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  1. michael Beaudoin
    October 24, 2013 - 12:56 pm

    Thanks Tony for yet another pithy contributioin to your body of ideas regarding online education; plenty of provocative thoughts to ponder and discuss. Allow me here to comment on just one aspect of your notions re: the future of DE- the question of maintaining separate online ed units within institutions, vs.amalgamating this delivery system into the larger whole. There are compelling arguments on both sides of this one, but I must confess to some serious reservations about a recommendation from an outside observer that all instructional and support functions that have been separate and distinct from conventional F2F activity should be merged.
    Here is one cautionary tale that contributes to my skepticism- at my home institution, a major effort was initiated some years ago to capture all the ‘orphan’ non-traditional programs under a new college that would become the epicenter of innovation. A period of agressive program consolidation and development ensued with much success. Meanwhile, the rest of the university continued with its usual menu of conventional programs and its preservation of the medeival ‘guild’ style of providing higher education.
    When I stepped down as dean of that new college to devote more time to teaching, research and writing, the then president decided that the many diverse and often atypical offerings could be dispersed to and delivered by the various other existing colleges and units. It was no surprise to me that within two years, most of these well enrolled and highly effective courses and programs had shrunk to shadows of their former selves. A case in point was the continuing education portfolio that had been built up from nothing to a vigorus and dominant unit in the region, but once in the hands of traditional departments, they once again became neglected orphans.
    True, every institution has its idiosynchracies and variables that affect outcomes when such structural changes are made, but I fear that if online activities are delegated to disparate units that may not recognize the power and potential of that alternative to their prevailing mode of operation, online ed could likely die of loneliness, especially if there is no solid central unit guiding and supporting these online efforts, which are often unfamiliar to mainstream providers.
    It is an interesting debate and one which is certain to increasingly come to the fore as we contemplate and shape the future of this exciting field.
    Kind regards,
    Michael Beaudoin

    • Tony Bates
      October 25, 2013 - 5:57 pm

      Thanks, Michael
      Yes, it’s a difficult decision about whether to centralize or decentralize specialized units, such as DE departments. I couldn’t agree more that there are many different factors that could make what might appear a rational decision not work. The readiness as well as the willingness of academic departments to absorb additional, non-traditional activities are key factors, as well as the support or opposition of the administration.

      I know at least one Canadian institution that is at this moment struggling with this kind of decision (which partly prompted me to write the post). The real danger of centralization is that experienced, highly skilled specialists such as instructional designers or learner support staff or adjuncts experienced in dealing with distance or online students are not appreciated or understood by academic departments, and in the end such staff are either forced out or quit.

      The timing of such moves is also critical. Done too early, when departments aren’t ready, there is chaos and off-campus students suffer. Done too late, central units build up a costly and often ineffective internal operation which results in the external unit being closed, despite the fact that they have all the expertise.

      Such decisions above all require highly skilled management that is transparent both in its purpose and in the way the re-organization is done. Too often the decision is made behind closed doors, with the external unit left out of the centralization process altogether. This is a sure recipe for disaster, as the UBC case illustrated.

      Having said all that, if an institution has made a decision to move online learning into the core of its activities, and the academic departments have agreed to this, then the expertise built up in the external department will be heavily required within the central departments, and these relocated staff will help the academic departments pay specific attention to the needs of off-campus students as well as the warm bodies in front of them.

      In the end, instructional design and learner support staff need to be as close to the faculty as possible. The actual organizational location is less important than the willingness of faculty to work with such staff, and there is a variety of ways to bring about this closeness, besides physically locating them together.

      Other comments on this issue will be very welcome

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  4. Jason Shaw
    March 30, 2014 - 3:10 pm

    Great read as always, I always thought that the only that at risk of disappearing was traditional face-to-face component. It just seems an ideal fit. However, both ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology continues to show that students want to interact with their teacher, and will be expecting them for assistance with technology.

    Speaking of change, I can’t help but read this and think about how the cloud is affecting the dynamics of education and business. For instance, the cloud is creating great opportunity, in developing countries, for businesses using fax and phone as their means of transactions. The cloud is going to allow these businesses to start using technology they couldn’t because of costs and lack of technical expertise. On the other-hand, we in Canada have to deal with all change required to move from legacy systems to the cloud. It’s extremely expensive, difficult, requires legal privacy documents, and technical expertise.

    Thanks again Tony.

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