Going the Distance
As distance education programs expand at many colleges and universities, administrators are faced with a question: Is it better to have a centralized distance education office, or should individual departments handle distance education on their own?
Some institutions are making a shift from one model to another, such as Texas A&M University's recent move to decentralize by transferring development, management, and promotion functions of its Office of Distance Education to its college deans, shuttering the central office. There are also distance learning efforts going in the other direction, as departmental programs come under a centralized strategy that provides uniform course development and shared technology resources.
A third type of approach blends the strengths of both strategies, with some colleges and universities creating hybrid programs where certain services, such as technology support or system integration, are centralized, but other aspects - such as faculty training and course development - come under the helm of individual departments.
In general, there's no one-size-fits-all strategy or definitive answer to the question of centralization, leaving officials to take a look at what works for them, what doesn't, and whether change is necessary.
The advantages to running a centralized distance education office can be numerous, especially if the program is growing rapidly. At Athens State University (Ala.), for example, there's been so much growth in distance education within the past six years that online courses now account for more than half of the total course offerings.
Officials decided on a centralized office that provides all administrative oversight, training, support, and system maintenance of its learning management system (LMS), Blackboard Learn. According to Steve Clark, the university's coordinator of learning systems, "empty course shells" were developed and offered to all departments.
"Our philosophy has always been to have all of our courses use the same delivery method through the LMS, and then to offer a 'cafeteria plan' to our instructors on any other online technologies they wish to use in their courses," he says. These might include asynchronous lecture capture through Tegrity Campus, synchronous lectures through Wimba Classroom, or protection of the exam environment through Respondus LockDown Browser, he notes.
"By opening up the LMS to every single course we offer every term, we also expose all of our students to these other technologies at the same time, driving adoption at a quicker pace than what might otherwise be considered typical," he says. "Adoption of these technologies has primarily been driven by student demand."
-Cory Stokes, Technology Assisted Curriculum Center, The University of Utah>
In addition to taking advantage of different types of technology, centralized distance education can also foster growth, some believe. Centralized support has enabled the University of Massachusetts, Lowell to boost its programs, according to Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney. She notes that programs have been growing from about 10 percent to 20 percent every year.
With decentralization, benefits can come in the form of departmental control over various aspects of distance learning, such as course development and technology use. Sometimes, departments can move faster on projects or purchasing decisions than a centralized office that needs to get input from various stakeholders.
Chris Lynch, dean of mechanical and aerospace engineering and chair of the distance learning program at the UCLA School of Engineering, notes that his self-supporting program started in 2007, when the decision was made to create an independent system for distance learning in engineering. The program, which uses equipment from Echo360, runs its own servers, expands as needed, and employs tech support personnel.
"Being separate from a centralized system enables us to implement changes quickly, and keep things running well," says Lynch. "As director of the program, I can direct resources faster. It's similar to how a small company can be more nimble than a large corporation; there are fewer layers of approvals. If we were to make major program changes, we'd still have to talk to the president, and we do have limitations. We can't just add new degrees, for example. But in the everyday running of the program, we're very independent."
Another advantage to decentralization is individualization of the look and feel of a particular online program, notes Cory Stokes, director of the Technology Assisted Curriculum Center at The University of Utah. "Decentralization allows departments to choose what they want to be known for online, as opposed to some centralized body saying, 'This is what we want online.' Departments can make decisions based on the faculty they have or the programs they want to put in place, and that level of control leads to a high amount of buy-in."
A challenge with the decentralized approach, though, is that there can be uneven approaches within the same institution. For example, one department may have a very comprehensive distance education offering, while another may not be adding courses fast enough to meet student demand.
Another issue may be leadership, and the willingness to run such an extensive undertaking. Lynch notes that part of the reason he feels comfortable with his program's independence is because he previously worked under a decentralized model at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Having autonomy has been beneficial, but if I hadn't had prior experience at Georgia Tech in working without a central system, I might have been a little lost in starting a new, decentralized program like this."
For some colleges and universities, the use of a hybrid-type model brings together the best of both worlds in terms of centralized support and departmental control.
