Understanding Distance Learning Consortia?
by Jennifer Rees, Marketing and
Communications Coordinator UT TeleCampus
Distance learning consortia are associations or partnerships between
institutions of higher learning that are created to provide distance
education courses and resources to students. Most consortia are designed
to provide students with greater course selection and more exposure to the
expertise of a variety of faculty members. Some consortia also offer the
additional value of centralized support services. Just as there are many
examples of collegiate on site programs, there are many models of distance
What are the different types of consortia?
A few basic models appear to be the most successful, popular, and
frequently used in new consortium offerings. Examples of these models are
On the tightly focused side of the spectrum, system-wide consortia are
made up of campuses within a single university system. For example, the
University of Texas System employs this method through its
fifteen-institution UT TeleCampus collaboration. In collaborative degree
plans offered via the TeleCampus, you may apply to one school, take
courses from several partner institutions, receive centralized support
services, and receive a fully accredited degree from the home campus at
which you originally applied. The TeleCampus serves as both a portal and a
centralized point of service.
Broadening the scope a bit leads to the statewide consortium. An example
of this type of consortium is Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University (KCVU),
which encompasses more than fifty institutions that range from
universities to technical colleges. The central hub, or network model,
allows a common entry or portal for students to select courses from a long
menu of choices. Students may register either at an individual college or
online at the consortium's Web site. If they apply online, students will
general find a single application registration form and single fee for all
the private and public institutions in that particular state.
Regional, multi-state consortia can be very large and offer certain
advantages. One prominent and successful model of a regional consortium is
the Southern Regional Electronic Campus (SREC). The SREC, another hub
model, includes sixteen member states from across the southern United
States. The National Universities Degree Consortium is a collaboration of
ten accredited universities from across the country. Today, students can
even choose to participate with global consortia, such as CREAD, the
Inter-American network of institutions through North, Central, and South
How Do Consortia Work?
Most consortia follow the same procedure as a single university in that
you apply to a university, take courses from multiple campuses, and upon
successful completion of the program, receive the degree from the
institution to which you were originally admitted. With consortia,
however, you simply have a choice of several campuses within one network
in the consortia models. Some variations include the central
degree-granting virtual universities, like Western Governor's University.
As a WGU student, you apply to the WGU consortium, take courses from
various other universities, and your degree or certificate comes from WGU.
In the case of WGU, you are judged on competencies, or skill base and
knowledge, rather than the completion of studies. With this model, you may
or may not take as many courses as at a traditional university. Though not
currently accredited as university, WGU is in the eligibility phase and is
awaiting approval for candidacy.
Some consortia offer centralized services including admissions, financial
aid, and on-line services--from bookstores to libraries. Often, these
services are all available on one common Web site. In other consortia
structures, universities act more independently of one other, operating
with support systems that are based on the campus you are attending.
Centralization may affect policies. The decentralized model offers
universities autonomy in bringing together their various policy
structures. The centralized system, however, offers less policy variance
and ensures that the same basic rules apply from campus to campus. Tuition
may be a common amount from within the consortium or it may vary from
university to university, allowing you to "shop" for the course and price
that best suits your needs.
Accredited university consortiums will, almost without exception, have
roughly the same application processes and admittance requirements that
you'd find at a traditional university for onsite course delivery. In
general, designated grade point averages, standardized test scores of a
certain percentile, and letters of recommendation or intent are usually
required for both bachelor's and master's degree programs on line. The
exception is the competency-based program, which waives credentials from
tests and previous schooling in exchange for workplace experience and
learned skill-based assessments.
Pros and Cons of Consortia Learning Models
One obvious advantage for consortia is the economy of scale. More
university partners translates to more choices in curriculum and often a
shared expense in presenting courses on line. Consortia can offer students
a central database or course schedule that allows for ease of course
selection, versus having to search individual materials and Web sites of
multiple institutions for the desired course. Universities in consortia
can also share the sizable expense of information technology delivery and
the support of these systems. As a student, you may also have the
opportunity to choose from among a group of respected faculty members from
within the consortia, allowing you to find the faculty member with
expertise that most closely suited to your academic and professional
concerns. This large sampling of faculty members tends to offer a more
diverse worldview in the classroom. And, as mentioned previously, the
consortium can often provide essential student services on a scale not
fiscally achievable by a single university. For example, a dozen
universities can pool resources to provide a much broader digital library
than any one university could supply on its own.
Communication, however, may pose a disadvantage. The larger the
consortium, the more likely many universities or university systems are
involved, and hence, many policies and procedures are affected.
Communication snags can involve such issues as the movement of student
records from one campus to the next. Some consortiums have spent
considerable time and expense to make this tedious and laborious process
appear seamless to you as a student. For those that have not, you should
be prepared to take a very proactive stance in helping to see that your
records are moved from one department, college, or university to another
successfully. Consortia are addressing the challenge of credit transfer
logistics. Some have succeeded already in solving this problem for you.
You should locate and secure a mentor/adviser at the start of the program
to ensure any courses taken will successfully transfer from one
institution to another and ultimately count toward your degree. Serving as
your own adviser can be risky--some courses may ultimately not transfer
toward your degree.
