Instructional Outsourcing a Growing Trend on University Campuses Across the Country

By Harrison Howe


A Win-Win Situation?

A cost saving measure. The opportunity for professors to spend more time with students. The ability to access larger markets.

No matter what the reasons are for outsourcing, proponents say the practice, such as that being conducted on an experimental basis involving Missouri State and Florida Atlantic Universities, has the potential to pay dividends (both financially and academically). In fall 2011, the two universities are partnering with Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization that offers non-credit journalism training in Florida, to allow Poynter instructors to teach an online, for-credit introductory journalism course.

Besides the expertise that Poynter instructors can bring to the course, there is the potential for the universities to wind up making money in the long run, even though the schools will be paying Poynter more than they would an adjunct instructor. How? Higher tuitions costs for online courses and the ability to enroll more students in an online class as opposed to an on-campus one could offset the higher cost of using Poynter. So if the program winds up in the black and students come away with an equal or better education than they might have in the past, then outsourcing, it seems, becomes a win-win situation.

Other universities have used similar outsourcing models in the past, with much success. A 2007 partnership between Lamar University and Higher Ed Holdings has proven to be profitable for the school and has led to higher enrollment and graduation rates. And a private company called StraighterLine began providing online courses in 2008 and has since partnered with 23 higher education institutions across the country.

A Question of True Outsourcing

When it comes to third-party companies delivering online courses for colleges and universities, some hesitate to use the word 'outsourcing'. Perhaps, they believe, the emphasis should be on 'partnership' or 'agreement'.

In the case of Missouri State, for instance, the syllabus used for the university's introductory journalism course was consulted by Poynter. The course will be watched closely by a professor in the department of media, journalism and film. Also, students will have the opportunity to meet in-person with a university faculty member throughout the duration of the course.

The outsourcing experiment being carried out at Florida Atlantic University was born out of what some feel is necessity. In the past, since the introductory journalism course is taught at all of the university's campuses, students would learn from various adjunct professors and then enter the advanced program with different skills. The Poynter course, many hope, will alleviate this problem.

Jury Still Out When It Comes to Outsourcing

Opponents of outsourcing can cite as many reasons against the practice as proponents can for it. Skepticism over an outside company's ability to deliver a quality program remains a major complaint. Taking curriculum control out of a university's hands and putting it in those of an outside company is another. In addition, some see the system as threatening for tenured professors and other faculty. And what of professor-student interaction? That relationship, some say, could suffer when outsourced instructors are used.

Still, opponents should realize that for the most part, at least as far as Missouri State and Florida Atlantic University are concerned, outsourcing is being done on an experimental basis, with no long-term plans to incorporate the practice. As Alene Russell, a consultant for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told USA Today in June, 'We don't know where it goes. Everyone is watching.'

The ultimate goal of outsourcing, both proponents and opponents agree, is to provide what's best for students, says Mark Biggs, head of the journalism department at Missouri State. He, and others, feels that if Poynter winds up doing a better job at teaching the students than university professors or adjuncts can, then they should be given the green light to continue to do so.

Find out how performance-based funding might increase program quality and teaching productivity in public colleges and universities.

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