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?).