Jeff Elliott is a Torrance, Calif.–based technical writer who has researched and written about educational technologies and issues for the past 20 years.

Jeff ElliottMany colleges and universities are gaining a competitive advantage by making the leap into online noncredit, competency-based courses to attract new students and generate additional revenue. However, there can be a host of seemingly insurmountable technological, financial and even political barriers that can arise when moving outside the realm of traditional degree-oriented programs and into online noncredit course offerings that range from professional development and continuing education to certification programs.

One significant barrier has been the traditional Learning Management Systems that schools utilize are often geared toward the traditional student by nature of the implementation and integration with other legacy systems. The LMS, however, should provide a framework for course content that can be delivered to all learners in a variety of ways.

Although LMS providers rightfully claim their product is perfectly aligned to deliver nontraditional, competency-based courses, it can be very difficult to change and adapt an existing system implemented to fit the needs of the traditional degree student to also fulfill all the needs of nontraditional self-paced, competency-based programs.

As a result, a new breed of third-party technology service provider has risen to fill the need for technical services designed to ease the road to full-scale online implementation and revenue generation.

Not to be confused with LMS vendors, these third parties manage — and, in some cases, navigate around — critical implementation and technological issues as varied as managing existing LMSs to dealing with issues of exclusivity and accreditation. Their services also extend to student recruitment, marketing, call centers, credit card processing, reporting and certifications.

“Many schools that want to offer noncredit, competency-based courses to increase revenue do not have the knowledge, resources or expertise to figure out on their own how to implement this type of offering at scale,” said Mark Sarver of third-party provider One Squared Education. “Many have the content but do not know how to market and deliver it to maximize revenue generation.”

While the content creator maintains ownership of all intellectual property, One Squared manages it through the delivery of online courses, both traditional and competency-based. These can be for credit as well as noncredit continuing education, professional education and certification.

One Squared Education’s goal is to deliver a solution that does not interfere with existing systems and is not a burden to the institution, technologically or financially. The company is LMS-agnostic and can work with any existing system or provide a content delivery system alternative, if needed.

“From a technological standpoint, most institutions are able to handle their business with students for their undergraduate and graduate programs, but many institutions, when they start to look outward — that is when it starts to become an issue,” said Jerry Rhead, executive director of MSU Global.

MSU Global is a Michigan State University innovation and strategy unit in the Office of the Provost. With more universities entering this space, strategic, think-tank-type teams like MSU Global are being formed to assist faculty and administrators to identify and develop content into revenue-generating courses.

MSU, the first land grant institution in the United States and commissioned in 1855 as the Agricultural Colleges of the State of Michigan, has a rich history of offering Cooperative Extension programs to the citizens of Michigan to improve their lives by having access to research-based information. In many ways, this type of institution is ideally suited to serve nontraditional students, needing only to convert a treasure trove of Extension material into an online, competency-based format.

One prime example was the task of converting its existing Michigan Citizen Planner program, delivered through MSU Extension in the classroom and online, into a revenue-generating national program that would be called American Citizen Planner. The program leads to a certificate of completion or, with advanced training and completion of an examination, a Master Citizen Planner credential.

Although there are differences in legislative specifics from state to state, at its core many of the elements and issues involved in planning and zoning are shared. Other states could therefore leverage the existing Citizen Planner course material by adding state-specific content and branding. In this way, an institution would be able to offer a revenue-generating course with very little investment of time or resources.

For its contribution, MSU would benefit as well, earning a small percentage of the course fee for developing and creating the original program.

Furthermore, the institution utilizing the American Citizen Planner content could then market it to local city and county planning commissions in its state through the established Extension educator system. This would increase revenue exponentially through the franchising of the content information.

However, there were significant barriers to implementation.

Many LMS vendors require exclusivity agreements that limit the institution’s ability to utilize a competitive system. Furthermore, utilizing the LMS for an MSU Extension program was one thing, but as the scope began to extend to other states and other institutions, the LMS provider balked unless additional licenses were purchased by each partnering institution.

“That’s where a third-party vendor like One Squared Education can come in that is not limited by those restrictions,” says Rhead.

One Squared Education was asked to help migrate the Michigan Citizen Planner content to another LMS operated by eXtension, an Internet-based collaborative environment where land grant university content providers exchange objective, research-based knowledge. The company also played a role in strategizing with eXtension and MSU about different approaches to delivering the content and how to serve the market.

“The most important value these vendors provide is they know how to do this better than we ever will, they have the mechanisms to carry it out, and they understand the art and science of how to do it,” Rhead said. “You might be able to get ten students on your own, but when you bring a third-party vendor, they can bring a thousand students. I would rather share a percentage of revenue across a thousand students than keep all the revenue from ten, because ten isn’t going to make us enough money to make the effort profitable.”

Today, One Squared Education is continuing to pursue the concept of the American Citizen Planner by assisting eXtension in moving the initiative forward. In addition to MSU Extension’s existing Michigan Citizen Planner, the University of Arizona is now offering the American Citizen Planner program, and more universities are expected to offer it in the near future.

As its name suggests, MSU Global is not satisfied with simply extending its reach on a national scale. Rhead already envisions the possibilities of an international Citizen Planner course, given that many of the “planning” aspects of the program apply to developing countries. This includes education and information about preserving natural resources, protecting the environment, population, infrastructure development, etc.

According to Rhead, this is a prime example of how universities can take existing content and, through proper planning and evaluation, figure out how to maximize the return on investment. It is the very reason groups like MSU Global exist.

“I think that is where an organization like One Squared Education can help educational institutions be smarter in how to play in this new space and remain relevant,” he added.

For more information, contact One Squared Education: online at http://www.onesquarededucation.com; via phone at 747-384-0811; or via email at marks@onesquarededucation.com.