The Design & Management of Effective Distance Learning Programs – Chapter 13

Chapter 13: A Case Study in Managing a Distance Education Consortium

Vicky A. Seehusen
Colorado Electronic Community College, USA

Copyright © 2002, Idea Group Publishing.

OVERVIEW

This chapter describes the unique distance education consortium called CCCOnline developed by the Community Colleges of Colorado System (CC of C). CC of C is comprised of 14 Colorado Community Colleges and delivers courses, certificates and degrees to more than 250,000 students per year. The CCCOnline consortium, managed by the Colorado Electronic Community College (CECC), provides centralized management of faculty and curriculum and the consortial member colleges provide most of the student services to their students enrolled in the program.

This chapter traces the organizational evolution of CCCOnline. CCCOnline was very much a “top-down” creation. It was also built very quickly. The creators of CCCOnline believed that speed was necessary to get educational offerings online and that internal relationships could be dealt with later. Neuhauser, Bender, and Stromberg (2000) echo this belief. They state that adding an e-business to traditional business creates a parallel culture. Furthermore, they believe that, at present, many consumers seem to accept that new products will have a few bugs and that the key is to figure out how to deliver speed and quality over the long run.

At the time CCCOnline was created, there was little information about designing online distance education consortia. Witherspoon (1996) had compiled a planner’s casebook that included real world experiences of a number of universities and colleges that had created distance education courses or programs. Dixon (1996) had compiled a guide for students that includes chapters on quality in distance education and what to expect in a virtual classroom. Porter (1997) had endeavored to give practical advice on putting together effective programs and courses, including a checklist for course design and evaluation. All of these books were useful but only barely prepared CECC for issues, challenges, problems and confrontations to come.

In retrospect, CECC’s lack of knowledge of the potential difficulties might have been a good thing, because the management team proceeded without fear of the difficulties ahead.

CECC staff didn’t plan for every contingency and consequently development was not stalled. The CECC staff plugged along, without complete awareness of the difficulties of trying to merge the instructional and student services policies of 14 colleges. CECC didn’t even know how to go about improving its awareness and how to best work with the colleges. Every activity the CECC management team undertook to educate these colleges about the workings of the centralized management team and the program policies and procedures became an activity that educated the management team. CECC soon recognized that each college, while part of the same system, still had individual policies and processes that had to be taken into account.

Over time, intra and intercollegiate teams and committees have been created to facilitate governance and management of the program and to deliver high-quality instructional and student services. These committees and teams allow all the member colleges to have a voice in guiding program management and the future direction. The committees and teams strive to be inclusive and often call upon subject matter experts from other parts of the college(s) to solve problems or create new online educational approaches. These teams and committees act as connecting agents back to their college constituents and improve information flow between the constituents and the management team.

A CASE STUDY IN MANAGING A DISTANCE EDUCATION CONSORTIUM

CCCOnline is a unique consortial approach to distance education created in September 1997 by the Community Colleges of Colorado (hereinafter referred to as “CC of C”). CC of C oversees 13 NCA-accredited Colorado community colleges and one nonaccredited community college called Colorado Electronic Community College (CECC). Together, these colleges serve almost 250,000 Colorado students annually.

In the fall of 1997, the CC of C System president convened a meeting of the 14 community college presidents. He proposed the creation of an online degree and certificate program that would be developed and delivered consortially. The colleges would share the development costs equally but would receive revenue based upon their individual college enrollments. A contract was negotiated with a for-profit vendor to provide the course management software and support on its computer servers. The vendor’s initial $100,000 development charge (not including faculty costs) was divided equally among the colleges.

CECC was selected to provide leadership and management support for the new online program. Since 1995, CECC had managed an Associate of Arts telecourse degree program that linked an accredited CC of C college with an outside vendor. The accredited CC of C college provided the financial aid and transcripted the credit, and the vendor provided national marketing, a call center, and bookstore/videotape delivery services. CECC hired faculty, provided the instructional materials, advising and registration services, and managed the relationships with the vendor and the accredited CC of C college. So CECC was a logical choice to lead the new consortium because of its previous experience managing college/for-profit partnerships. Also, because CECC was not accredited and did not enroll students, the member colleges considered it noncompetitive.

