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University of Indiana-Bloomington

As online offerings have grown increasingly important to colleges over the past decade, large public university systems looking to launch or expand degree programs have been faced with a key question: To centralize or not to centralize?

Systems across the country have adopted a wide range of approaches -- creating a separate institutional entity for all online efforts, housing online programs at individual campuses, sharing online courses among several campuses with oversight from a central body, among others.

But the answer for most lies on a spectrum between centralized and decentralized. Each approach offers benefits and drawbacks, with no one emerging as the dominant or superior model. System leaders interviewed for this article said the key for any university is not to follow a specific path or precedent, but to find the approach that best suits the institution’s strengths and diminishes its challenges.

Highlights of how university systems manage their expansive online programs are below.

Campuses Lead

The University of Illinois’s online effort lies on the decentralized end of the spectrum. A small centralized unit provides learning management system assistance and pedagogy training for instructors, but each campus creates online programs that suit its priorities and personality.

“They host a committee every couple of months with the leaders of the online programs just to make sure we don’t step on one another -- so we don’t launch directly competing degrees and the like,” said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Schroeder’s campus emphasizes liberal arts, sciences, public administration and business, while the Urbana campus focuses on engineering and the Chicago location has a massive health and medicine department. Instructional designers at each campus offer personalized support to faculty members that wouldn’t be possible if the system centralized its online offerings, according to Schroeder. The campuses are separated by 100 to 200 miles, so traveling between them would prove draining.

“Instructional design tends to be hands-on,” Schroeder said. “It can be done at a distance, but we find that it works best if the faculty member can sit together with an instructional designer to work through some of their components, especially early on.”

The Illinois system tried and failed to launch a more centralized global online campus just under a decade ago. That decision was made without adequate faculty input, Schroeder said, and the administration’s overreach led to “significant fallout” as individual campuses declined to offer degrees through the program, which was ultimately shuttered.

On the other hand, Schroeder admits the decentralized model doesn’t inherently offer a financial incentive to the system as a whole, as revenue from each online program isn’t shared with other campuses. Still, he believes the model puts campuses in the best position to succeed.

“We centralize what is cost-effective and decentralize that which would not be cost-effective,” Schroeder said.

A Separate Arm

Colorado State University began offering online courses in the early 2000s as a supplement for residential students. About a decade ago, the university system's Board of Governors decided to create a new institution to address surging demand for online programs and the specific needs of adult learners. The system now boasts two campuses that offer face-to-face and online courses for residential students and one that’s fully online -- Colorado State University Global Campus -- each with its own goals.

According to Amy Parsons, executive vice chancellor of Global Campus, the separate institution has helped the system establish a distinct brand for its online offerings targeted at adult learners who have some prior college credit.

It has also helped Colorado State in other less noticeable ways. The system’s employee benefit program allows staff at the two physical campuses to enroll in online courses and even earn degrees from Global Campus, which helps boost morale from a human relations perspective, Parsons said. Centralization makes the process of administering that program and transferring credits smoother and more efficient, she added.

The system's setup also allows for more mind share between campuses. The success of the online programs at Global Campus has informed enhancements to online program offerings at the Pueblo campus. The main Fort Collins campus, meanwhile, has implemented eight-week online courses and multiple starts throughout the year based on the success of similar Global Campus programs.

Branding Global Campus as a separate entity wasn’t always easy, though. At first, some prospective students assumed they could enroll with no college credit and emerge with a completely online degree. "It took some time for us to be clear about our marketing message about where students should start within the system and where they can end within the system,” Parsons said.

Colorado State also refined its process for allowing face-to-face credits from the physical campuses to transfer to Global Campus.

Another prominent example of a centralized program is Penn State World Campus, which hosts an online portal with all programs and services available to nonresidential students. Administrative components also are centralized. (Residential students have access to register for some but not all Penn State World Campus courses.)

This setup strikes Karen Pollack, the Penn State system's assistant vice provost for online undergraduate and blended programs, as the most efficient for the university’s scale -- 99,000 residential and 13,000 online learners. Creating technical help desks, securing accreditation and complying with federal guidelines for out-of-state education would be exponentially more difficult if each of the system’s 24 campuses had to complete those tasks separately, Pollack said.

The World Campus overlays allow for a helpful degree of technology standardization, according to Pollack -- common student information system, learning management system, curricula, naming conventions for courses and advisers reviewing transfer credits.

Even at the centralized World Campus, some decentralized functions remain. World Campus has a pool of instructional designers, but the separate campuses also have some of their own. That arrangement allows for online courses to be better designed for residential students, Pollack said, and it enables individual campuses to work more closely with designers when creating World Campus programs. World Campus collects revenue from all of the online programs it offers and shares it with the member campuses. Revenue from courses for residential students go to the individual campuses.

