Next Steps Uncertain After Online Learning Catalyst Closes

The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium served the state's online initiatives for two decades. Now the challenge -- or opportunity -- for the institutions is to continue that work as the consortium closes.

May 9, 2018
 

News that a state organization that supports online programs plans to close can be cause for alarm at first glance. Who will make up for the lost services? What will become of the current employees? Is online education in trouble? (OK, most people in 2018 probably aren’t seriously asking that last one.)

Panic might not be the most fruitful response. Jill Buban, senior director for research and innovation for the Online Learning Consortium and a former administrator at Post University in Waterbury, Conn., thinks the closure of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium could be a blessing in disguise for the state as its higher education fortunes remain in turmoil.

“In some ways this could be an opportunity for the state of Connecticut to really look at distance learning and be innovative about what they’re doing with it,” Buban said. She believes the state could follow the Massachusetts example -- a centralized online hub for all of the state’s public institutions.

The current situation remains to be sorted out. “Inside Digital Learning” last Friday broke the news that the consortium -- a division of the online Charter Oak State College and a part of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education -- will close. As new details trickle out, the conversation will inevitably shift to what happens next. Administrators at the consortium, meanwhile, are lamenting that their efforts couldn’t continue in their current form.

“Hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, bar any,” Ed Klonoski, president of Charter Oak, said of announcing the decision.

The closure also fuels an ongoing debate over the value of organizations like this one at a time when online programs are growing more mainstream. A University of Texas organization for online support went through a similar evolution earlier this decade, while organizations like Maryland Online persist for now.

What Went Wrong

The state’s persistent challenges in funding and supporting higher education took a toll on the consortium’s bottom line, according to Klonoski. Financial statements from 2014 to 2017 show that the consortium recently has been bringing in between $1.5 and $1.8 million per year and spending between $3.5 and $4 million. The bulk of those expenditures -- more than $2.5 million per year -- fell under the category of "institutional support," according to the documents.

Conversations about closure have been taking place for “a month or two,” Klonoski said. The final decision from Klonoski and the Connecticut Board of Regents came in mid-April.

Charter Oak is also struggling at the moment, with expenditures far outpacing revenue, which made the state Board of Regents more insistent that the consortium needed to wind down, according to Klonoski.

The state’s long-standing fiscal challenges were a secret to no one, least of all to Kevin Corcoran, who has served as executive director of the consortium since 2011, and in various other roles there since 1999.

The closure was “disappointing, but it wasn’t necessarily a shock,” Corcoran said.

Downsizing wasn’t an option because Connecticut’s stronger-than-average union protections for state workers meant no one except Klonoski himself could be laid off. The organization’s 11 employees will in the next few months be reassigned to positions within either Charter Oak or at other Connecticut institutions, unless they choose to work elsewhere.

Klonoski wants to ensure that the current employees end up in positions best suited for their talents.

“Moving people from my organization to another Board of Regents is incredibly complex. It’s like a dating thing, almost,” Klonoski said. “You can’t just point people at a seat and say, ‘Go sit there.’ It’s not that directive. It can’t be in an environment like this.”

What the Consortium Did

The consortium was founded in 1998 to provide support to Connecticut institutions for technology-enabled learning initiatives. During the organization’s first couple of years, it released grant funding to institutions as they laid the foundation for online courses and programs, according to Corcoran. As the process for developing online programs gained a foothold at individual institutions, the consortium transitioned into more of a support role, Corcoran said.

The most significant loss upon the closure, according to Klonoski, may be the consortium’s robust online tutoring apparatus, which serves 137 institutions across 17 states, as well as a collaborative that serves institutions in British Columbia. The service launched in 2001 as a platform for tutors in common subjects to combine forces and serve a wider range of students than a single institution’s tutoring service can. Klonoski hopes to preserve at least a portion of that program, but he’s not yet sure how.

Other accomplishments for the consortium, according to Klonoski, included the Connecticut Education Academy, which produces online work-force training materials, and a virtual degree-completion high school for adults that has run for 15 years.

From Buban’s vantage point, the consortium served as a smaller-scale version of what her organization does: providing support and assistance to institutions getting started with online programs. Particularly in the late ’90s, when it started, the consortium was “at the forefront of providing professional development and learning opportunities,” Buban said

Two decades later, the state can point to some development of the online market, like the robust suite of online programs at Quinnipiac University and increasing efforts at Fairfield University -- both CTDLC member institutions. But “there’s definitely room for growth” in an online landscape where the state's public institutions haven't invested significantly, Buban said. She thinks Charter Oak could be poised to make that leap, given its ongoing investment in alternative credential programs.

"Inside Digital Learning" reached out to several of CTDLC's member institutions for comment on the closure. This response from Robert Prezant, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Connecticut State University, offers a window into the current thinking: "We're still digesting this news and our own IT folks are considering a variety of plans and approaches to compensate."

Prior to the past couple of months, the consortium had never been close to shutting down, Klonoski said. Eight years ago, McGraw-Hill was in early negotiations to purchase the consortium after seeing Pearson make a similar move with Smarthinking, but McGraw-Hill never followed through, according to Klonoski.

How the Consortium Struggled

Other consortium efforts fell victim to increased competition in recent years. For-profit companies cornered the market on learning management system support, rendering the consortium’s services less desirable and cost-effective for most institutions.

The consortium’s instructional design work is now easily matched by Charter Oak’s own two-person team, according to Klonoski. At the consortium’s inception, few institutions employed instructional designers of their own, but the profession has grown increasingly prominent in higher education, and many institutions now prefer to maintain ownership over the design process. At the same time, according to Corcoran, institutions that aren't protective of instructional design often need services in greater volume than the consortium can reasonably supply.

In some cases, according to Klonoski, his team was far ahead of the curve. The consortium reserved the a web domain for eportfolios long before the concept became widely known. The consortium’s eportfolio wasn’t discipline specific like most current ones, but it presaged now-popular tools.

“We solved it before anybody was aware we needed to solve it,” Klonoski said. Now its model has been outpaced, though.

Looking Ahead

Buban declined to speculate on whether other organizations with similar functions could face the same fate. Instead, she’s focused on using this news as an opportunity for supporters of online education to take a fresh look at their strategy.

“I think all organizations should be looking at strategically what they can do to stay relevant, how they can be partnering with institutions or other organizations, could be looking at those next steps,” Buban said. “That’s the space we’re in. We have to be thinking smart, strategic, innovative to keep going.”

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