Shining in the Distance: The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium Helps IHEs Entering Online Distance Ed Stay Focused on Their Mission: Teaching. (Virtual Universities)

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THE MULTI-INSTITUTION VIRTUAL UNIVERSITY IS THE HOLY GRAIL OF higher education. States, regions, university systems, even a group of governors have attempted various experiments in the quest to get courses online, in one place, for the maximum convenience of students. A few attempts have met with success; others, such as California Virtual University and Western Governors University, have been well-documented disasters. All have struggled to determine what structure will work best. One state seems to have pulled it off.

The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium (ctdlc .org), a four-and-a-half-year-old state agency and membership organization, supports 46 two- and four-year accredited institutions of higher learning, both public and private. CTDLC, like other such consortia, gives institutions an aggregated Web site and single point of entry for course registration--but it also provides technological support, multiple delivery platforms, faculty development, K-12 teacher training, workforce development, national and international marketing, research, e-commerce, and student services. The Consortium serves its members, but it also pushes them: It awards grants for course as well as program development (ensuring there's no duplication of effort), and helps put registration, financial aid, even tutoring services online.

"The growth curves for courses and students continues to be the same," says CTDLC executive director Ed Klonoski. "We're growing at a rate of nearly 100 percent a year." Astonishing, considering that the Consortium began in fall 1996 with four pilot courses and no state money. The following year, the Connecticut legislature gave the CTDLC $200,000 for 1998-1999. By 2000, it had half a million dollars for operating funds, plus $2 million from the state budget surplus--not to mention 148 courses with 2,000 students enrolled. Last fall semester, there were 4,000 students and 275 courses; this spring, 5,000 students, 365 courses, and 23 full degree programs.

Still, the Consortium may have just passed its toughest test. With state coffers empty, Gov. John Rowland's proposed budget doubles the Consortium's core operating funds to $1 million next year. CTDLC is the only higher-education unit in the state to receive an increase. "In this economy, it's a real compliment," Klonoski says.

It is more than a compliment. While it was easy for states to devote funds to experimental educational programs in the late '90s, for Connecticut to do so when it faces a $350-million deficit this fiscal year is proof of CTDLC's unprecedented status. Yet, why has this consortium succeeded, where others have failed? Primarily because it was able to solve some of the largest problems facing online-course clearinghouses by making a few key decisions:

* Most importantly, CTDCL developed a built-in method for converting disparate courses and credits into whole degrees. The Consortium grew out of a 25-year-old IHE (Charter Oak State College) that acts as a "credit bank," aggregating courses into degrees.

* The Consortium keeps itself out of the tuition stream. All tuition reverts to the institutions, so members have nothing to lose by registering students through the Consortium.

* To create a dependable revenue stream, CTDLC offers technology support to its members; it provides the technological infrastructure so that colleges and universities don't have to understand it, fix it, upgrade it, or worry about it. In this manner, the Consortium recovers more than half of its expenses. And by operating as an applications service provider (ASP) for members, it creates an additional means of recovering costs, perhaps eventually becoming entirely self-sufficient.

* The tech support the CTDLC provides helps even the smallest school stay up-to-date with the latest technology. Additional services such as faculty development and grants for course development give the Consortium a degree of control over the quality of the offerings. …