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In the late ’90s and early 2000s, when online education was still nascent, state university systems needed major technical help getting new programs off the ground. Several organizations focused on digital learning cropped up, bolstered by state funding and membership fees from participating institutions.

Many of those organizations remain in service today, though much of their focus has shifted from tech support and faculty development to course sharing and program scaling. In many cases, state funding has dwindled or dried up entirely. Well-resourced for-profit companies and national nonprofit organizations further complicate dynamics between system institutions and their local distance education partners.

Facing recent revenue declines and ongoing turmoil over the state education budget, the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium wound down in June after 20 years. The organization, a division of the online Charter Oak State College, will continue some services and discontinue others, like a tutoring platform used by more than 100 institutions nationwide.

"You have to generate products and services that people are willing to pay for," said Ed Klonoski, president of Charter Oak. When he started the organization, Klonoski said, "I didn’t really address pricing across time. I didn’t have a lot of investment capital. I needed to pay far more attention to make sure we were generating far more revenue [than cost]."

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Representatives of other consortia were surprised at the Connecticut closure, though most don’t appear fearful that their organizations will follow suit. According to their leaders as well as outside observers, these organizations are becoming more specialized to meet their states’ specific needs, attempting to keep pace with an increasingly diverse and fragmented education landscape.

The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) will soon release the results of its latest survey on the topic of distance learning consortia. According to Russ Poulin, WCET's director of policy and analysis, this year’s results suggest consortia are increasingly difficult to pin down.

“In the past I could pretty well identify trends -- everybody’s doing joint technology, or for a while everybody was creating an online course listing,” Poulin said. “This time, it seems like with the exception of OER, the consortia are going in different directions. I think that’s a maturing process.”

He sees more consortia differentiating services among their members so that large institutions aren’t saddled with the same support that a smaller, less well-funded institution would need.

“They need to really be in touch with what are the unmet needs,” Poulin said.

Organizations that offer distance learning services to member institutions need to keep their constituents’ interests in mind and be willing to evolve quickly, according to Van Davis, principal at Foghlam Consulting who spent eight years coordinating interinstitutional collaboration in various roles at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“I don’t think they are superfluous. However, I think their role has to evolve,” Davis said. “There are some institutions and some consortia where that’s happening, and there are some where that may not be happening.”

Making Moves Despite Pinched Budgets

One of the primary functions of distance learning consortia is to provide a platform for online course sharing among member institutions.

Illinois Community Colleges Online (ILCCO), for instance, had 165 courses available for students at any of the dozen institutions paying for membership in the consortium, according to Jeff Newell, the organization's director and a staff member of the Illinois Community Colleges board. Institutions currently pay $10 per credit hour for course sharing, on top of a $500 membership fee. Both fees serve as revenue for ILCCO, which also facilitates each college's payments to other colleges when students from one institution enroll in online classes from another.

Under an earlier model, institutions paid only a flat membership fee of $1,000. Newell introduced the per-credit-hour fee in fiscal year 2018 in an attempt to boost revenue to the organization.

Course sharing allows each institution to fill gaps in its offerings and boost enrollment numbers, Newell said. Unlike in Connecticut, this consortium hasn’t encountered much turbulence lately.

“As an organization it’s been on a pretty steady path for a long time, and I don’t particularly see it changing,” Newell said. The state recently passed a requirement for institutions to invest in dual-credit programs, including online -- but Newell hasn’t yet figured out how his organization fits into those efforts.

One by-product of having no state funding, though, is bare-bones personnel. Newell said the organization has “no real staff” -- aside from his director role, a digital learning administrator from a member college serves as the organization’s steering committee chair, and digital learning administrators from each of the other members serve as committee members.

The story is similar at Michigan Colleges Online, where Ronda Edwards serves as executive director and the only full-time employee. The organization was formed in 1999 to expand the reach of Michigan’s community colleges by helping students access courses outside their geographic area. It’s now evolved to help institutions share curricula for the purpose of establishing cross-institutional programs.

Michigan Colleges Online also relies on membership fees, which vary depending on an institution’s full-time employees. The organization collects 10 percent of revenue generated when a student at one institution enrolls in another institution’s course through the Michigan Colleges Online portal. Seventy percent of the remaining revenue goes to the institution providing that course, and the other 20 percent goes to the student’s home institution.

The organization also benefited in recent years from a few grants: $900,000 from the Department of Education for student support services; $1.9 million from the Kellogg Foundation over three years; and $1 million from the state for improving tech infrastructure.

