3 reasons why we joined the edX/2U University Partner Advisory Council

Last week, the three of us attended the first face-to-face meeting of edX/2U’s recently formed University Partner Advisory Council (UPAC). Individually and collectively we sit on a number of advisory groups/advisory boards of for-profit companies that work with non-profit universities in the online learning space. In this post, we hope to share the reasons why we invest the time to provide strategic advice to for-profit companies like 2U.

Reason #1 – Representing our institutions

All of our institutions were early university partners in establishing the original non-profit edX consortium, and our schools retain significant portfolios of online offerings without credit on the platform. Our universities are also collaborating with 2U to varying degrees, prior to that company’s $800M acquisition of edX in 2021.

Each of us wearing our institutional hats for online learning has a vested interest in maintaining the health of ongoing university-edX/2U collaborations. We participate in the UPAC group to understand how 2U’s product and service roadmap will impact existing and potentially new online programs on their edX and other platforms. And if possible, influence this roadmap for the benefit of our institutions.

Reason #2 – Impact on the entire ecosystem

Before 2U bought edX, we were three active participants of the edX consortium (actually, that’s how we met for the first time). It sounds almost innocent (or naïve) to say this in 2023, but one of the reasons why our institutions joined the edX consortium over a decade ago was that edX was a non-profit organization that viewed inclusion as innovation and tried to transform access higher ed. We believed (then) that there was a place where universities could come together to create a new, more open, inclusive and non-corporate space for educational innovation. However, we would be quick to say that we have learned a lot about mutually beneficial university-industry partnerships over the past few years.

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Fast forward to 2023, and not only has the for-profit 2U bought the non-profit edX, all of our institutions are also involved (on some level) in partnerships with for-profit corporations. This entanglement between non-profit universities and for-profit corporations in the core areas of degrees and courses, teaching and learning extends across the broader post-secondary ecosystem. The growth of the online program management (OPM) industry (of which 2U remains one of the largest players) and the controversial revenue-sharing system (now under increased federal scrutiny) is just one area of ​​the expansion of non-profit/for-profit educational partnerships .

By participating in advisory groups such as UPAC and others, we seek to influence the broader development of university-industry collaboration from within. In our work with edX/2U and other for-profit companies, we are always open and clear that our motivation is to represent the interests of learners, educators and universities. Our “theory of change” states that a positive influence on the direction of university-industry cooperation arises when interests can be aligned and areas for mutually beneficial activities can be discovered.

In seeking leverage with industry partners by working with them (from within), we recognize the risks. In our work with companies, we make no effort to hide our skepticism about most aspects of university-industry partnerships that touch on the university’s core academic functions. Our goal is to find the areas where partnerships are truly beneficial to both the long-term strategy of universities and the medium/short-term interests of learners and teachers.

Reason #3 – Learn from and build relationships with peers

The best thing about participating in an external advisory group or council is the opportunity to build relationships with colleagues from other institutions and organizations. To honor edX/2U, the company has worked hard to assemble a UPAC group from a diverse set of institutions and roles. During the face-to-face UPAC meeting, the university members of the group had the opportunity to all meet privately and talk about our common interests and common goals.

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Despite the existence of professional association-sponsored meetings, opportunities for cross-institutional information exchange in areas related to non-profit/for-profit online learning partnerships are scarce. It’s rare that online education leaders who are grappling with how best to work with for-profit companies get to meet and talk. Serving on an advisory board like edX/2U’s UPAC provides just such an opportunity, and all members of the group were keen to take the opportunity to share what we’ve learned.

It is important to note that not only have we found great colleagues across the university landscape, but we have also discovered many important relationships with colleagues working with our industry partners. Despite differing organizational north stars, the education ecosystem has evolved to a point where it is not at all uncommon to find peers across the types of education organizations who are equally interested in issues such as access, affordability and shaping the future of learning.

Some concerns

edX/2U should be given credit for founding the UPAC group, curating its membership and hosting a well run, highly relevant and informative gathering. We also commend edX/2U for stepping down and giving UPAC’s university members a private space to talk.

While giving this recognition to edX/2U, we are also aware of the potential dangers of ceding the space for inter-university collaboration and knowledge-sharing to for-profit corporations via non-profit/for-profit online program partnerships. It makes perfect sense that a company could bring together the most interested and motivated university staff to improve and understand this growing area of ​​university/corporate partnerships, but this development should give all university staff food for thought.

In addition, we believe that there should be an open and sustained dialogue within higher education both on the general direction of not-for-profit/for-profit partnerships and on the theory that the best way to ensure that these partnerships benefit learners, educators and Benefiting schools is working from within. How much does participation in groups like UPAC signal for-profit ownership of communication and collaboration? How can higher education leaders participate in corporate advisory boards and councils in a way that fully benefits the institutions and the broader not-for-profit post-secondary system they represent?

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What’s next?

A few years before the outbreak of the pandemic, each of us tried to build on the edX consortium, first by hosting a roundtable on academic transformation, digital learning and design in Georgetown. Great ideas emerged from this meeting, ideas that were carried forward in a new grassroots collective called HAIL, or Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners. HAIL played an important role in bringing together colleagues from across higher education to discuss issues, challenges and opportunities. But where the edX consortium brought together educators who shared a common cause, HAIL took a broad look at the higher education ecosystem and identified opportunities for innovation. It felt more diffuse and harder to focus. After the first few meetings, the gatherings felt more like intimate conferences that represented the wide range of interests and concerns reflected by their members. We are now seeing HAIL focus on more targeted activities such as events focused on educational equity or writing retreats.

While there are many academic conferences and professional associations, we continue to see the need for discussion spaces that focus on discrete groups of important, necessary, and perhaps sometimes existential issues. Advisory councils and bodies like UPAC provide us with a venue of sorts, but we think it’s up to all of us to find that space to participate in the development of the solutions to higher education’s biggest challenges.