The name chosen for the new online consortial model was CCCOnline. The first degree CCCOnline offered was an Associate of Applied Science in Business. Many of CC of C colleges already had their own versions of this degree, and it was a popular degree. So it was a generally held belief that this degree would generate high enrollments. Still in the early days of the development of CCCOnline, two main challenges were identified:

  1. Creating a degree with a consistent list of course offerings and requirements on which colleges could mutually agree. All of the colleges offered all of the courses that would be part of the online Associate of Applied Science in Business. However, for some colleges the new online degree required giving up one or two courses from their current business degrees. For other colleges, the new online degree obligated them to accept new courses that were not required in their current business degrees.

  2. Creating an equitable financial model. From the beginning, CECC, managing CCCOnline on behalf of the consortium, was intended to be mainly self-supporting. The model had to allow for a management fee to support CECC and create enough new state general fund support and tuition funds for member colleges.

The CECC management team put in long, intense days during the first two months of operation. The management team strived to meet the goals of the program and simultaneously respond to implementation challenges. There were two program goals:

  1. To eliminate redundancy of online offerings.

  2. To expand educational offerings to rural students.

Many community colleges, especially in the Denver metropolitan area, were already offering online courses. In the year prior to the creation of CCCOnline, these colleges became aware that they could no longer control a service area marked by geographic boundaries. Therefore, these colleges could not depend on students residing in the college service areas to continue to fulfill their educational requirements at the local community college. Also, the colleges duplicated other colleges’ online course offerings, and CC of C believed that this duplication was an inefficient use of the hardware, software, personnel, and financial resources of the individual colleges.

Additionally, students in rural Colorado were faced with a limited number of choices when it came to community college courses and programs. Due to demands and economies of scale, many classes that could be offered in heavily populated urban areas could not be offered in the rural areas. Also, it was often difficult in rural areas to find faculty with subject matter expertise needed to teach certain classes.

During the start-up days of CCCOnline, CECC remained the focal point for all communications regarding instructional, administrative, and student services issues. Communications between CECC staff and college staff were extensive. Misunderstandings were abundant, and even when policies and procedures were clarified, it wasn’t always clear who should receive the clarifications and whether the information would be widely disseminated. However, the CECC management team remained focused on working with the college partners to provide high-quality instruction and student services, and to eliminate barriers to online teaching and learning. Ad hoc teams of interested individuals were created to deal with immediate and obvious issues. These teams are defined the next section.

AD HOC TEAMS

The College Teams

Despite resistance from many of the local community colleges and limited policies and procedures, the first degree was online within 100 days of the creation of CCCOnline. A number of member colleges provided faculty to develop the initial 20 classes. Colleges that volunteered the initial faculty did so at their own expense, either paying the faculty overload fees or providing paid release time. The college presidents agreed that once the first degree was developed, all the colleges enrolling students in CCCOnline courses would jointly absorb future course development costs. Even those colleges where resistance to the consortial model was the highest were anxious to be contributors for fear that they might be left out of a potentially successful program.

New policies and procedures written in early days were designed to address student services issues. Member college registrars met to discuss student record processes: 1) how the courses would be entered into their databases, 2) how to distinguish these courses from other campus offerings,
3) how and when to create semesters and sessions; and, 4) what semester and session start and stop dates would be.

Other ad hoc student services teams were created as required. These teams met to discuss how to deliver online advising, provide financial aid services online, and develop a common online application form. While CECC gradually realized that long-term committees and new ways of communicating would have to be established after the program was built, its initial, primary goal was to get its CCCOnline up and running.

The Course Management Provider Team

Using an outside vendor with its own hardware, software, and personnel resources allowed the instructors to focus on the development of high- quality course materials. The local vendor, eCollege.com, provided the course management software and was initially chosen because it could provide an application and registration software in addition to the course management software. The existing Student Information System (SIS), registration software used by the community colleges, did not allow for online registration. We strove to create a one-stop online site for students, regardless of the college that would grant the credit. The vendor provided the online application and registration software. Students could visit the central website, choose a “home” college from among the consortial members, apply, and enroll. Once classes began, students could access the same online site to receive their instruction. For these services, the vendor charged a onetime, up-front, development fee for each course created on its system. The vendor also charged a per-student enrollment fee that would be computed and billed the day after the last date to drop in any given session (14 days after the course start date).

