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Third-Party OPM Providers: When Are They the Right Choice?

Third-Party OPM Providers and Online Higher Education in a Broader and Evolving Landscape

For higher education institutions looking to develop or expand their online programs, there are a number of considerations to make, including whether to attempt to build and execute in-house or leverage a third-party OPM organization. 

For institutions struggling with the benefits of a third-party partner, Wiley Education Services’ managing director, Greg Finkelstein, has provided insights related to online higher education and the broader landscape. He also provides some consideration points regarding the current skepticism around third-party, Online Program Management (OPM) providers and the recent news that Harvard University partnered with an OPM provider to deliver an executive certificate program in business analytics. 

Please read on to better understand the role that third-party providers, like Wiley, can play in collaborating with institutions looking to evolve their distance learning offerings.


Distance learning has been part of Higher Education for over 150 years. Sir Isaac Pittman launched his Correspondence Colleges in England in the mid-1840s.  In the late 1800s, the concept was established in the United States by The University of Chicago, demonstrating that learning could occur when the teacher and learner are in different locations.  Online learning represents an evolution of this premise.

This iteration of distance learning comes with more complexity. Online learning is capital intensive and the lifecycle of technology is short. The culture and processes around attracting, supporting, and retaining an adult learner, at scale, differs from those required for traditional learners. Finally, institutions face a myriad of resource constraints and venturing into online learning has substantial risk since the development of the program requires upfront investment.

Public-private partnerships have the potential to reduce these complexities and allow schools to focus on their core mission of teaching and learning. Wiley is one of a few companies with over a decade of experience delivering a comprehensive suite of services to support online learning. As an early entrant in online learning services, Wiley’s experience in this area dates back to the late 1990s, when eLearning was an emerging concept, and our history spans over 200 years.

A study released this week by The Century Foundation questions these partnerships (commonly referred to as OPM) and their place in the higher education sector. The study specifically challenges whether a partnership encroaches on a university’s core mission; in reality, the article answers its own primary question when introducing the concept of governance – which is a critical factor of success in most of Wiley’s partnerships.

It is ironic that Harvard’s recent choice to partner with another provider has triggered a renewed set of questions regarding this sector and its future path. A 2005 Harvard Business Review article “Strategic Sourcing:  From Periphery to the Core” by Mark Gottfredson, Rudy Puryear, and Stephen Phillips, focused on the value of outsourcing non-core functions of organizations. The premise is that an organization can improve its competitive position and achieve lower costs and potentially greater service by focusing investment on its core capabilities – in the case of higher education, the funding of academic positions and quality programs.

The fact that Harvard is experimenting with a partner, despite their considerable brand equity and resources, can be seen as validation that partners bring knowledge, capabilities, and expertise to an institution to support its strategic priorities and allow the university to better focus on the educational process.

In the last 18 months, more online learning partnerships have been contracted or expanded than at any point in the sector’s history.  Wiley believes the key ingredients for a successful partnership include:

  • Building a Culture of shared governance
  • Establishing a bright line separating respective responsibilities and authority lines
  • Defining clear goals
  • Aligning efforts with overarching institutional goals and mission

Looking forward, the term “OPM” will likely be a relic, but the idea of strategic partnerships will persist. With the increasing demands on universities and the rapid pace of change, these partnerships are vital in supporting institutions to adapt and achieve their objectives. Wiley looks forward to partnering with institutions through its third century and beyond.


For the full context around the larger conversation at hand, read the full Inside Higher Ed article on the current and future state of OPM providers here.

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