Like any on-line course, consortium-based courses may reach an
unmanageable size if limits are not placed on the student to teacher
ratio. Many schools now adopt a ceiling on the number of students allowed
in an on-line class, with teaching assistants or sub-sections of the
course added for each additional set of students. This is vital to the
processing of information and interaction that are required for the
successful on-line course. Students interact with each other and with
faculty members. Faculty members often find that a class of 25 students is
quite manageable but more may become problematic. In general, a degree is
considered more valuable and prestigious if the recognized onsite faculty
members teach the on-line course as part of their standard course load.
But again, the economies of scale in the consortium often allow for an
even greater sampling of faculty experts for the student than any single
university could offer in a given semester.
Should You Apply to a Consortium?
Just as you would research a single university to check for the 'right
fit', you need to research consortia, as well. In addition to assessing
the consortium's strengths, you should also spend a little time assessing
your learning patterns as a distance learner. There are countless sites on
the Internet that offer self tests, but generally, certain qualities
distinguish the successful distance learner from the one who finds the
methodology frustrating and decides to trade flexibility for the
classroom. Here are some good checkpoints:
• You possess comfort and skill with the written word.
On-line learning involves a heavier proportion of reading and written
communication than classroom-based learning. If you prefer written
communications to oral reporting, you might find the model of on-line
learning a comfortable fit.
• You have the time to commit to higher education.
On-line learning, whether from a single university or a consortium, can be
more difficult than onsite learning, and if you don't have time to spend
on your courses, you will not succeed. Be realistic about your schedule.
Many students begin with one course their first semester then add courses
as their schedules allow.
• You are comfortable with the technology and meet the minimal
requirements listed by the consortium.
Obviously, you need the proper tools to succeed as an on-line learner. You
should be comfortable with the technological side of the equation. Most
consortiums offer Web-based delivery, and if you are not familiar with
your computer and the Internet, you may want to take a class prior to
beginning coursework. Most programs provide a list of technical
requirements, and these should be met without compromise.
• You are self-motivated and self-driven in character.
The tremendous advantages to the working professional, parent, or in other
way nontraditional student do not transfer if that student needs someone
to make them attend class. Most programs allow flexibility about when you
access your courses. Self- motivation and time management skills are
essential to your success.
Comparing the Single University to the Consortium
A student who is looking for the community of school pride and high-level
geographic loyalty may find the multi-campus choice of the consortium less
desirable than the tight sense of community that can be found in a
single-university environment. In today's workplace and economy, however,
many students opt for the flexibility and increased curriculum choices of
a consortium over an individual school. Many consortia have succeeded in
creating a sense of community for learners, and many more are attempting
to do so. The high level of dialog in the on-line environment can often
build friendships and communities that are not achieved in the traditional
environment. A single university can offer students the chance to immerse
themselves within one department (of their major, for example). Consortia
offer a wider variety of choices in mentors and philosophies. As a
student, you should think about what you prefer most.
How to Evaluate a Program
Many of the same quality standards hold true to consortia that do for all
methods of educational delivery, but there are additional areas you should
investigate before enrolling in a consortium. Here is a list of questions
you might ask before selecting a consortia or multi-university program:
• Is the program you're interested in accredited? Make sure that the
universities participating in any given program are reputable and
• What kind of advising will I receive? The consortia should offer you the
support of a mentor or adviser for the duration of your studies. This
adviser can help select courses, ensure transfer of credit, and in general
support and monitor your progress.
• What other support services are available to me? Distance learners need
the same support services as the onsite learner, and more. If the
consortium does not offer you on-line bookstores, digital libraries, links
to various campus admissions offices, and similar support, ask yourself
how you will access those resources. Many consortia offer full time staff
members to support your questions (regardless of which campus you are
currently enrolled in), and this is also a vital ingredient in allowing
you to succeed.
• How much will this cost me? Pricing schedules, though they may vary from
program to program, should be clearly defined up front, allowing you to
• What kind of interaction will I have with other students and faculty
members? Some programs make it easy for you to interact with students and
faculty members, while in other programs, you may be flying solo. You need
to decide what kind of interaction you'll need to make for a successful
• Are completion timeframes realistic? Programs that tout "earn your
master's degree in a year" are, at best, suspect. Speak with the adviser
and schedule courses in a realistic and achievable timetable. Look at
course progression schedules and be realistic about fitting them into your
lifestyle and professional commitments.
• Is the consortium really dedicated to learning? Determine if the
consortium's goal is to provide educational services, or if it exists
primarily to make a profit. Some for-profit businesses are entering the
educational arena. And while some are dedicated to offering high-quality
programs, others are focus only on the bottom line.
A last word of advice
The best thing you can do before enrolling in a program is to spend time
comparing programs, asking questions, and determining if the program fits
your needs. Most consortia listed on this site provide extensive
information in their profiles. Log on, look around, and compare your
options. If you find you have further questions, use the contact
information in the consortia's profiles to obtain the additional
information you need.