How can higher education sustain online learning?
This might be an odd question to ask, when programs in what we used to call “distance learning” are growing in student numbers. Yet these programs are bound up in the general crisis afflicting American higher education, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see casualties.
This week the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium announced it was shutting down. CTDLC is not a distance learning provider, but a service entity that helps other Connecticut entities (higher ed, K-12, even business) conduct online teaching. Beyond this, the story is rather unclear.
How will this play out? It looks like some of CTDLC will persist through a host university. According to that Facebook announcement, “[s]elect CTDLC programs will continue under Charter Oak State College, our parent organization.” (Charter Oak is a rare campus in the United States, a public liberal arts college) Meanwhile, at least one online class has been canceled as a result.
Why is this happening? It’s hard to say. The Inside Higher Ed article interviewed Ed Klonoski, Charter Oak’s president, and he cited financial reasons: “The current economic landscape makes it tough to achieve sufficient profitability to make the investments in technology and talent that their service set requires…”
That’s certainly plausible, but I’m curious as to specifics. As a previously (for twenty years) sustainable enterprise, CTDLC received revenues from these sources, according to their website: “Learning Management Hosting, eTutoring Collaboratives, Instructional Design, Web Integration, Grants Management, K-12 Services, Technical Support, Strategic Consulting”. Did those fees decline as Connecticut wrestles with what Mark Lieberman neatly described as “the twin problems of curtailed state spending and declining enrollments”?
But Wikipedia describes CTDLC in broader terms:
Although not a college, it hosts and provides services to Connecticut’s colleges and universities to make it easier for them to offer online courses and degree programs. They also provide the same services for institutions outside the state of Connecticut. (emphasis added)
The organization’s LinkedIn page agrees, proclaiming that they “serve a national audience of educators, workforce trainers, non-profit and government agencies”. Did the national work collapse, or was it effectively irrelevant to operations?
According to WICHE CTDLC receives support from three sources: state funding, membership dues, and the aforementioned fees. Did state funding drop dangerously? Did telling numbers of members withdraw, or were their fees lowered to critical levels?
I’m focusing on this story because it seems intrinsically interesting, but I can’t tell if it points to a larger trend, especially without more information. It could be a one-off event, a hyperlocal story based on the confluence of contingent factors. Or it could point to something else. If the latter, I’m not sure if it speaks to a potential challenge to online learning, continued educational woes for demographically-stressed New England, or problems with inter-institutional collaboration.
Whatever the causes, one subtle result might be increased costs for state institutions. The Inside Higher Ed piece cites Russ Poulin, WICHE’s director of policy and analysis at the Cooperative for Education Technologies, as being “worries that the state’s institutions will lose money from having to bring the organization’s services in house.” That makes sense, given the ability of inter-institutional organizations to save members money.
I hope we can learn more. And I wish the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium’s staff, and all who depended on them, all the best in a difficult time.