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UND moves forward with online education provider

UND has partnered with education giant Pearson to promote some online programs over at least the next decade, a move that has pleased school leaders while leaving some faculty wary.


UND has partnered with education giant Pearson to promote some online programs over at least the next decade, a move that has pleased school leaders while leaving some faculty wary.

The university struck a deal in mid-March to push two master's-level courses starting next year with Pearson, a company that, among other things, prints textbooks and handles digital coursework as an online program manager, or OPM. School leaders hope the deal will give UND an edge as the campus extends its reach for online-only students.

The first program, which is in cybersecurity and offered through UND engineering, should go live this fall. The second program, in accounting, is set to follow in the spring semester.

Jeff Holm is the chair of UND psychology and, over the past year, has served as a faculty leader for the online education portion of the university's five-year strategic plan. Though about 25 percent of UND students are already online-only, the university has targeted the digital realm as one of its major potential growth areas.

UND isn't alone in that. Holm attended the February meeting of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education to update its members on UND's discussions with Pearson, explaining in the process why the university felt it necessary to grow online.


In that, he pointed to national statistics indicating a future unsteadiness in the pool of traditional students, those 18-24 years of age, which has already contributed to dwindling enrollments at campuses near and far.

The push for online growth, Holm said, is a way to provide access to students outside that younger market-the parents and professionals looking to build their education where they already are, as opposed to on campus.

"We need to be cognizant of what works online and what doesn't," Holm said, "but UND already has almost 90 programs right now that we've developed over the years, so we have a lot to pick from from what we have-assuming that, since we have them, they're at least feasible or doable."

The point of teaming up with an OPM like Pearson is largely to take advantage of the company's expertise in marketing and student recruitment. Holm said the company also works with faculty members to work their curricula into digital formats that Pearson has found to work best with online students.

Those curriculum matters have been watched closely by faculty at UND and other North Dakota University System institutions.

Faculty concerns

UND President Mark Kennedy has consistently said faculty would not give up control of the academic programs subject to the partnership with Pearson, stating previously that professors would continue to be in charge of "what the curriculum is and how it's delivered."

On the administrative end, UND will keep its hand on other normal university functions such as admissions and financial aid for students enrolled in Pearson-supported programs.


Holm reiterated parts of his SBHE presentation for his campus peers in the April meeting of the University Senate, the UND organization that acts as a representative body for faculty, staff, students and administrators. The topic of Pearson had also come up in the previous month's meeting, and the Senate had gotten word the statewide Council of College Faculties was considering issuing a formal letter of concern regarding the forming deal between UND and the outside corporation. CCF leadership, wary of what it viewed as a lingering possibility for a hand-over of academic control and pointing to public breakdowns of partnerships between Pearson and higher ed institutions in other states, said it feared an agreement at the largest school in the North Dakota University System could cause a ripple effect across other institutions. However, the CCF eventually backed away from issuing an official declaration, opting to watch how the situation develops.

Holm said he was aware of the negative press Pearson had gotten elsewhere but said those cases either happened in other sectors of the corporation or, in more applicable areas, could be attributed to special circumstances. He said he'd spoken with administrators at other universities that had partnered with the company, even those that had ceased its services, and had found enough to reassure him of the deal's merits.

Moving forward, Pearson will be paid through a revenue-share agreement that splits tuition between the two entities on a shifting scale over the life of the deal. Over the first two years of the 10-year agreement for the two programs right now, Holm said, the education company will take a 62 percent share of revenues generated from the UND courses.

That share drops by 2 percent every two years until the agreement hits the 6-year mark. For the remaining four years of the deal, Pearson's take is set to 56 percent.

Though the deal becomes less sweet for UND if the program revenues are hot, Holm said the structure allows the school to share early risk with its outside partner.

If the deal reflects any lingering apprehension, Holm tried to address the same at University Senate, at times reassuring his peers in faculty that the university had vetted the deal in the interests of its professors. For Holm, the deal represents a necessary step in making UND online a national contender-something he views as a necessity in the years to come.

"I think we'll have a difficult time continuing to be the flagship of the Northern Plains, the major university in this area of the country" without a more robust online campaign, Holm said.

"I'm convinced this is a good thing, and I've been here 31 years," he added, "I'm staking my credibility on this."

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