In the late 90s — during the “early years” of online higher education — many colleges and universities didn’t have the internal resources required to build, support and market online education. Some institutions saw fit to join online consortia; by pooling limited resources, each institution gained access to the resources they needed. Many of these early initiatives are still operating.

Access and/or Innovation

In a recent review we conducted of online higher ed consortia, we found that the majority of consortia, and the vast majority of those that started ten or more years ago, are designed primarily to increase access. That is, these initiatives define success by the number of online courses created and/or supported by the consortia and the number of students enroled in these courses. More courses means more access.

Access is obviously important. However, for a number of reasons, we believe that a recasting of the consortia model would be beneficial. Given the state of online education, the focus needs now to shift from ensuring institutions can launch and support online courses, to stimulating innovation and improving quality.

Time to Focus on Innovation

First, and most obviously, the needs of member institutions have changed and consequently consortia need to change, as well. Over the last decade-and-a-half, most colleges and universities have significantly augmented their internal capacity to develop, support and market online education. The LMS is now near universal. The majority of university leaders see online education as fundamental to institutional strategy, and far more instructors have experience teaching online.

moving beyond the basics

As internal capacity of member institutions increase, the functions that can’t be done well (or at all) within each member institution change too. Although this may seem so obvious as to be not worth mentioning, our review suggests otherwise. Many consortia we reviewed continue to provide only the basic requirements of creating and supporting online courses. One consortium, for example, simply assigned a single instructional designer to work with a lone instructor from the member institution to develop an online course. No meaningful quality standards are employed, the instructor isn’t even paid for the course development. Fewer and fewer institutions need these basic services. It isn’t surprising that our review found that institutions that have set more ambitious goals for online education are less interested in participating in consortia.

focus on innovation

Our review suggested that more consortia should focus less on providing basic, increasingly common, services and more on helping institutions test and scale more ambitious online learning strategies that can improve outcomes and drive down costs. If the fundamental value proposition of consortia is that it enables member institutions to do what they can’t done alone, then the initiative should be deliberately and systematically focusing on those functions that are anything but “basic”. Services that fall into the category of “ambitious” in 2014 might include the development of rich media, the use of learning analytics, and the development of competency-based programs.

why consortia

Consortia align particularly well with three trends in online higher education:

  1. A slow migration to the software model of course development, in which upfront costs for course development are relatively high, but maintenance and distribution costs are marginal. By pooling resources, consortia can accommodate higher upfront costs and then coordinate distribution at scale.
  1. Growing use of analytics to inform and personalize learning. The more data is shared and compared across institutions, the greater its value. Again, consortia are well positioned to facilitate the proper movement of data-generated insights across institutions.
  1. Online education will continue to demand new, increasingly complex skills and knowledge that are not readily available within each institution. Consortia can serve as a central, shared source of talent and technology across individual institutions.
defining ROI

Consortia need to define and then share clearer and more concrete objectives with member institutions. In particular, it would be useful for consortia to provide members with more robust assessments of the initiative’s ROI. If success is defined by the consortium (as noted above) by the number of online courses and students that are supported by the consortia, then members should be able to assess whether the cost of running the consortia is greater than the actual increase in enrolment and number of courses. ROI is always difficult in education, but consortia — given their frequently tenuous financial stability — may be less inclined to produce this kind of information. Member institutions should demand it.

built to change

Lastly, consortia must be built to change. If, as suggested, the basic purpose and value proposition of the consortia is to do what member institutions can’t do separately, then the services offered must change as technology, costs, and objectives change. Again, this may seem obvious. But consortia struggle with change like other organizations. Nevertheless, the value proposition of consortia requires that they continually adjust their services to meet changing conditions.

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Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

Services offered by consortia to member institutions include the following:

  • Course registration and course registration systems
  • Help desk (technology and/or administrative) for students
  • Professional development for instructors
  • Learning management systems
  • Video conferencing (hardware, software and support)
  • Webinar hosting and management (hardware, software and support)
  • Sharing of online courses between institutions
  • Instructional quality assessment and rubrics
  • Development of new applications
  • Multimedia development (instructional material)
  • Market research services
  • Instructor training on educational technology
  • Instructional design
  • Tutoring services (student online/phone)
  • Learning object repositories
  • Project management/coordination
  • Marketing / clearinghouse of members courses and programs

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