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Economies of Online Scale
Florida and New York try to expand their online course catalogs while consolidating authority.
The State University of New York, a system of 64 campuses, and Florida’s dozen-member university system are seeking to offer new online degree programs by January while consolidating authority and avoiding redundant efforts by different campuses.
In New York, this means the system office is taking the reins. In Florida, it means the University of Florida is likely to lead a new online effort on behalf of the state system and gain thousands of new students in the process.
While the two approaches are a bit different, officials in both states seem to realize online education programs need to be pruned to properly grow.
SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher wants to consolidate online course offerings after nearly 20 years of institutional independence.
“I think the problems the country is trying to solve simply cannot be solved one institution at a time,” Zimpher said in a recent interview.
Florida’s online education offerings are also dispersed. Ten of the state system’s 12 universities offer online courses. That’s nearly 390 degree programs. Each university has its own online strategy, online education marketing efforts and staff dedicated to designing, teaching and hosting online courses.
The state legislature is now looking to expand the system’s online presence while also consolidating authority for future efforts.
SUNY began its online efforts in 1994 at Empire State College. Now, there are 150 online degree programs scattered across all its campuses. SUNY's extensive offerings are, as it has said in documents related to its new effort, "fragmented" – the source of "countless unexplored opportunities for collaboration, economies of scale and innovation."
Zimpher ultimately wants to enroll 100,000 new online students in the next several years while also adding new degree programs to train New Yorkers for industries with job openings. To reduce costs to students, she is also trying to speed degree completion times in online degrees to three years.
The chancellor said the whole online effort will target adults.
"We have all these adults who have some education but not enough," she said. "We're really trying to grow a major enrollment in an underserved population."
SUNY is conscious of expanding its efforts at a time when higher education has fallen down the list of national funding priorities.
“We definitely need something that higher ed usually doesn’t do, and that’s called a business plan,” Zimpher said.
SUNY already allows for students to easily transfer online credits. That's one thing. Now it is looking to consolidate offerings. That means multiple campuses won't each offer their own computer science degrees, for instance. Instead, several campuses might offer a concentration within that degree – and different campuses would take turns offering the core online courses – so faculty can focus on a specialty, said SUNY associate provost Carey Hatch.
SUNY’s online rejiggering means the system will “cut down on administrative costs and put that into academic [programs],” Hatch said. “It’s not going to take people’s jobs away but it might change some of them,” he said.
A spokesman for the union that represents SUNY academics and instructors said the union had not been consulted about the push.
“SUNY hasn’t brought us into the conversation, hasn’t consulted us,” said Don Feldstein, spokesman for United University Professions, which represents about 32,000 SUNY employees.
SUNY spokesman David Doyle said the system had consulted with faculty by appointing some of them to a task force and by talking to faculty through the "appropriate governance channels," such as the faculty senate.
Florida is taking a different route. Lawmakers there are looking to put a single university – likely UF – in charge of an online push instead of trying to consolidate efforts in the chancellor’s office.
Some lawmakers are looking to create a go-to "high-quality" online university in the state by the beginning of next year.
Last year, the state hired Parthenon Group to draw up plans to expand the state’s online education programs. The consultants came back with four options for managing the expansion: let each university continue to work independently, make them work together, create a new online-only institutions or put an existing university in charge of the online expansion.
Lawmakers appear to be settling on a plan that would put UF at the head of an effort to create a new arm of the state's university system. Graduates would get a UF degree.
Parthenon said there were three potential drawbacks to such a plan. In particular, there could "limited" participation by other institutions, stifled innovation and a contentious political tug of war at the outset over who gets what.
Florida Provost Joseph Glover said there are still several weeks before lawmakers are expected to finish their work. But if the bill stays relatively unchanged and becomes law, the university would have to get ready to offer two new undergraduate degree programs by January 2014 and work to offer four more in the next year.
“If this passes in the legislature, we will put the pedal to the metal in May,” Glover said.
The extent of the Parthenon-predicted tug of war is unclear.
Florida State University’s president, Eric J. Barron, said his university is “pleased” with the bill because it means the state is beginning to invest in “preeminence and in online education.” He said he thinks his university and UF can work together.
“We believe the investment at the University of Florida for online education will complement the efforts at each of the universities in our state system,” Barron said through a spokesman on Tuesday. “Designed to incubate innovation, the UF program should enable other programs in the state to advance their online programs more efficiently and effectively."
Glover suggested giving UF the lead would not stifle other universities' online efforts.
“I don’t see us as necessarily crowding out every other university from that field,” he said.
In addition to the expansion of its campus-based online offerings, SUNY is looking to grant credits to students who take massive open online courses, Zimpher said.
SUNY still needs to come up with some way to make sure the courses are of good quality. “We’ll need an auditing system for the MOOCs,” Zimpher said. “[We] can’t just take any MOOCs.”
Zimpher said SUNY could potentially allow up to a third of the credits for certain SUNY degree programs to come from outside institutions, including MOOCs.
Being able to bring in credits from courses taught by professors at more elite institutions – Stanford University or Duke University – could help improve student perception of a SUNY education to being much more than a "degree of convenience,” the chancellor said.
An aide to the chancellor said the system’s “main discussion partner” at this point is Coursera, a Silicon Valley-based company that provides MOOCs from 62 mostly elite universities across the world.
Glover is unsure whether Florida will try to grant credit to students for MOOCs.
"This is one of the frontier questions that has not been resolved yet,” he said.
Though UF has partnered with Coursera to offer free online classes for no credit, Glover said offering credit for such a class is "much more complicated."
"Once you enroll students in courses for credit, they are enrolled in your university and there are very different accreditation requirements,” he said.
SUNY’s consolidation also means changing the very technology its scores of universities use to offer online classes.
Right now, different campuses use different software platforms to offer online classes to students. To allow students to easily take classes from any campus across the system, all the universities will have to eventually use the same software. That could be an expensive proposition. In the meantime, the chancellor is looking for "Band-Aid" software to allow different campuses' systems to talk to each other.
“Heretofore, a campus could say, ‘You know what, we really like Moodle – we’re doing it,’ ” Zimpher said, referring to one online learning software package that Empire State officials preferred.
SUNY is eventually likely to adopt Blackboard, which is already used at 19 institutions, across its whole system.
Hatch said while nobody disagrees about what SUNY is trying to accomplish, there has been some rumbling on different campuses about making the switch from one platform to another.
“People are kind of hunkering down a little bit in terms of the technology -- fact of the matter is, that’s kind of irrelevant over the course of time,” he said.
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