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Consortia to the Rescue

Turning to distance ed consortia in times of need
University Business, January 2013
Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium girl on computer
Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium schools joined to obtain funds for an e-tutoring program more robust than their individual efforts.

As distance learning programs are developed and then refined, there are many options for national, regional, and statewide distance education consortia that the institutions can, and often do, join. The consortia help in sharing resources and tips to help each other with distance learning efforts.

Organizations like the American Distance Education Consortium, National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and Sloan Consortium offer member schools access to networking, resources, conferences, and learning opportunities.

More importantly, higher ed institutions turn to these consortia for help with problems and challenges they’re facing with their own distance education programs. One of the primary reasons Oregon State University Extended Campus is involved in consortia like these is the opportunity to network with peers in a narrowly focused area, says Dave King, associate provost. “A consortium like ADEC offers networks so we can solve problems without having to reinvent things all the time.”

Following are examples of how administrators have solved problems with the assistance of distance education consortia.

Aging Leadership

Larry Ragan and his fellow distance ed program leaders knew they had a problem. As Ragan, who is director of instructional design and development, continuing and distance education/World Campus for The Pennsylvania State University, and his peers have met at Sloan-C conference events and had discussions, they have observed the aging of their group. Many would soon be transitioning out of leadership roles. So they asked themselves: What are we going to do about training the next generation of leaders in distance education program management?

This discussion started back around 2002 and incubated for four or five years. In 2008, Penn State and Sloan-C jointly founded a leadership development program, the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL). The four-month program, capped at 40 participants, is designed to prepare prospects for the realities of distance program management. Schools select participants with the intent of moving program graduates into leadership roles. The most recent IELOL class hosted individuals from seven countries in the body participants. 

“Projects like the IELOL highlight the value of the relationship between schools and aggregate bodies like Sloan-C,” Ragan notes. “Sloan-C couldn’t do it without us, we couldn’t do it without them. The combination of those resources makes the project work. As we move with new ideas, we do it hand-in-hand. It’s been very rewarding and allows us to move quicker.”

Pooling Resources

Back in 2001, several schools in the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium (CTDLC) had budding e-tutoring programs to support their distance learning program students. However, all the schools were running into the problem of only having a limited amount of time and resources to support each program, and to serve their students, according to Kevin Corcoran of the consortium. The CTDLC spearheaded a grant initiative to aggregate online tutoring resources among schools, to be able to serve more students.

The project received funding from two pools, the Foundation for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education, and the David Foundation, as well as an investment from the CTDLC itself. The CTDLC used the funding to develop an online software platform for the online tutoring program. launched in 2002 with seven Connecticut schools. The program was so successful for the CTDLC, other groups of schools from across the country wanted to get involved.
The CTDLC was able to take its platform and use it as a template, and spread the eTutoring program to consortia of schools in Ohio and Washington State, among others. Originally, the initiative was to help students at a distance, but on-campus, traditional students have started to opt-in to the program, as well.
There are now 130 schools across North America, with a Canadian pilot program launching this year. “To be able to help this many institutions is mind blowing,” says Corcoran.

Filling Gaps

Charlie McCormick, provost and vice president for academic affairs of Schreiner University (Texas), ran into a problem related to world languages courses. “If every student wanted to take the same language at the same time and had the same background, we would be okay,” says McCormick. “But students have different goals and want to learn different languages, and trying to meet students’ needs and desires in world languages is in some cases an economic nightmare, for a small liberal university like Schreiner. We needed some solution on how to do this.”

“Rebecca Davis at NITLE knew of other small liberal schools in Texas with the same problem, and suggested we get together and talk about the problem,” explains McCormick. “We had to figure out a technology solution; driving wouldn’t work because of the great distances between our schools. And more traditional models of online learning didn’t appeal to us, because we are all high-touch schools, and we didn’t want to lose that experience.”

Schreiner and four other institutions formed the Texas Language Consortium, and NITLE recommended that the Texas Language Consortium use high-definition video conferencing to teach world language classes.”

Using the right equipment gave us the face to face, high-touch experience we wanted,” shares McCormick. “The Texas Language Consortium decided as a group to leverage each others’ existing capacity. We’ve got a full-time professor who teaches German at Schreiner, and now he’s teaching via HD video to students at every school in the consortium. From the way the microphones work, you can sometimes hear the people at the remote location better than at the regular class.”

And the Texas Language Consortium is by no means the only group NITLE has helped this way. NITLE does a great deal of work around digital humanities, and often uses technology to fill in gaps at small liberal arts colleges.

“We did a lot of work with the iPad when it came out, using it to teach stroke-based languages like Arabic and Chinese,” explains Joey King, executive director of NITLE. “With small colleges, they are hard-pressed to have all the expertise they need on staff, so we fill that gap.”

Helping Hands

As the above examples demonstrate, membership in a distance ed consortium can be valuable. Institutions facing challenges with their distance learning programs may find membership even more valuable, because now they have access to a pool of professionals in similar positions with similar problems who can offer advice and support. Through the collaboration of resources and knowledge, solutions can be found.