November 1, 2014

Why successful consortia for online learning are so difficult

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The five steps of online system collaboration © Rachel Fishman, 2013

The five steps of online system collaboration © Rachel Fishman, 2013

Fishman, R. (2013) State U Online Washington DC: The New America Foundation

Fishman, R. (2014) Seeking Your Input on Online Consortia and Online Community Colleges WCET Frontiers

It would seem obvious that there would be great advantage in building consortia for online courses, so that courses could be shared between institutions, thus saving institutions the cost of developing new courses that are already being offered by other institutions. In particular, when you have a single state system of universities and two year colleges, it seems even more obvious. This is basically the idea behind the new Ontario Online initiative, for universities (Ontario already has a collaborative system, OntarioLearn, a partnership of 24 Ontario community colleges that have pooled their resources to increase online learning options.)

However, credit-based online courses have been around for many years, and yet there are very few successful consortia (Open Universities Australia is one good example.) The University of Florida System is a more recent example, as is the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Rachel Fishman’s report, State U Online, was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and tracks the development of online university consortia in the USA. She  identifies five steps that a state can take to build an integrated state-wide online system, and provides case studies of systems and institutions that have reached each ‘level.’

  1. Clearinghouse: State institutions collaborate to provide a clearinghouse of courses and degrees that a student can easily search. However, students must apply to each institution individually, and credit transfer between institutions is not automatic. Contact North provides such a portal in Ontario.
  2. Shared contracts: State institutions join together to purchase shared contracts for resources like a common LMS or services such as web conferencing or professional development around online learning. BCcampus operates something similar in British Columbia.
  3. Shared student services: state systems provide a variety of student support services at all (participating) institutions within the system, such as advising, local study centres, or even more common, proctored examination centres.
  4. Shared and articulated credentials: state systems have created carefully articulated efforts that include easy transfer of credit among institutions and shared credentialing. (This would include OntarioLearn)
  5. Shared credentials beyond state borders:  Several state systems create collaborative inter-institutional and inter-state efforts that take all of the previous steps, and allow students to move freely beyond state borders. Great Plains IDEA is an example from the USA, and Open Universities Australia is another example.

Fishman argues in the report that ‘public institutions should strongly consider adopting a system wide or consortia approach, in a manner that fits their unique contexts‘ and makes seven recommendations that will help strengthen such consortia.

However, in her blog post for WCET Frontiers, where she is asking for input for a new study on consortia in two-year colleges, she acknowledges that ‘[these five] categories may not be as distinct or as linear as I have made them out to be. And for some states, there are many barriers already in place that prevent institutions from even being able to come together and collaborate in the first place.’

Comments

The State U Online report should be compulsory reading for politicians and policy makers interested in course sharing and creating consortia.

However, what the report does not adequately address are the economics of online learning. Course sharing is not just about delivery of content, but also about providing learner support. If an institution takes a course from another institution, who will provide that ongoing learner support and assessment? It is the learner support that costs money (at least twice the cost of course development), and it is in the details of who will do the teaching of the online course – and how that gets paid for – where consortia so often break down. Having a strong and robust business model that adequately ensures the costs of all partners are adequately covered, and any surplus revenues are appropriately shared, is essential for successful consortia, but these conditions are very difficult to meet.

Another major barrier is academic distrust of other institutions: ‘Our courses are always good; yours are garbage.’ Also, for obvious reasons, faculty often feel uncomfortable teaching a course designed by someone else, and into the design of which they had no input.

For consortia to work, there has to be a synergy and a mutual respect for the other partners in the consortium. In a large system it is unrealistic to expect automatic transfer of credits between every institution in the system, although some states, such as California and Florida, have gone a long way to building equivalencies between courses in different institutions that facilitate formal credit transfer arrangements, through subject discipline articulation committees. But that is very hard work, takes many years to build, and requires a common vision and mutual respect. That is very hard to achieve in systems that put so much emphasis on competition and rankings.

So yes, consortia are desirable, but it ain’t easy. In the meantime, if you know of any successful online consortia let Rachel Fishman know (and me, too!)

Comments

  1. Russ Poulin says:

    Tony –
    Thank you for featuring our post from Rachel Fishman. WCET is maintaining a list of consortia in the U.S. and Canada: http://wcet.wiche.edu/learn/consortia/profiles
    We know we don’t have them all and we’re trying to get each one to complete a short profile detailing what they do. As Rachel said, her “steps” turn out not really to be steps as you see some consortia focused on the latter steps without doing the lowered numbered ones. It all depends on the needs of the consortia members.
    Russ Poulin, WCET

  2. While you discuss higher education, we are starting the first online consortium in Illinois for K-12. You describe many of the challenges we have faced and are facing as we prepare for the 14-15 launch of eLo. You’re right it is not easy, but we must provide opportunities for our students when they enter college and careers. It is the right direction for education. Thanks for the post.

  3. I think the reason for consortia failure are much more crass and banal than the issues highlighted in this post.

    Employees (faculty and staff from the President on down) at lesser known colleges (in the consortia) fear loosing their jobs and at the better known colleges fear loosing their prestige. Both sides will throw up as many obstacles as possible to a central goal of the top level administrators of the consortia to cut costs (i.e. jobs).

    Since in most cases top level admins are political hires and are temporary, consortia loose to the active resistance of the permanent employees actually running the show. Tenured faculty are smart and so do not trust the promises of a short term political appointee about no job losses when the central goal of the consortia is to do exactly that.

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