At North Carolina State University, for instance, a central organization known as Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) reports to the provost and provides technology, faculty training and support, and other services such as proctoring. But each academic college has a distance education director who provides all the academic coordination for their college's distance education programs, including recruiting, admissions, advising, and curriculum.
"Our model avoids replication or reinventing the wheel," says Tom Miller, vice provost for DELTA. "The colleges have structures in place for managing academic programs; we don't need to replicate that. At the same time, there is no need for the colleges to have to independently recreate the technology infrastructure and faculty training and support resources that we provide centrally."
The hybrid model also works well within an institution that already boasts a blend of centralized and decentralized services, according to Deb Gearhart, director of eCampus at Troy University (Ala.). She notes that Troy has over 60 teaching sites, including some military bases like Fort Benning. About five years ago, several campuses that were separately accredited came together in a challenging consolidation that resulted in a unified, stronger university. The multiple teaching sites and recent centralization push have made the institution into something of a hybrid, with consolidated programs but decentralized student services.
That environment made Troy move toward a hybrid approach for its distance education as well. Gearhart's eCampus office acts as a central organization with instructional design, technology support, Blackboard resources, and a quality assurance program.
Although student services are located at each teaching site in a decentralized manner, those in the eCampus office have been discussing whether to fold those into the centralized program as well. "If we'd started from scratch, we probably would have everything centralized," Gearhart says. "But because we had the whole site network in place, it made more sense to do it this way. I think when you're trying to be consistent for all learners, decentralization can be very difficult."
Several factors influence the decision to run a centralized, decentralized, or hybrid model for distance education. One major issue for all strategies is the type of communication that can be put in place between departments and a central office.
"Communication is the key to running any distance education program," says Sheri Rawls, director of the Learning Enhancement Center at the University of Southern Mississippi. "It can be the biggest challenge, because there are so many processes involved." At her university, a blended approach gives departments the power to hire faculty, determine what courses will be taught and handle faculty payroll. Those aspects of the program used to be handled through one office, but during a massive reorganization of the university about nine years ago, the decision was made to decentralize those tasks, but to centralize all other distance learning components.
Rawls notes that it's only been within the last few years that the program has really found solid ground, and communication is stronger, thanks to a more formal structure implemented by an e-learning steering committee. Helmed by the provost, the group includes the university's CFO, CIO, and other decision makers who can direct changes in the infrastructure.
Rawls and her team also have numerous informal discussions with department representatives and students to help keep the programs running properly. "We are very diligent about making sure that there's communication with the right groups, and that we're always talking with folks and developing good relationships," she says.
Accreditation can also play a role in the decision to make distance education centralized or decentralized. In Texas, for instance, a course that includes more than 50 percent of instruction apart from an instructor has a number of accreditation rules that must be followed, notes Kevin Eason, director of distance learning at Tarrant County College (Texas). Faculty must receive appropriate training, and the courses have to be reported to the state differently than on-campus courses.
"The key advantage that I see in having a centralized department is that it allows us to keep up to date with those rules, and make sure we're in compliance," he says. "I think it also makes a difference as to whether an institution has individual accreditation for each of its colleges. We're just one college with five campuses, so that gives us a different mindset when it comes to how to approach services. If there was separate accreditation, we might follow a decentralized model, because that would be the mindset for other services, too."
Even regulatory mandates can come into play when making the choice of a distance education program. Although Miller feels that North Carolina State has a solid hybrid model, some state regulations may cause a shift in the future. Most notably, there's a different tuition and fee structure for distance education offerings as compared to on-campus programs, leading the provost to ask DELTA administrators to look at organizational structures and services and address the barriers to more blending.
"I don't expect that the result will move us toward or away from centralization versus decentralization of distance education," says Miller. "However, I expect that it will provide more clarity and definition with respect to which elements are best done centrally and which are best done in the academic colleges and departments. In this time of increasing demand and declining state resources, it's essential to get that balance right."
Discussing distance education centralization or decentralization can be a vital part of any strategic planning process, and it's likely that many colleges and universities will eventually take the same route as NC State, making the issue of whether to centralize or not into a question with a changing answer.
Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis-based writer who specializes in covering technology.
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