U. of Maryland’s Online Campus Turned to Outsourcing for Speed. That Came at a Cost.

The writing was on the wall: The University of Maryland Global Campus was restructuring again.

The vice president for the college’s Digital Teaching and Learning unit had left “cryptically” in February, two UMGC employees told The Chronicle. Around the same time, the fully online university brought in the ed-tech developer LearningMate for about $2 million to move more than 500 undergraduate courses to a universal template — same navigation menus, same discussion-board setup, same grading scale.

Still, an email on May 3 announcing the dissolution of the 51-person Digital Teaching and Learning unit, with a net loss of 37 jobs, stunned faculty and staff.

That unit’s support had been “essential,” said a current UMGC employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job. It had helped ensure online courses were accessible, equitable, and inclusive, tending to graphics, visuals, and other elements of the user experience.

Now, employees say a 17-person “skeleton crew” that replaced the former unit is responsible for cleaning up a host of errors that the hundreds of course migrations introduced — including broken links and incorrectly weighted assignments — before the new template goes live in the spring. Instructors are consequently facing delays in making routine updates to their courses, they say, and morale has been sapped.

The administration’s decisions are “undermining our capacity to effectively educate our students,” said a second employee, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

University officials said that while the restructuring has come with challenges, the changes are necessary for the growth and long-term viability of the institution, which serves upward of 55,000 students. Like many colleges, UMGC is under burgeoning pressure to demonstrate a return on students’ investment in their education, and to readily adjust its offerings to meet the work force’s changing needs. The LearningMate partnership, they said, was a chance to test this sort of outsourcing, and work out the kinks, before engaging additional partners down the line.

It’s “a paradigm and model shift,” said Blakely Pomietto, UMGC’s senior vice president and chief academic officer. And it’s one that has been “very deliberate and intentional.”

“We aren’t just trying to build more cars; we aspire to create the next generation of transportation,” added Gregory Fowler, UMGC’s president and former head of the Global Campus at online-education behemoth Southern New Hampshire University, in a written statement.

The tension at UMGC is emblematic of the competing interests colleges must balance in the competitive world of higher education, and in online education, especially. Striking a balance between internal investments and outsourcing is a common struggle for institutions right now, said Ray Schroeder, a senior fellow at the nonprofit University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

“Where a university can afford it, most universities would say the ideal circumstance would be to have all your faculty and staff hired by the institution, at the institution, for the greatest accountability,” said Schroeder, also a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “But, you know, we’re in a circumstance where we have to make decisions.”

Last fall, it became clear to UMGC leadership that the college needed a better way to grow. A faster way, to be specific.

At the time, UMGC’s in-house team was building roughly 30 new courses a year and doing “major revisions,” such as adding new forms of assessment, to another 10 courses. Comparatively, Pomietto said the institution, which has a portfolio of about 1,000 courses and more than 100 programs, wants to revise as many as one-third of its programs annually. It wants to add “several” new programs a year, too, each with 10 to 12 major-specific courses on average.

Administrators also wanted flexibility to experiment with new learning experiences, like the university’s foray into the Metaverse, that may require specific expertise but not permanent in-house hires. A trial run with outsourcing could help set them up to do that.

Pomietto had convened an 18-person meeting — including deans, program directors, and heads of the instructional design and educational-technology teams — to evaluate UMGC’s in-house approach and brainstorm alternative ways to operate. She said it ended with “unanimous” agreement that the existing model wasn’t meeting UMGC’s needs for more “scale and velocity.”

Pomietto often peppers in buzzwords to describe UMGC’s aspirations: “agility,” “responsive,” “rapid transformation.”

The process that followed was, indeed, rapid. After those fall 2021 discussions, her team decided to use a $2-million budget allocation for fiscal year 2022 to hire an outside firm that would migrate about 90 percent of UMGC’s online undergraduate courses into a universal template. That way, students would only have to learn how to navigate the online classroom once,” she said. (This transition, to note, did not entail updating active courses mid-semester but building a separate, unpublished template in the backend.)

Pomietto’s team didn’t find the vendor, or draw up and sign the formal contract, though. Those roles were assigned to UMGC Ventures, a nonprofit established by the university in 2016 to “develop innovative services and products for higher education,” according to UMGC’s website. Other sources, including Inside Higher Ed, have equated its function to that of a holding company, spinning off certain university functions into private companies. (Its Office of Analytics, for example, became the data-analytics company HelioCampus in 2015, and its IT department became AccelerEd in 2017.)

This was the first time UMGC Ventures had set up an external partnership for academic affairs, Pomietto said. University officials said tapping Ventures allowed them to “move more quickly,” and that Ventures, which owns the company UMGC contracts with for technology services, had the right expertise.

Ventures recommended LearningMate, an India-based firm, because of its past experience handling large-scale projects on tight deadlines, Pomietto said. LearningMate’s client base includes Southern New Hampshire University, where UMGC’s president once worked; a university spokesman said this did not factor into the decision.

Beyond that, the details of the selection process are hazy. Tim Brown, vice president for finance and strategy at UMGC Ventures, declined to answer The Chronicle’s questions about which other firms were interviewed, and how many. The company also declined to share its contract with LearningMate — a document that, had UMGC held it, would be subject to public-record laws, given the university is a public institution.

“We are not governed by the university, and we do not report to the university,” Brown wrote in a statement. “We are a private business.”