The enrollment data collected by the vendor’s software was uploaded to the member colleges’ computerized SIS every night. It helped that every college in the consortium used the same SIS; only one program had to be written to update the records of the consortial member colleges.

The Centralized Computer Services Team

CC of C centrally maintains the SIS for the member colleges. Staff from the CC of C’s Computer Department worked very closely with the vendor’s technical staff. Together, they formed a team that wrote the program that would upload and download data between CC of C computers and vendor computers. the CC of C’s Computer Department also wrote programs that would search college SIS databases and remove the duplicate records that were sure to be created. Duplication was inevitable because all students, even those currently enrolled in traditional courses at member colleges, were required to reapply the first time they elected to take CCCOnline courses. This was necessary so that the vendor could establish a student database and build course rosters. Additionally, the CC of C’s Computer Department met with the registrars and CECC staff and created procedures to assure that online courses were included in each college’s database.

In January 1998, CCCOnline began offering the Associate of Applied Science in Business degree. The first semester, slightly less than 300 students enrolled in CCCOnline courses. CECC considered this a great start considering that very little advertising and virtually no up-front marketing had been done. From the onset, it was clear that there was a market for this type of educational offering and that the program was destined to grow.

A SAMPLING OF PROBLEMS ENCOUNTERED

During CCCOnline’s first two months of online operation, a majority of the problems related to instructional content. However, towards the last week of the first semester, a host of issues surfaced. Student services, instructional services, and business services departments across the consortium began identifying issues needing resolution. Some of the more gripping issues the consortium faced are described below.

Student Services Issues

During the short time of “program creation to market delivery,” little thought was given to the way that student services would be handled at the individual member colleges. Because all of the colleges were part of CC of C, it was generally believed that all colleges operated with similar student services procedures. As CCCOnline moved towards the end of the first semester, there was a gradual realization that individual college student services departments varied widely in their practices. Among other things, the colleges did not use common grading policies or common forms.

For example: some colleges did not use an F as a part of their grading scale; some colleges allowed the student to receive an S for satisfactory work; and other colleges did not allow an S letter grade. The colleges were reluctant to change their traditional grading policies. This meant that the instructor had to read the policies of the home college of each student in his/her class to determine the appropriate grading policy. The grading policy, initially posted on CCCOnline, reflected each college’s individual grading policy and was 37 pages long!

Also, each college had its own grade change, withdrawal and incomplete forms, so instructors wishing to use one of these forms on behalf of an individual student had to contact the student’s home college and request and submit the proper forms. It wasn’t long before faculty began to complain loudly.

Instructional Services Issues

Faculty were dissatisfied with the myriad of forms that they had to use and some were dissatisfied with the faculty pay plan. When CCCOnline was created, a separate faculty pay plan was developed. Under this plan, the colleges who employed the instructors teaching for CCCOnline would prepare “overload contracts” for those instructors. The colleges would then request reimbursement from CECC for these contracts. CECC would reimburse each college the same flat rate, hourly amount regardless of how much the colleges paid their faculty for normal overload contracts. Most colleges paid their CCCOnline instructors the total amount that would be reimbursed by CECC; some colleges paid their CCCOnline instructors more than the reimbursement from CECC and absorbed the additional costs internally; and a small minority of colleges paid their CCCOnline instructors less than the reimbursement amount from CECC. Faculty who were being paid less demanded that they be paid on par with their contemporaries. The colleges that were paying less stated that they would not compromise existing overload pay plans and that it would be unfair to pay their CCCOnline faculty higher overload rates than the traditional overload rates.

The second concern that surfaced quickly was how to develop new courses and degrees consortially. Within a couple months of placing the associate degree online, CECC began investigating the development of other degrees that would allow students to upgrade their skills for new employment or career advancement. From the beginning, small groups of faculty at different colleges complained that they had no input into the original degree and demanded a more inclusive process for degree development.

Business Services Issues

Almost immediately upon opening the CCCOnline website to enrollments, the business services units of the colleges identified two areas of high concern. Students complained that they could apply and enroll online but they could not pay tuition online. All of the colleges accepted credit card payments in person or over the telephone, but there was no protected, encrypted software program that allowed students to pay online. System business services staff, the CC of C’s computer services staff, and the vendor’s technical staff held many meetings to iron out the timeline and the roles each unit would play in securing an online payment service for students.

