committed to “ethical use of the data” and letting students choose how much information they submit.)

Read the entire article.

Results of 2010 Campus Computing Survey

Blackboard keeps losing market share to competitors. Information technology departments keep losing money to budget cuts—though not as many as last year. E-books, despite modest gains, are still marginal. Mobile apps and lecture capture are poised to explode.

These are among the findings of the 2010 Campus Computing Survey, the latest edition of the Campus Computing Project’s annual census. The organization released the new data, which are based on questionnaires filled out over the last month or so by technology leaders at 523 different nonprofit institutions, amid the hubbub of the EDUCAUSE 2010 conference.

Read the full article.

Arizona State Announces Partnership with Pearson to Deliver Online Learning

With budgets tight and the commercial market flush with companies willing to take on various tasks that come with running a university, it has become relatively common for institutions to outsource parts of their operations to outside companies.

It is less common for a public university to entrust an outsider with such a wide swath of duties that it calls that private company an equal partner in online education. But Arizona State University announced on Monday that it is doing just that with Pearson, the education and media company.

Under the agreement, the Arizona State faculty will teach online courses through Pearson’s learning management platform, LearningStudio, using the tools embedded in that platform to collect and analyze data in hopes of improving student performance and retention. Pearson will also help with enrollment management and “prospect generation,” while providing more “customer-friendly” support services for students, the university says.

Arizona State, meanwhile, says it will retain control over all things academic, including instruction and curriculum development.

Read the full article.