Steps in Forming a Good Partnership with Third Party Vendors

As a distance education administrator you will be working with all kinds of third party vendors. In higher education we use many vendors to run our business.  For distance education there are the critical systems we use, such as our learning management system (LMS).

In this blog post I would like to address the relationships and partnerships that DE administrators build when looking for full service options.  When starting out, many programs do not have the infrastructure to support their initial online program initiatives.  So what should a DE administrator look for in a vendor to develop a partnership that is beneficial to both the institution and the vendor?

Choosing a vendor should be like choosing a partner
Choosing a vendor should be like choosing a partner

It is important to form a good partnership.

Step 1: Determine what you want and what you need
As a DE administrator you should be sitting down with the academic unit delivering the program and doing some planning.  Part of this discussion should include:

  • Is this a viable program to take online?
  • Do you know if there is a market for the program and how would you recruit the students?
  • How soon will the program move online?
  • What it will take to get there?

In your planning process you determine what you can support within the DE unit and what you think a vendor can assist you with their services.

Step 2: What is your institution’s process for acquiring vendor services?
This is an area where I have seen programs get into issues.  Before you start contacting vendors, contact your institution procurement office and find out what the guidelines are for whether a Request for Proposal (RFP) process is required.  I will say this is not a quick process, whether you are doing an RFP or reviewing vendors yourself, most systems have extensive approval processes.  Don’t forget that your IT department needs to be involved while looking at vendors so they can support your needs and the vender requirements.

Step 3: Have the right people reviewing the vendors with you and the academic program
Be sure to invite all of the right parties to be part of your vendor review team.  It should include the faculty from the program you are planning to deliver, DE unit staff, students, Admissions, Marketing, and others appropriate at your institution.  You should have the team meet before reviewing the vendors and develop a rubric by which you will assess each vendor.  If you can talk to others who may be working with some of the vendors (your peers at WCET are great resources for you) and, if appropriate, ask to do some testing or have access to the product for review.

Step 4: Negotiating the contract
When you have gotten down to where you have made a decision, there are important steps to remember in moving forward with a contract.  You need to work with your Procurement Office.  They can help you understand if there are bidding laws in your state (if you are a state institution).  Many states have contracts rebid every 3-5 years and often the vendors want long term contracts.  What are the rules your regional accrediting agency have in place for third party vendor contracts and relationships?  The accrediting agencies are the gatekeepers for the federal regulations and there are some federal regulations related to tuition sharing contracts.  The accreditors are also questioning relationships that appear to be relinquishing “too much” control to the vendors. Your institution’s Legal Services office must be involved and approve the contract language.  Be sure to include all the services you need for the life of the contract, support services and training come to mind.

Step 5: Implementing the Contract
This will take resources from both the vendor and your institution.  Depending on the type of vendor relationship you developed you will be working with Marketing and Admissions to start that process, course development and training for faculty. IT will be involved for getting technical pieces.  If you have the vendor doing part of the student services, that will need to be established before the first classes of the program start.  If you have selected a good partner, things will go smoothly.

I caution you to build a relationship where the vendor understands you are the client and do not allow a vendor to have you change your program to meet their goals or needs.  This is another concern and I have seen it happen.

These five steps are simplified to all the actions you will actually take.  I think there are a couple of key points you need to know and keep in mind during your planning and implementation:

  • Establish timelines.  I mentioned in step one this takes time.  You probably will not get through this process in a semester.  You need to find out how long the RFP process takes, how long you want to take reviewing vendors, and how long it takes to have the contract finalized. Additionally, work with the vendor to establish how long implementation will be.  Then develop a timeline for the project and stick to it.
  • Develop the appropriate team for the project.
  • Have a rubric for evaluation
  • Early on, know the rules for the accrediting agency, state system, and institution so there are no surprises.

This has been a quick overview of looking at vendor to help you with starting up an online program.  There are so many reasons we all use third party vendors and so many different types of vendor relationships.  It is important to select the right vendor for the project.

A group of WCETers developed a Best Practice Checklist for Choosing and Working with Third Party Vendors and a WCET “Talking Points” document with additional advice.  At the upcoming 25th celebration WCET Annual Meeting there will be a panel discussion moderated by Deb Gearhart and the checklist will be provided.  Joining me in the development of the checklist were Christine Lustik, Smarthinking and Pat Fenn, Ocean County College.Photo of Deb Gearhart

Deb Gearhart
Vice Provost for eLearning and Strategic Partnerships
Ohio University

Photo credit;  Morgue File

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Executive Director WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies)

2 thoughts on “Steps in Forming a Good Partnership with Third Party Vendors

  1. This is an excellent overview of the third-party process. I’d like to add one item, which probably goes under “negotiating the contract.”

    In recent years a number of institutions, among them some Big Names, contracted with vendors and thought they were done, in terms of what the institution had to do.

    In fact, many states will not allow a vendor to “sign” for the institution when it comes to interstate offerings. Oregon, where I was the state regulator for twelve years, requires all authorizations for new programs to be an application and approval involving the degree-granting institution and the state – the vendor cannot make the application. This is a common approach among states.

    Why is this an issue? Several reasons. First, institutions have not allotted staff time to work with the states where they need to be licensed. Sometimes the state needs information about a program (e.g. faculty qualifications) that the institution may have to get from the vendor. We had situations in which the vendor behaved with great discourtesy to the staff of the state licensing office – that reflects badly on the degree-granter.

    I am now working on the SARA interstate reciprocity project, which will make it much easier for colleges to operate across state lines, but SARA will not allow vendors to represent institutions in the application process, either. The reason is fairly simple – vendors do not have degree-granting authority and cannot be given such authority by a college or university. SARA and its member states need to be able to work with the entity that is legally responsible for issuing the degrees. That’s the college.

    So when you work with a vendor to offer courses and programs across state lines, keep in mind that certain aspects of the work will be ongoing for the college, and a vendor should never be asked to represent a college to a state authorization agency.

  2. As a vendor (and former university professor), I appreciate any university that takes the trouble to establish a relationship with a vendor and will reciprocate. You can realize some real synergy if you do this well.

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