LearningMate referred The Chronicle‘s request for comment to UMGC Ventures. Wendy Colby, the recently departed CEO of Ventures with intimate knowledge of the project, did not return requests for comment.

Two current employees The Chronicle spoke with said they first formally learned about LearningMate in a mid-January email.

“We had questions,” but it felt like “they just wanted to shove this through,” one recalled. Pomietto confirmed that there was no “inclusive engagement” with faculty and staff regarding LearningMate’s selection.

There can be such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen, especially when operating under a deadline. But limiting who’s involved has drawbacks, too. While Schroeder, of the continuing-education association, declined to speak to UMGC’s decision-making in particular, he said that, broadly speaking, it’s “an easier process, and a happier process, for all involved if it is open, if input is solicited, [and] if there are opportunities for those closest to the current process to share their opinions and to participate.”

The LearningMate partnership began with a pilot in February to transfer nine courses across different departments to the new template.

It was during this time that Sheryl Hirsch and her colleagues started feeling uneasy.

“There wasn’t a lot of understanding in how this would fit in with the way that we were designing courses,” said Hirsch, who was an instructional technologist with the former Digital Teaching and Learning unit. Her role, among other things, was to add approved content, such as text, graphics, and multimedia, into UMGC’s content-management system, and check that the material was accessible for all students (for example, making sure video captioning and screen readers worked).

“I was like an ostrich with my head in the sand, not wanting to see the writing on the wall,” she added. “Because I really, really liked what I was doing, and I really, really liked the people in my department.”

By early May, an email hit the inbox: Officials had made the “difficult but necessary” decision to replace Digital Teaching and Learning with a new Integrative Learning Design unit. This new unit would focus less on individual course fixes and development, and more on oversight of — and collaboration with — external vendors, as well as the university’s program directors.

Those who lost their jobs received six weeks’ notice and an invitation to reapply for a position within the new unit. Nearly all were placed on paid administrative leave, with benefits, for 90 days.

Since that transpired, morale has “been awful,” one employee said. Many of those departed colleagues, the employee said, were friends. “I love my students,” but “I don’t want to deal with this place right now.”

As employee numbers shrank, issues with the new template were bubbling up.

Faculty and staff checking on their courses in the new template found broken hyperlinks. There were misspelled names of documents and other typos. Some quizzes were missing the auto-publish function. On occasion, posted assignments had errors in grade weighting.

It was “a lot of little things — that then makes a huge difference” in terms of time wasted to correct those errors, the employee said.

By June, Pomietto realized that a fall 2022 launch of the new template was no longer feasible. “The scope of work in the remaining time allowed,” she said, “was asking way too much of our program directors.” Sights turned to spring 2023, instead. LearningMate, though, wouldn’t be around to see it through.

At the end of July, an email circulated to employees announcing that LearningMate was “rolling off” the project, and the newly created Integrative Learning Design (ILD) team would be “taking over the remaining work.” The two employees who spoke with The Chronicle said the departure felt abrupt. A Statement of Work document, however, shows that July 2022 was a previously agreed-upon end date. Pomietto said there may have been expectations among employees for “a longer relationship” with LearningMate, causing confusion.

The team that took over, employees said, is now facing a backlog of tasks.

Typically, faculty and staff will start planning updates to their courses — keeping the material “relevant” and responsive to current events, they said, is critical — more than six months before that iteration of the course begins. Now nearly three months out from the spring 2023 semester, it’s unclear when, or if, those updates will happen.

“Curriculum development? Forget it. We’re way behind on that,” one of the employees said.

Even typically simple changes are taking days, if not weeks, to implement, another employee added. This person recently sent a video transcript to the ILD unit to upload into a spring 2023 course. It took a handful of email nudges across eight workdays to go through.

It’s an experience like this that makes the employee dread what will happen when more than 500 courses open with the new template in the spring. “This is a disaster waiting to happen,” the employee said.

Pomietto maintained that, while some backlog is “absolutely happening,” it is “under control” and only temporary.

Meanwhile, employees say morale took yet another hit from a recent round of 43 universitywide layoffs, reportedly made to reduce university expenditures and reallocate resources.

Some of these job losses, they said, were in other areas historically tied to instructor — and student — support, like the library. UMGC laid off seven library staff, who, among other roles, hosted office hours via chat, email, phone, and Zoom, made “how to” guides for topics like citation and research best practices, and helped instructors incorporate library resources into their courses.

Melissa Foge, a former reference and instruction librarian, has already noticed substantial cuts (nights and Saturdays) to office hours online.

“This university is advertising itself to working adults,” she said. “To reduce hours of when those working adults can reach out … it’s a shame.”

UMGC hasn’t received any complaints or concerns from students as a result of these changes, a university spokesman wrote in an email. He added that the reduced hours reflect lower student demand during those times.

Pomietto believes this will be “a successful project when all is said and done.” She admits, though, that it’s been “imperfect.”

To rebuild morale and trust with employees, Pomietto said, academic affairs is “being very mindful about trying to create more communication channels and opportunities for dialogue with the community.” Notably, by sharing plans earlier and being clearer about the intentions and reasoning behind them.

There are things Pomietto wishes she’d known in retrospect, too. The experience, she said, opened her eyes to just how diverse courses and programs can be, and that it’s important that developments in course design don’t impede instructors’ ability to customize.

It turns out, too, that there’s such a thing as being too quick. “We learned we can work quickly,” she said. “But we might need to dial that back just a little bit.”

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