Given that Penn State system’s overall mission is to keep its programs accessible and affordable, managing costs at World Campus is a high priority and often a struggle, according to Pollack. As a possible solution, the system is developing artificial intelligence that could bolster student support services at World Campus to help with registration, financial aid and adding and dropping courses.

Combining Forces

Many institutions incorporate elements of centralized and decentralized approaches without leaning too far in either direction. At the University of Nebraska, for example, a centralized component coordinates compliance, state authorization and marketing, while each of the four campuses hosts a unit responsible for orchestrating blended and online courses.

“The intent behind this was to leverage our academic strength, knowing that each of our campuses wouldn’t have the national footprint that the collective would have,” said Mary Niemiec, associate vice president for digital education for the university and director of University of Nebraska Online. “It also gives us a great advantage to be able to look at collaborative programs in which campuses will partner with each other to offer courses and to be able to put a degree online that, otherwise, the capacity would not be there to do.”

As reported by "Inside Digital Learning," the University of Massachusetts has a similar model, with a central body -- UMass Online -- overseeing online learning efforts at autonomous campuses. The system favored this approach because it allows individual campuses to reap the benefits of revenue from their specific online programs, which gets funneled back toward face-to-face courses as well as the online offerings.

“They’re not being diverted from the teaching mission,” UMass Online CEO John Cunningham told “Inside Digital Learning” in August. “They just have another avenue to pursue.”

Each campus pays a portion of UMass Online's annual operating budget for marketing and tech support based on the number of “unique users” in its online programs, said Marcellette Williams, senior vice president of academic affairs, student affairs and international relations for the UMass system. The fee covers branding and marketing, technical support for individual campuses, and facility, office and other costs.

At Nebraska, individual campuses administratively support certain programs, which can incorporate courses from the other campuses. For instance, students can enroll in a master’s in early childhood intervention at the Lincoln campus; within that, they can take online courses through Lincoln and the other campuses.

“It provides more options to students and it makes certain we’re able to offer courses on a very timely basis,” Niemiec said.

The institution reaps benefits from this approach, but there are trade-offs, Niemiec said. Coordinating approvals at the campus, system and state levels is time-consuming, with new programs taking as long as a year and a half to get off the ground.

The Nebraska system also struggles at times with ensuring that prospective students get a consistent experience during the recruitment process. Learners can express interest in an online program through a central website or one of the individual campus websites. As a result, administrators have to be extra careful not to miss those scattered correspondences, and to respond to them appropriately. For instance, students interested in learning online sometimes receive in error materials about activities on campus, Niemiec said.

Mixed Approaches

Other models that mix decentralized and centralized elements take on different forms. At the University of California, individual campuses develop online and hybrid courses that suit specific degree programs, and a central office creates courses needed across the entire system, on topics including global health, computer science, calculus and geography.

Indiana University, meanwhile, describes its model as “collaborative,” though it bears some hallmarks of decentralization. Each of its nine campuses has its own portfolio of students, courses and programs, though some are shared among several campuses. A central office ensures compliance, coordinates academic program development and handles marketing and recruitment.

Most students enrolling online at Indiana don’t prefer a specific campus because they’re coming from elsewhere in the country, said Chris Foley, assistant vice president and director of the office of online education. Indiana’s central online office suggests campuses to prospective students in an effort to ensure equitable enrollment distribution. The student ultimately can choose which campus to attend, but the system’s role ensures that programs are being filled on a roughly comparable basis, which helps ease the potential of over- or underenrollment, he said.

Indiana’s model has allowed in-state online tuition for the last five years to grow at an equivalent rate to in-state face-to-face tuition. Plus, each campus retains more revenue because the central online office is funded through a $30-per-credit-hour fee paid by any student taking an online course. That fee allows the system to "manage compliance at the university level and provide program and course development with the assistance of existing staff and faculty by adding relatively few staff," Foley said. If the system had centralized its online efforts, Foley said, 40 to 60 percent of the institution's annual tuition revenue would have had to go toward an online program management provider, diverting vital funds from departments.

"If we hadn’t opted to pursue this route, but chose to centralize or outsource through an [online program management firm], the costs would have been significantly higher, requiring an estimated 40 to 60 percent (or more) of tuition, a significant loss of revenue for our departments that wouldn’t allow us to offer affordable tuition and [would] decrease quality," he said.

Faculty buy-in has been difficult at times, Foley admitted. Some instructors worry that because online programs are being created at their campuses rather than at a separate one, they’ll lose their jobs or become irrelevant as these efforts proceed. “Collaboration requires us to bring together a lot of various entities, have conversations, make sure we’re all on the same page,” he said. "In some cases people have legitimate fears" based on their awareness of similar efforts at other institutions, Foley said. But the institution has been able to assuage those fears.

But no teaching jobs have been eliminated, Foley said, adding that in large part, instructors now see that the system’s decision not to create a separate online campus ensures that students receive an education that’s an authentic extension of what the campuses provide.

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