Rethinking the Distance Education Business Model

Everyone wants a blueprint for managing their distance education program, but sometimes the best thing to do may be to throw away the old business model and begin thinking about new ways to deliver and share online courses.

Take, for example, Coastline Community College.

Coastline Community College was formed as a college without walls, dedicated to the distributed learning model. They have three traditional locations plus several “one stop” centers dedicated to job training, development, and placement and about 50 additional locations in which courses are held.

The college is not a small one; total enrollment is about 18,000. However, unlike many colleges, this group is primarily comprised of part-time students, with the largest number taking nine hours per term or fewer.

The Office of Instructional Systems Development licenses and sells the course content they develop. Today, there are up to 500 schools using CCC’s content, says Dan Jones, ISD’s executive dean. In addition, about 51 percent of their courses excluding those delivered to the military are distance learning. This experience has led to a large body of knowledge about the realities of the business of online learning.

For example, while the district has licensed course content to hundreds of institutions, it rarely sees financial support provided to faculty to acquire such media for a course. The district also sees growing concern about copyright issues and the acquisition of media for repeated use. These concerns have generated ideas about how the college handles their distance learning and its supporting materials and content.

Develop Course Content in Multiple Modes
One of the priorities CCC has is developing their content in multiple formats and offering more multimodal delivery. For example, the college serves a significant number of active-duty military as well as a number of students who are incarcerated. One thing that these population have in common is a lack of 24/7 connectivity, meaning that they may not be able to successfully complete an all-online course with synchronous requirements.

Develop Coordinated Learning Packages
Jones notes that the college has shifted to developing coordinated learning packages. While previously courses were tied to existing textbooks, they now develop their own texts and workbooks, creating a suite of learning materials that all work together to create a coherent whole.

Involve More Voices
Since CCC offers its course materials to other institutions across the country, Jones says it makes sense to involve multiple experts in their development. He notes that a single course might involve up to 20 faculty members across the country, in an effort to better represent different perspectives and aggregate expertise.

The college also encourages faculty developing a course to draw on modules and materials when developing a course. “While we recognize and respect academic freedom, [there are] advantages to teamwork in development,” Jones says. He further explains that the intention is not to take away a faculty member’s right to make their course their own, but that it is not necessary for every course to continually reinvent the same wheel.

Excerpted from Throwing Away the Old Business Model, Distance Education Report, Oct. 15, 2008.