There doesn’t seem to be anything higher education can’t break apart and dump into silos. Even technology, which was supposed to help integrate things and eliminate duplicate, wasteful efforts we all loathe, isn’t immune to the practice.
At Iowa State University, the two major providers of online coursework—the College of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS)—were engaged in virtually identical technological activities. When rising enrollment numbers clogged registration for on-campus classes, the opportunity to combine services was realized.
“We were having trouble getting all of our engineering students into chemistry and mathematics and other courses that the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was delivering for our on-campus folks,” recalls Tom Brumm, director of assessment of the College of Engineering and an associate professor. “We went to them and said, “ ‘Hey, we’ve got this problem. Can we work something out?’ That turned out to be a great relationship.”
Indeed, once new sections were added and registration glitches smoothed out, the two colleges worked together to tackle online duplication. Iowa State’s solution was to merge their separate units into a single entity, Engineering-LAS Online Learning (ELO), with Brumm named professor-in-charge of the new initiative.
“The process of officially merging them was easy because both deans were in agreement and said ‘make it so,’ ” Brumm says.
In serving as the single deliverer of online coursework for both colleges, ELO has helped the university realize a variety of efficiencies. Professional staff are now shared among the colleges, and nonessential functions have been assigned to more appropriate campus units. Administrators implemented uniform and more reliable technology solutions for recording and delivering online content, integrated IT systems into department systems to reduce cost and improve reliability, and launched an online ticketing system for student inquiries, which reduced email traffic and improved response time.
The merger is only a year old and still evolving, Brumm says, but reviews are positive. “We had a number of classrooms set up to record and capture lectures, and they all used different equipment,” he says. “We had different cameras, different computers, different recording software. Over the course of the last year, [what] we’re continuing to do is to bring that into uniformity: one software package, [the same] equipment, [and] bringing all the equipment into the IT sphere so we’re connected with IT for maintenance.”
Course delivery fees paid by LAS students are down by a third, and engineering students by twice that. Meanwhile, online student hours in both colleges are growing (by 25 percent for Engineering and 50 percent for LAS). Pedagogical support, previously unavailable, is now provided in 30 courses, and 38 additional classrooms have been equipped with lecture-recording capabilities. “It was really just trying to put together a system and put people in charge that were good and let them use their professional experience, knowledge, and expertise to problem-solve,” Brumm says.