Distance Education: The Centralization vs. Decentralization Debate

The debate for “control” of distance education at institutions of higher learning continues. On one side, the administration side, there is a need for centralization of operations, to include course development, instructor training and development, scheduling, evaluation, and student and faculty issues. On the other side of the debate, faculty leaders (deans, department chairs, program coordinators) tend to favor decentralization.

In June 2010, the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunication (WCET) asked the membership how institutions were doing with this issue: centralization vs. de-centralization. Twenty-three administrators (provosts, VPs, associate VPs, directors, associate directors, COOs, deans, associate deans) and faculty members provided their valuable insights on the issue.

We are experiencing an era of reduced resources. Those favoring centralization espouse the benefits of both consistent instruction and course development, as well as the avoidance of more resource-consuming stove-piping prevalent if colleges/departments are allowed to develop their own online instructional programs. Those favoring decentralization are convinced that college/departmental control is the best solution for students, faculty, and institutions. The contention of these respondents was that college deans would take on the added responsibilities of their college’s portion of centralized operations of distance learning, faculty development, and learning technologies. A key is to find distance learning champions for each college within an institution. And, that is extremely costly when supporting multiple distance learning organizations versus one.

Both centralization and decentralization of distance learning have advantages and disadvantages; causing many to favor a hybrid approach. The recognition of local control and personal engagement of decentralization must be blended with centralized services that are often more efficient, cost effective, and liberating.

Ensuring the same level of service
Technology advancements have brought new opportunities and responsibilities for instructional quality and control. (Fletcher, J., Tobias, S. and Wesher, R) The true responsibility of this lies with the faculty.

When comparing distance learning to face-to-face instruction, a number of important factors emerge, including similarity of student learning experiences, student outcomes, and employer acceptance of credentials. It is important that the instruction provided in both venues be seamless. Centralization ensures that institutions offer services specifically to the online population, while ensuring that they receive the same level of service and instruction that the onsite students receive.

A number of institutions favor decentralization, but do not (or are not willing-to) hold their institutional campus to the same standard and rigor (metrics, support, quality, rubrics, etc.) as their online courses. The ability of college deans in the decentralized modes of administration to be able to discern the differences is the crux of the issue of whether services are better (and more economical) when provided “centrally” instead of by the college or departments.

Michael T. Eskey, PhD is an associate professor of criminal justice at Park University.

WCET (October, 2009) Online education programs marked by rising enrollments, unsure profits, organizational transitions, higher fees, & teach training for faculty, Managing Online Education, pp. 1 – 4.

Fletcher, J., Tobias, S. and Wesher, R (2007), Learning anytime, anywhere: Advanced distributed learning and the changing face of education, Educational Research, 36 (2), 96-102