Understanding Distance Learning Consortia?

by Jennifer Rees, Marketing and Communications Coordinator UT TeleCampus
Source: http://www.petersons.com/distancelearning/articles.asp

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 education consortium.

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 outlined below.

System-wide consortia
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.

Statewide consortia
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 consortia
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 America.

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 accredited.

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 budget appropriately.

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 experience.

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.

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