Enrollment reconciliation, however, caused the most angst for the business officers. After the census date, the vendor would submit an invoice based upon the number of credit hours the CCCOnline students were enrolled. Most of the time, the enrollment figures reported by the vendor were higher than the enrollment figures reported by the individual colleges. Generally, this reconciliation problem occurred because students would manually drop their CCCOnline class at the home college and the information did not get uploaded into the vendor’s database, or the software designed to update the vendor database failed. Reconciliation took several weeks.

All of the issues served to drive home the need for more and better ways of communicating with our college partners and soliciting feedback.

COMMITTEES FORMED TO DEAL WITH ONGOING ISSUES

As CCCOnline evolved and grew, three major teams or committees were formed. They are the Community College Coordinators (CCC), the Ready Response Team (RRT), and the Online Curriculum Committee (OCC). Each of these committees or teams plays a vital role in the success and future growth of CCCOnline.

Community College Coordinators

The Community College Coordinators (CCC) was the first committee created. The presidents of each of the member colleges designated a person to represent them on this committee. Representation includes instructional and student services administrators, registrars, business officers, instructors, and campus distance education staff. The CCC meets quarterly. They discuss the current status of the program and receive information about how the program is changing or evolving (including new policies and procedures). When the CCC was first formed, its major role was to identify and discuss issues that the colleges uncovered in the ongoing maintenance and implementation of CCCOnline. These frank discussions surfaced problems identified by one college but actually impacting many colleges. These issues were then sent to the Educational Services Council for resolution.

The Educational Services Council is comprised of all the member college vice-presidents for student services, vice-presidents for instruction, and some CC of C support staff. Approximately 40 people from around the state attend the monthly Educational Services Council meetings. The size of the Council quickly became a deterrent to quick resolution of issues. The Council determined that a smaller team was needed to investigate issues and make recommendations to the full group. As a result, the Ready Response Team was created.

Ready Response Team

Initial membership of the Ready Response Team (RRT) was comprised of ten Educational Service Council members (including vice- presidents of student services and vice-presidents of instruction). Over time, some of the vice-presidents sent representatives in their place. Some of these representatives became members of the team, providing different perspectives and useful suggestions. From its inception, the RRT met monthly to discuss and study current issues, and recommend new policies and procedures to deal with these issues. As the issues submitted to the team broadened, the RRT expanded its membership to include business services staff and college distance education directors. At present, there are 14 people on this committee, representing eight urban and rural member colleges and CC of C office.

Participation in the RRT is high and issues or concerns brought to the RRT are discussed in great detail. Timeliness is key, however, and the goal is to create a policy/procedure recommendation within two months after reviewing an issue. Some issues, such as the online grading policy, may take longer than two months to resolve. However, every issue brought before the RRT has resulted in policy or procedure recommendation within five months.

If the RRT determines it doesn’t have enough information or subject matter expertise to deal with an issue, the issue is submitted to another CC of C committee for resolution. For example, the RRT requested that the college registrars create draft forms for the approval of the Educational Services Council when it was determined that common grade change and incomplete forms would improve efficiency. When enrollment reconciliation continued to pose problems and delays, the RRT asked the college Business Officers and the CC of C’s centralized Computer Department to meet and create a better process. When concerns were expressed about how new degrees would be developed, the RRT created a flow chart of what activities should occur, what college committees needed to be involved/informed, and the order in which activities needed to take place. When CCCOnline faculty requested a common grading policy, the RRT developed a proposal, sent it to the registrars for comment, and then returned the completed proposal to the Educational Services Council for approval.

The RRT was also responsible for the creation of the third major committee, the Online Curriculum Committee (OCC). The RRT spent many months discussing how to enhance communications to faculty groups at the colleges and improve faculty buy-in. The OCC seemed to be the most aggressive way to deal with the faculty concerns about the academic integrity of the curriculum. It was also a response to faculty complaints about lack of inclusion in the course and degree development process.

Online Curriculum Committee

The OCC approves the online program curriculum once Educational Services has approved development of a degree or certificate. This committee has a representative from every college in the consortium. The committee also has one registrar. Once curriculum is approved by the OCC, it can be developed on the CCCOnline site. The OCC does not have authority to approve curriculum that will be used in the traditional classroom. However, any individual college that wishes to use the approved online curriculum in the traditional classroom may do so.

