Q&A: Why This Edtech Exec Prioritizes Affordability & Quality

In this new series, Stream explores how innovative edtech companies are rethinking their product strategies and adding key features and functionality to better serve their customers. This interview with Stephen Green, CPO at Noodle Partners, is a sneak peek of Stream’s ebook “Edtech Today: 8 Startups on Managing Exponential Growth.”

For nearly two decades, Stephen Green has played a major role in reimagining the scope and direction of higher education among U.S. colleges and universities. Green currently serves as Chief Program Officer at Noodle Partners, the country's leading provider of online program management, where he develops innovative strategies to assist colleges and universities in providing greater access to, and lowering the cost of, higher education.

Prior to joining Noodle Partners, Green was formerly President of Graduate Programs at 2U, Inc., CMO at eCornell, the online learning arm of Cornell University, and Qubed Education, an edtech company that builds online career exploration programs with top universities and leading consumer brands. Green, who has held executive positions at some of the industry’s most respected organizations, including The Princeton Review, holds two Master’s degrees from Columbia University.

Here, Green talks about recent changes in online learning for higher ed, the opportunities (and challenges) posed by the pandemic, and what the industry’s future may hold. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

How have you seen online education change in the last 10 years?

Online education had a “lowbrow” stigma a decade ago. So we said, ‘What if we can get great universities to put their brand, reputation, and beliefs behind an online program that can be as good, if not better, than what happens on campus? What would it take to build an infrastructure and an ecosystem that will allow that to happen?’ And we did, which started to disprove that low-service notion. And from a geographical, economic, racial, and social standpoint, we now see how online programs can create a much more lively and enriching learning experience while expanding access and equity.

And it can still be cost-effective?

What exists now that didn't a dozen years ago is a whole army of companies that just focus on specific areas — marketing, instructional design, technical support, and more. So, we bring together an ecosystem of those providers and mesh that network with our own expertise in such a way that we create a pricing structure that ultimately charges universities maybe half of the typical operating costs. We are entirely transparent about every dollar that's spent on every service, so universities have a level of control and ownership.

We’ve learned, over time, that this is better than a revenue-share system, and the market is now screaming loudly for our model.

Can online education programs compete with experiences outside the classroom?

The socialization of college is not something that is easily translated online. We have to think about how we partner with universities and help offer extracurricular activities to students who can’t hang out on the quad. What types of events can we offer? What types of panels? It requires a lot of intentional thinking, so we consider ourselves an integrator of the types of services that universities can offer and help create the best experience for students.

Describe the pandemic’s impact on Noodle.

Our ‘North Star’ has always been to build great, quality programs and be thoughtful and deliberate in the online experience for students. It was a community-minded approach, never rushed and often designed in partnership with campuses over several months. But the pandemic has pushed away some of that time for thoughtfulness out of sheer necessity. It has forced us to be more creative in how we build the best offering possible, and now in only six weeks or even two weeks in some cases. And our charge is to mitigate frustrations and keep partners from becoming jaded. What we're beginning to see is universities that had to rush are realizing it's not horrible. And with some further investment and thoughtfulness, it can be great.

How will the next decade play out?

A lot of the industry has been, and will continue to be, focused on graduate students. Typically, graduate students need less socialization with where they are in their academic lives. For this group, online learning can work better from an academic and social framework. That said, there will be a concerted effort to focus on the undergraduate experience and how to make that truly exceptional online.

It’s also going to come with a greater desire for control by universities. That’s a good thing because we can use our flexible service model and marry our expertise with their capacity. Six months ago, many universities were walking when it came to online learning. With the pandemic, they’ve been forced to run, and they’re seeing the intrinsic value both in online education and having a partner to support them versus doing it themselves. They’re not going to slow down.

Stream's Takeaway: Online platforms and products that succeed in the coming years will be honest about what can and cannot be translated from in-person to online learning for higher ed.

Moreover, products that provide real value to universities carry a primary focus — in Noodle’s case, graduate students — and allow for complete transparency surrounding cost.