Still, Edwards said, the organization has slimmed down from three employees at the turn of the century to just one as of 2009. She dreams of negotiating an agreement, at a competitive rate, with a single learning management system provider that would be shared across the state’s community colleges.

“I can absolutely be doing more if I had more funding,” Edwards said. “We do what we can.”

Edwards also offers each year a slate of professional development webcast topics on a specific topic. This year’s focus was OER; last year’s, accessibility.

“We are not the same organization we were when we first started,” Edwards said.

A Nuanced Picture

Digital learning consortia aren't universally beleaguered, as evidenced by the money breakdown in the WCET survey. In 2008, when Poulin's organization last conducted a survey of digital learning consortia, only 13 percent of respondents were receiving more than $5 million in funding per year, and roughly half the respondents received less than $500,000 per year. According to Poulin, the upcoming survey reflects a shift: only 30 percent of respondents receive less than $500,000, while one-third are now funded above $5 million.

“Those that were small, either they grew or they died,” Poulin said. “Some of these are losing money or losing favor.”

Others, meanwhile, are flourishing. Open SUNY, which launched in 2014 to serve more than 500 online programs across the State University of New York System's 64 institutions, receives $1.95 million in annual state funding, plus $3.55 million in individual campus fees for opt-in services, according to Kim Scalzo, Open SUNY's executive director. In addition to course sharing, the organization offers a wide range of services including online tutoring, one-stop student support, learning management system troubleshooting, professional development, instructional design models and teaching resources.

"Over time more emphasis has been placed on building student support services and building the capability of individual campuses to support their own faculty and students," Scalzo said. "Today we provide more models, standards, resources and professional development to campus professionals who provide that direct support to faculty who teach online and to online students."

Other organizations in the "$5 million club," according to Poulin's survey:

  • Colorado Community Colleges Online, which matriculates students from its residential colleges into online offerings its employees develop.
  • Florida Virtual Campus, which provides a repository of instructional resources, career development services and interlibrary programs (for higher ed and K-12).
  • eCampusOntario, which hosts an open textbook library and offers professional developments to educators in Ontario's postsecondary institutions.

One challenge in assessing the landscape of consortia is nailing down characteristics common among most of these organizations. Kentucky Virtual University serves as a repository of online courses available at participating universities but offers few other services, according to Doyle Friskney, the organization's senior adviser for technology innovation and learning.

The North Dakota University System’s Core Technology Services only provides IT services to its 11 member institutions, though it did just roll out a plan to unite the entire system’s tech infrastructure under the Blackboard learning management system, according to Jerry Rostad, the system's assistant chief information officer.

No matter their position within a system, consortia at their best can help institutions eliminate redundancies in their academic offerings and offer students an academic experience more tailored to their specific interest, according to Cecilia Retelle Zywicki, vice president of strategic partnerships at Wiley Education Services and a co-founder of Ranku, an ed-tech company that helps institutions recruit and enroll online students.

"The more you can get schools to act like a system, the more cost savings you can have, the better delivery you can provide for students," Zywicki said. "If you’re not spending the money to recreate the same program, you can better serve students, and quicker."

Consortia can have impacts well beyond the borders of their state. MarylandOnline, funded mainly by membership dues, developed Quality Matters, an organization that establishes standards for online programs and provides professional development to more than 1,100 institutions nationwide, including 34 systems. QM became a legally separate entity in 2014, allowing MarylandOnline to focus on new projects, including a leadership institute for Maryland administrators and surveys and events around OER.

“Quality Matters was a huge success in large part because of the consortial sharing of ideas that helped form a robust program valuable to institutions of every shape and size,” said Wendy Gilbert, executive director of MarylandOnline.

Oncoming Challenges

Consortia face several challenges as they march toward an uncertain future. Because they provide support to institutions rather than directly offering services of their own to students, their positive effects can be difficult to quantify. Many institutions now have the capacity to keep tech support for online programs in-house, leaving more abstract tasks to the consortium organizations.

“A lot of the value of the consortium is intangible, and you cannot put a price tag on intangibles,” Gilbert said. “The shared knowledge and advice around the table at board meetings is never calculated as a financial benefit or costs savings."

The decline in state funding for these organizations in part comes from them being difficult to describe. According to Davis, of Foghlam Consulting, politicians often find it much easier to explain to voters why they funded a particular higher ed institution as opposed to a nebulous organization that provides an abstract collection of support services to several. Consortia are particularly troublesome politically, Davis said, because many of them lose money, which, ideally, is gained back by constituent institutions.

“In reality what they’re probably doing is taking some of that heavy lift off of the individual institutions,” Davis said. “That's a harder story to tell.”

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