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Drawing the Wrong Conclusions

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions

April 20, 2010

As someone who researches and works with distance education consortia in both the United States and Canada, I have received several inquiries over the past week about “what really happened” in the closure of the University of Texas’s TeleCampus. Just two weeks earlier, I had met with Darcy Hardy and Rob Robinson, the leaders of the TeleCampus. They were charged last May with meeting an accelerated timetable for making their organization self-sustaining. Their efforts appeared to be bearing fruit. That was the first of several wrong conclusions drawn by me and others in recent weeks.

In this article, I raise other conclusions that were offered to me.

Is distance education dead? Commenting on Inside Higher Ed’s article announcing the closure, one observer suggested that the pursuit of distance education is driven primarily by monetary motives. He added that universities “find distance education is not infinitely scalable and scramble for some reason to drop such programs.”

It is wrong to conclude that the TeleCampus closure reflects negatively on distance education as an enterprise. Distance education enrollments continually grow faster than the on-campus population. Officials at Colorado Community Colleges Online recently told me about their 49 percent enrollment increase over the spring 2009 term. Although some would like it to do so, distance education is not going away.

Are distance learning consortiums dead? Some suggest that it no longer makes sense to have separate structures, like the TeleCampus, to support distance education. That conclusion rings hollow for me, especially since I heard about two other states considering new consortiums in the last week. In my 2008 study on financing consortiums, I harshly concluded that these multi-institution entities need to evolve or dissolve.

As technology and constituent needs change, so must consortiums. They should focus on services that the institutions cannot do on their own or for which economies of scale improve quality and costs. Consortiums can also add value by conducting research on emerging technologies and teaching techniques. Successful consortiums constantly evolve their structure to assume new roles while shedding activities once they become entrenched on campus. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium embraces an entrepreneurial spirit by developing e-portfolio and online tutoring services that have expanded well beyond state borders. If a consortium does not meet the evolutionary challenge, it should dissolve. Failure to evolve was never a criticism of the TeleCampus.

Are services redundant? The TeleCampus was criticized for unnecessarily mirroring services offered by the UT campuses. That conclusion does not universally hold either. Not all campuses have the same level of services. Redundancy multiplies as each campus regenerates lost services once offered centrally. Efficiencies of scale evaporate and the costs shift to the campuses. Collaboration efforts struggle mightily in meeting needs that are urgent on one campus, but absent from another. Now the campuses will be struggling to fill the void in the next few months.

Can we say the TeleCampus mission is complete? The press release announcing the closure asserts that “a new organizational support structure is appropriate as the next step in maximizing distance education opportunities for our students. The UT TeleCampus has accomplished its mission of providing this capability to our campuses.”

Again, a conclusion that is tough to substantiate. As with other consortiums, the Telecampus’s mission is to “extend the reach” of its member campuses. That strikes me as an ongoing goal and not one with a defined endpoint. While I am delighted that the UT System will continue to support its program to accelerate baccalaureate degree completion, I remain very interested in seeing what else the new centralized support structure offers.

Is UT TeleCampus one of the best distance learning consortiums? I have called the UT TeleCampus one of the leaders in the field and an exemplar for other consortiums. Upon reflection, that conclusion is wrong. Given the strength of its staff and quality of its services, it is the best. Oddly enough, Darcy Hardy learned of the closure after returning from a trip on which she was one of 20 national leaders invited to meet with a prestigious foundation.

What lessons can be drawn? Many theories on the TeleCampus closure have been offered, including those around financial, leadership and organizational dynamics. My sincere hope is that others do not draw the wrong conclusions from this experience in assessing the worth of their own consortium. Consortiums are unique entities. While general principles may apply, their value can be judged only in each unique, local environment. The local landscape contains political, financial and historical barriers and opportunities that do not translate well from place to place.

Am I saying that we cannot learn anything from this experience? No. There will be much to learn. WCET’s eLearning Consortia Common Interest Group includes leaders from many consortiums in the United States and Canada. This decision renewed efforts within the group to examine consortium success factors and to identify practices that do (or do not) work. Keep watching for developments.

In the end, why is the University of Texas System closing its TeleCampus? I remain perplexed, and I hesitate to guess, as I will probably draw the wrong conclusions.

Bio

Russell Poulin is associate director of WCET.

 

 

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