Distance Learning Consortia: An Assessment

Over the summer a couple of interesting reports on distance learning issues were released: The massive U.S. Department of Education survey of the 4,130 institutions eligible to offer federal financial aid; and a more modest study on statewide virtual universities and colleges sponsored by the State Higher Education Executive Officers and the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications.

The Department of Education study reveals that almost 90 percent of public colleges and universities offered electronic distance learning in the 2000-2001 academic year, when the study was conducted. About 60 percent of these distance learning-offering institutions were participating in a consortium for distance learning. Of these, 75 percent were participating in state- or system-level consortia.

The study on virtual schools, conducted by Rhonda Epper and Myk Garn, looks behind these numbers to uncover why those statewide consortia were formed and what they are doing. The authors discovered 61 different statewide or system-wide consortia assisting their constituent colleges and universities in distance learning.

Each consortium was developed in the context of specific needs defined by policy-makers in each of the states involved. The original goals reported by the leaders of these consortia were to increase access to higher education, especially to under-served populations, providing statewide leadership in developing new distance learning programs, and reducing costs for their state.

The goal of reducing costs had different interpretations. For higher education, it meant reducing the duplication of resources from campus to campus. So, some of the consortia used financial incentives to encourage campuses to work together to produce distance learning courses. All of the campuses in the state could then use the same distance learning course materials.

Other consortia focused on centralized services to distance learning faculty. Still, others tried to focus on services to students—these consortia created centralized Web sites to which students could go to find all the distance learning courses offered by all the schools in the state or the system. Some even created common registration and student financial aid forms, saving students the chore of filling out different applications each time they registered for a course from a different school listed on the Web site.

Many of the policy-makers who originally funded these statewide consortia expected the overall costs for higher education to be reduced. Perhaps in part as a response to this inconsistent way of looking at costs, the goals of the consortia have shifted over the last few years. As Epper & Garn discovered, the current goals talk more about increasing higher education efficiency and relevance to state needs, increasing communication and collaboration, providing for a better educated workforce, and increasing economic development.

Though Epper & Garn did not study the activity of regional virtual colleges and universities, they did note that the number of statewide organizations increased precipitously beginning in 1996. While it's true that Web-based technologies for distance learning were emerging during that time, it's more likely that the precipitating event was the national dialogue on virtual institutions sparked by the formation of the Western Governors University (WGU) in 1995 and 1996.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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