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From partnership to fusion: future educational landscapes

Online education expert Gilly Salmon reflects on making online education collaborations work successfully
This article is more than 5 years old

Gilly Salmon is chief executive and principal consultant at Education Alchemists, Ltd. 

Across the higher education sector, aspirations to internationalise the student body, transform approaches to education, increase student recruitment and generate revenue are all on the agenda.

Once, universities might have been able to do all of this on their own. But it looks less likely as we move towards a digitally integrated future. Evidence-based pedagogical approaches for online education mean that very high quality engaged learning is now available at scale. But making the right choices of technologies and deploying them effectively requires effective partnerships and collaborations with providers.

Having held senior roles in universities and more recently in a commercial Online Programme Management company, I have seen collaboration succeed, fail and much in between. The 4th Industrial Revolution is characterised by fusion of the physical and digital – a concept that is becoming increasingly significant in higher education.

Here I reflect on my experience (confirmed by others from the commercial and university sectors) of moving from partnership to fusion – considering what makes great partnerships work well, leading to that holy grail of achieving success that simply could not have happened without the alliance.


We’re at a time when many of the ‘private’ or ‘public’ characteristics of educational institutions are becoming somewhat blurred. Working in new types of partnerships in preparation for innovative learning futures brings shared benefits and rewards – and spreads risks across both parties.

Fusion is about blending different components or elements to create something new – a process that needs both energy and a catalyst. Universities are used to setting up research consortia and working with industry – but neither are easy. Private-public partnerships for education bring even more complicated equations. However experienced and flexible, morphing one multi-faceted university onto a commercial organisation – each with their own base of power and culture – is no mean task.

From the university’s perspective, new partnerships are often intended as a catalyst towards long term transformation of their educational agendas. And the commercial organisation needs to be as sure as possible that there will be a return on its investment, sooner or later. Understanding and appreciation of each other’s aspirations, strengths and needs is the best way to start with the aim of leading to the shared values and goals for the partnerships.

Infection and vaccination

The next step is developed through doing things! Achieving and then implementing agreed goals requires multi-level creative work. Typically, incremental and radical changes are needed by both parties. One way of thinking about the impact of a developing partnership is the metaphor of ‘infection’. For example, the introduction into a host system of some agile and commercial values might bring about its protection and increased well-being.

Perhaps it’s more like vaccination – the host builds resistance to lower quality through the introduction of the very antibody (competition?) that the system seeks to protect itself against. In this way, immunity and resilience are built. Ultimately though purpose, effort and outstanding communication comes the emergence of shared strategies and plans.

So, here are my suggestions for partnerships that are productive and effective – the ‘fusion of the future’:

Pedagogy: In the past, it was sometimes considered sufficient for the university to hand over ‘content’, usually in the form of power points or text books to be ‘digitalised’.  That does not lead to outstanding learning materials and processes. Now, the valid concerns and high aspirations of the academics for their knowledge to become accessible can be properly be fully and sensitively addressed. New curricula and pedagogical ‘design and build’ methodologies ensure full engagement for all contributors – academics, educationalists, information and technology specialists. Confidence and trust can be built through joint design and shared development, leading to transformational thinking in action for teams and exceptional outcomes for students.  

Resources: Manage and commit resources (of all kinds). The key here is balancing both partners’ resources and capabilities with the scope of activities and outcomes to be achieved. Lots of dialogue and visual mapping is needed, but not too much for too long – avoid recipes that lead to inertia.

Trust: Nurture each other for the good of the whole – trust doesn’t come as naturally as many think. Both parties lend their weight (strengths, special attributes and distinctiveness) and their efforts to the crowbar to lift a mass they could not move on their own. Effectiveness is about applying the needed effort at the correct distance along the lever. We can achieve such a feat by growing a very strong sense of the specific contributions from both organisations that lead to the synergies of the partnership. Joint workshopping enables creative, open problem solving, relationship building and emergent idea generation.

Capability: Appoint and enable people who have the capability to operate across organisations and roles – we call them the “boundary-spanners”. They can rally sustainable commitment, function across lines, problem solve, foster constructive enthusiasm and lead to action. These champions need to keep gears moving and know when to compromise – because there will be uncertainties, and you cannot control for all risks. Clarity for communication lines and accountabilities are crucial.

Structure: Set up a transparent hierarchy of integrated strategic and operational formal groups, with clear purposes, roles and terms of reference. Be aware that embedded in both organisational cultures are a mass of procedures and decision cycles will be out of synch at the beginning. These procedures will need to be meshed if the output from the joint gearbox is going to propel the partnership towards its shared ambitions. In addition,  enable opportunities for people involved in both parties at all levels and roles to develop and deploy constructive, flexible and informal relationships.

Prototypes: Recognise that very small scale ‘hopeful pilots’ are rarely successful in scenarios of this level of scale and complexity. Better ways of going beyond proofs of concept are through prototyping, to demonstrate how things can be done. It’s best to aim for modest but achievable outcomes whilst assembling for more ambitious, scalable sequels.  A roadmap is needed with clear pathways but with feedback loops – learn from achievements and less successful endeavours. Be wise, adjust swiftly, with clear arrangements for widening the motorways in the months and years that follow.

With these suggestions, the benefits of planned, diverse collaborations can become apparent quite quickly. Also, look out for good things that emerge and were unanticipated – such as wider digital benefits for the whole institution. If partnerships can operate through fusion then universities could achieve their ambitions for educational provision, reputation building, global footprints and doing more for less. Commercial organisations of the twenty-first century will seek and build their understandings too, and achieve their contributions to the common good.  

This is the second in a series jointly published between Wonkhe and OES about shifting trends and online learning and technology in higher education.


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