Kolowich, S. (2010) Texas kills its Telecampus Inside Higher Education, April 9

This is one of those blogs I probably shouldn’t write, but what the hell.

When I read this article, which is about the closure of the University of Texas central online distance education unit, I had a real sense of déjà vu. It mirrors almost exactly what the University of British Columbia did when I was Director of Distance Education at UBC, with only one difference, which I will come to later.

In UBC’s case the Deans saw all the tuition revenues from distance education enrolments going into the DE department. Since the students were ‘their’ students, they wanted ‘their’ money. What they didn’t realise was that it was money in and money out: the tuition revenues were used to hire adjunct faculty to teach the programs. In addition, there was a fund from central operating grant to pay for course development, the bulk of which went back to the faculties to pay for the time of faculty to work on the development of online courses. However, if only the Deans could get their hands on that money as well…..

So in 2003 it was decided in principle to decentralise distance education to the faculties. A committee was struck to work out the best way to do this. Three years later, and within two days or so of the actual transfer of students and funds to the faculties, the Dean of Arts suddenly realised that she had an extra 1,600 student enrolments to manage, and nobody with the skills or experience to do this (almost all the central DE staff, including myself, had quit long ago). So the move was cancelled and the DE unit was rolled into the central Office of Learning Technologies, where it is now quite successfully operating, and another real spin-off, several of the surrounding institutions in Vancouver now have excellent distance education programs being run by the people who quit UBC.

Now, as Richard Garrett commented in the article, as online distance education activities grow and become an integral part of a university’s operation, there is a logic in decentralization, but with several big provisos: the academic departments must understand that distance education students have different needs than on-campus students, and in particular should not be starved of resources to subsidize the on-campus students; online distance courses need to be designed differently and hence require instructional design and web technical support and this is expensive; and small departments will need some kind of central help as they cannot afford to hire their own specialist staff. You can of course not do any of these things and still decentralise but the quality will be dreadful, and there are plenty of examples of this (see my review of Cassie Smith’s book).

So here’s the question: is it better to do the right thing for the wrong reasons; or the wrong thing for the right reasons? (Yes, there is a better question: how about doing the right thing for the right reasons?).


  1. Ah the old centralization versus decentralization debate. Universities seem to constantly swing between the two and yet never seem to get it right. There are of course no hard and fast rules and a lot will depend on the size the institution and its capabilities to deliver quality distance course development at the edges. Of course, as your example shows, a huge amount depends on understanding of Deans of Colleges, Faculties, Schools or whatever. Most of them will have had no experience of the issues associated with delivering high quality DE and that is sort of similar to your post about the level of understanding of IT issues by senior university managers.

  2. Actually, the big exodus of DE staff from UBC didn’t happen until after the decentralization plan was cancelled in March of 2005. It is important to note that the decentralization plan was actually the hidden agenda of what the administration claimed was just a simple review of the DE dept. We hung in for 3 years believing we could actually influence the outcome. When it became clear the review and consultation process was not genuine and that UBC no longer had a commitment to distance education we left.

  3. From Burkhard Lehmann, Germany

    Dear Tony.

    You describe a problem without boundaries, that means I can observe the same problem in my country. It’s a problem of dual mode institutions. When the DE unit becomes successful, faculty becomes aware of the money and they believe that it must belong to them. What they do not realize is, that when you offer distance education as some sort of a business the institution which organizes the study programs works like an assembling hall. They put all things together, do marketing, student support and so forth. The sum of all this parts results in a program. Faculty is only one small but important piece but not the whole. The problem arises from my point of view because professors think that an LMS is all you need to do distance education. Just offer some pdf documents, set up a bulletin board and talk about self directed learning, and perhaps insert some recorded lectures too.

    This strange philosophy is the brave new world of DE. The discussion about centralized and centralized shows a lack in decision management. Presidents must be aware that DE units serve different people with different time slots. It’s not regular campus based education. To be successful you need a specialized unit. That was true in the past and that is true today.

    Burkhard Lehmann
    University of Kaiserslautern

  4. Tony et al:
    There is, of course, a long history of the very same decentralization phenomenon occurring in the continuing education (CE)arena (which shares many historical precedents with distance education).
    When I came to my current home instituion as founding dean of a new college in the early 90s, one of my charges was to develop a strong continuing education operation, which was essentially non-existent at the time. This was quite successfully achieved within 2-3 years, and replaced the local public university as the dominant CE provider in the area.
    But when I stepped down as dean a few years later, senior admin decided to decentralize CE to be run by the three colleges. I suppose the thinking was, if CE is so successful, it can’t be that hard for the individual units to do it, and keep all the tuition.
    Of course, you probably know what happened next in my saga. Within three years, CE offerings in all of the colleges had shrunk to shadows of their former selves, and today CE activity has receded back to where it was 15 years ago, and the expertise and reputation we had developed have been lost. Meanwhile, the state institution has re-asserted itself and has no competition from us.
    The only good news in this story, is that the distance education progrtams I launched at the same time have managed to stay intact and thrive, because they remained in the same unit in which they were initiated.
    Michael Beaudoin
    University of New England (USA)


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