Outsourcing Instructional Design loses its effectiveness in the OPM-University Business Model

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Brief Abstract

This session will cover the results of a Case Study on a business partnership between an Online Program Management Provider and a Research University. It will discuss and present the problems and concerns arising when the instructional design services are outsourced in the OPM-University model and will suggest best practices for such a partnership.

Extended Abstract

Online instructors face new pedagogical issues surrounding student interactions, course design and delivery, multiple levels of communication, new assignment types, performance expectations, assessments, and evaluation techniques that necessitate adaptations in their teaching practices (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Boling et al., 2012). Additionally, a persona change occurs when a faculty member transitions from face-to-face instruction to online classrooms (Phillips, 2008). Online course development contexts can, therefore, offer powerful opportunities for faculty development and pedagogy improvement.

Universities launching online programs often train faculty via Faculty Development staff, in-house Instructional Design and Technology staff, or by outsourcing to third-party vendors known as Online Program Management providers (OPM’s) that specialize in developing and implementing online programs. Institutions also use Instructional Designers (ID's), or learning design experts who can significantly support faculty in developing online courses through training and consultations (You, 2010). Faculty teaching an online program must work closely with the OPM provider and their ID staff (Riter, 2017; InsideHigherEd.com, 2019). Using ID’s for creating online courses or converting courses into online format may cause faculty to rethink their roles as teachers and maximize student learning. ID’s, therefore, play a critical role in facilitating faculty change and motivation to implement good teaching (Holsombach-Ebner, 2013). 

OPM providers are generally for-profit companies that partner with educational institutions to offer academic programs. The OPM provider invests some or all of the necessary capital upfront to create infrastructure for an online program and also provides various related services in exchange for a percentage of the program’s revenue (Springer, 2018). OPM providers offer help in four core service areas: market/lead generation, enrollment management, student services, and course development and delivery (Springer, 2018). For universities, the most important aspects of the partnership are the promise of building high-quality courses and receiving thoughtful instructional design support for their faculty (InsideHigherEd.com, 2019; Riter, 2017). 

A review of the literature indicates that most OPM providers do not have economic sources or expertise to tailor instructional design services for a particular institution, program, or course, and therefore maintain only a small number of instructional design staff because tailoring their approach to a particular institution does not benefit the underlying economic arrangement (InsideHigherEd.com, 2019). From the OPM perspective, student enrollment in online programs takes higher priority to instructional design; hence most of their resources go into marketing rather than into designing highly effective online programs. However, low effectiveness in the course design process can be reflected in lower completion rates and reduced student satisfaction (Bawa, 2016; Hone & Said, 2016; Educause.edu, 2010). No studies have shown how OPM provided instructional designers work with faculty to design and develop online courses and whether these collaborations have an effect (positive or negative) on faculty motivation and attitudes regarding what it takes to effectively teach online. No studies yet have shown the best practices for handling this business partnership.

This research study analyzes the OPM-University Business model and how the two institutions meet and manage this entire process of designing and developing online courses and help in faculty development keeping the Instructional Design services outsourced to a third-party vendor. This third-party vendor for Instructional Design services is brought/provided by the OPM. The findings can provide insights for college administrators (including strategic planners, provosts, directors for online learning programs, etc), faculty, OPM provider managers, and instructional designers on building this relationship in ways that optimize faculty development of pedagogical and technological knowledge. 

In addressing research quality, I conducted an analysis of my literature review sources to determine citation quality and thoroughness. See Analysis of the “Scholarliness” value of the Literature Review.

This research uses an interpretive case study methodology to examine a private research university’s partnership with an OPM provider to develop online master’s degree programs, with the outsourcing of instructional design services to an Instructional Design Firm (IDF). The primary data sources come from interviews, participant observations, and documents from the OPM, the IDF, and the institution. For anonymity purposes, the names of the organizations participating in this study have not been disclosed. 

The study uses the Activity Theory (AT) as a framework to describe and analyze the complex work/activity system involved in developing online courses. AT is an umbrella term for a range of social science theories and research originating from Soviet psychological activity theory pioneered by Lev Vygotsky, Alexei Leont'ev, and Sergei Rubinstein (Cole & Engeström, 1993). It is widely used in theoretical and applied psychology, education, professional training, ergonomics, social psychology, and work psychology. AT is specifically useful in qualitative research methodologies (e.g., ethnography, case study) in providing a method of analyzing and understanding a phenomenon; finding patterns and making inferences across interactions; and describing and presenting phenomena through a built-in language and rhetoric. AT offers an external perspective on human practices. It is a descriptive meta-theory or framework rather than a predictive theory (Engeström, 1999). An activity cannot be understood or analyzed outside the context of which it occurs. The components of any activity are organized into activity systems. See Figure 1 below.


Figure 1. Engeström’s (1999) model of an activity system. Source: (Engeström, 1999)

AT is well suited to the discovery and sense-making nature of this study (See Figure 2). According to Bradford et al. (2011), AT is a good framework for an organizational self-evaluation of its “technology-enhanced learning” (TEL) or online learning practices. In adjusting the model to the case of faculty and their teaching practices when launching online programs via a business relationship, the faculty becomes the subject with teaching as an object of active learning with an outcome target of new competencies. The resulting model incorporates key actors’ roles in making an impact on faculty approaches to teaching design (See Figure 2 below). 

Figure 2. Activity System context for the RU (Research University--->R University) and OPM (Online Program Management Provider) business partnership with outsourced Instructional Design Firm (IDF)


Using AT, I looked at a complex system that integrates and captures the dynamics of the interactions between multiple levels – from the leadership of both the OPM and institution, to project management and the staff involved in that, to the ID faculty interactions, as well as multiple processes including the selection of the IDF, the dynamics of communication and collaboration between IDs and faculty, and between faculty and department and institutional leadership, etc. The literature does not include a study that uses AT to analyze this kind of system.

Session Outcomes

The presenter/researcher will share all the important themes that emerged from this study that will be helpful for all faculty, instructional designers, academic administrators, OPM managers, and design thinkers. These themes will also be shared on the screen via voicethread. The format of this session is an asynchronous conversation rather than a formal presentation. The presenter will be putting results and ideas out that would invite questions and commentary. The following steps will be followed

Think Assertion



Learning Outcomes for the audience

By the end of this session, participants will be able to:

Identify the complexities of outsourcing Instructional Design services in an OPM-University business model

Analyze implications for implementing and managing work with an OPM when the Instructional Design services are outsourced. 

Use implications/best practices learned from this study when involved in this business model



List of References for this proposal


List of Figures (in case if you cannot view the above figures correctly)

List of Figures


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. CC BY