Using External Collaborations to Advance Distributed Learning at the University of Pennsylvania

By Eleey, Michael; Comegno, Marsha | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), January 1999 | Go to article overview

Using External Collaborations to Advance Distributed Learning at the University of Pennsylvania


Eleey, Michael, Comegno, Marsha, T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


Rare is today's institution of higher education that does not use some distributed learning technology -- e-mail, Web sites, chat rooms or the like -- in at least some of its courses or programs. Most have gone beyond this, perhaps planning how to use these technologies not only for their traditional students, but also to reach new audiences through distance learning. A growing number of colleges and universities, in fact, are launching distance learning programs delivered by a variety of new communications and information technologies.

The University of Pennsylvania has begun exploring this new electronic learning landscape in a variety of ways, including virtual classroom discussions among faculty and students, a new pre-freshman course that introduces students to Penn even before they arrive on campus and a variety of new professional continuing education initiatives. The new electronic tools allow us to extend learning beyond the traditional classroom and provide new options for how and when students can learn. They allow us to take advantage of some of the most up-to-date research results anywhere in the world, and they also allow us to reach new students anywhere in the world.

These notions were anticipated in Penn's 1995 strategic plan, Agenda for Excellence. One of the plan's nine goals states:

      "The University will creatively deploy new technologies, recognizing
   that technology is revolutionizing the ways in which knowledge is acquired,
   created and disseminated."

Toward that end, in Fall of 1997 the Provost convened a Committee on Distributed Learning to assess the changing landscape of academic programs and delivery technologies and to recommend strategic directions. That Committee's April 1998 Report proposed that the basic objective in the area of distributed learning should be predicated on the institution's position as a premier teaching and research university:

      "This new environment carries with it both enormous promise and
   considerable risk -- the inherent risk in doing nothing and the risk in
   doing something, but not doing it well. Those institutions that can change,
   innovate and lead are likely to thrive; those that cannot are in danger of
   losing their preeminence. We affirm that in distributed learning, as in
   residential learning, Penn must retain its position as the institution of
   choice for the very best students."

   One of the Report's most significant conclusions was the recognition of
   for-profit companies as sources of key services and expertise:

      "For-profit companies are increasingly playing an important role in
   distributed learning. Firms that own videoconferencing facilities and
   equipment as well as the necessary production and marketing expertise are
   particularly well positioned in this emerging field.... Collaborating with
   for-profit companies has potential advantages...."

Decentralization and Outsourcing

Why is this collaboration important and necessary for a large Ivy League university's distributed learning programs? What are the issues associated with such external collaborations? What specifically are the collaborators doing for Penn? What will Penn gain from the collaborations?

There are several reasons for Penn's interest in such collaborations and selective outsourcing. Chief among them are the University's decentralized institutional structure; the high initial costs of staffing, infrastructure and support; uncertainty about which techniques and directions will ultimately succeed; and a desire to test-launch new programs quickly.

Penn is a large, highly decentralized institution (see Figure 1) that for two and one-half decades has hewn closely to a Responsibility Center Management model, with each school largely responsible for its own academic programs, budget, services and resources. While this approach has been very successful in establishing and maintaining the prominence of Penn's schools and programs, it has also meant that the University does not generally aggregate resources across its twelve schools very effectively -- in many respects it resembles a collection of smaller colleges without effective economies of scale. …

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