LESSONS LEARNED

I can often be heard saying, “you can’t mandate what matters.” CCCOnline was created by the combined visions of very small group of people. If the people you need to be successful don’t “buy-in” to your vision, then it will be difficult, if not impossible to implement. The argument that “everyone else is doing it” is not likely to make an impression on most of your constituents. As I worked with the many different constituents and groups in the CC of C, I realized that, in times of plenty or scarcity, each constituent has very different motivators for doing something above and beyond the norm.

The constituents are also loyal to their individual college missions. A program that removes local management and control of any facet of providing education or services to students will be met with dislike, distaste, and distrust. The following practices would serve a management team well:

  1. The team must be continually attentive and take the time to get to know the constituents, seek out their hidden motivators and make efforts to integrate these motivators into the program development.

  2. The team has to be dependable and follow through on any commitments to research topics and vendors, develop courses, and provide information requested by constituents.

  3. The team must provide requested services in a timely fashion.

  4. The team must continually move the program forward and simultaneously respect the fact that different constituents will adapt to change at different rates.

  5. The team must live service leadership and be genuine when it states, “We are here to serve you and your colleges. Together, we all win.”

CONCLUSION

A consortium of the size and scope of CCCOnline continues to face new issues on an almost daily basis. Communications are many and yet never seem to be enough. Sometimes well-intentioned procedures and processes are approved and implemented, and then revised within a few weeks after implementation because new data is received making changes imperative. Additionally, as the state commission on higher education changes its policies, CCCOnline is required to change its policies or procedures to be in compliance.

There is little literature available for personnel involved in the management of an online consortium of the size and scope of CCCOnline. The consortial clients for CCCOnline are colleges that are endeavoring to respond to their individual communities by providing learning and training options for personal and workforce development. Service to local communities is a primary mission. Growth of the consortium will be stymied if the consortium cannot show how serving a more global community will enhance services to the local community. Interacting with members of other colleges will allow the various staff and faculty to get a wider perspective on issues. They get to see beyond their college’s back-door.

Building cross-college teams and committees allows for a cross-pollination of ideas and allow consortial members to see where their goals converge and diverge from other members. The staff that manages the consortium has to be vigilant of current events in the online educational marketplace. The staff should present this information to the teams and committees, thereby expanding knowledge and encouraging committee and team members to think about ways to provide new learning and student services to online and traditional students.

Resources used by CECC include League for Innovation publications such as Teaching at a Distance (Boaz et al., 1999), and the Faculty Guide for Moving Teaching and Learning to the Web (Boettcher & Conrad, 1999). Another resource that was particularly helpful as the consortium began to form teams and define team missions was New Connections: A Guide to Distance Education (Gross, Gross, & Pirkl, 1998), a publication of the Instructional Telecommunications Council. All of these were useful resources for educating team and committee members.

The consortium believes that the key to CCCOnline’s continued success is the long-term commitment and support of these committees and teams by our member colleges. The development of CCCOnline initially drove large change in CC of C and it continues to drive great change. These days however, the committees and teams that support CCCOnline are used to this change and excited to be a part of the evolution of CCCOnline. Enrollment in CCCOnline programs has increased every semester since inception and there’s every reason to believe that this trend will continue. Online learning has become mainstream. Our member colleges know that providing high quality online learning and student services is only possible with continual vigilance and willingness to change. Witherspoon (1997) states, “the Colorado Model is one to watch.”

REFERENCES

Boaz, M., Elliott, B., Foshee, D., Hardy, D., Jarmon, C. amd Olcott, D. (1999). Teaching at A Distance. Mission Viejo, CA: League for Innovation in the Community College and Archipelago Productions.

Boettcher, J. and Conrad, R. (1999). Faculty Guide for Moving Teaching and Learning to the Web. Mission Viejo, CA: League for Innovation in the Community College.

Dixon P. (1996). Virtual College. Princeton, NJ: Peterson’s.

Gross, R., Gross, D. and Pirkl, R. (1998). New Connections: A Guide to Distance Education. Washington DC: Instructional Telecommunications Council.

Neuhauser. P., Bender, R. and Stromberg, K. (2000). Culture.com: Building Corporate Culture in the Connected Workplace. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Porter, L. R. (1997). Virtual Classroom: Distance Learning With the Internet. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Witherspoon, J. (1996). Distance Education: A Planner’s Casebook. Boulder, CO. Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.