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Guidelines to Consider in Decentralizing Distance Education

The EvoLLLution | Five Considerations on Whether It Is Desirable to Decentralize a Continuing Education Operation
The administrative challenges an institution or division has to overcome are not concerns for students—all they care about is a great experience inside and outside the classroom. For most CE and distance education providers, that means keeping program and student management in-house.

There’s enough variation in how universities are structured that there is no one answer to this question, but I will suggest some guidelines to consider when making a decision. For this article, I’ll assume that CE and distance education functions live in the same unit and that academic departments would inherit CE functions in a decentralized model.

Guideline One: Know what your purpose is: Why are you doing this?

The answer should be: to attract and serve students. You will have other administrative and financial goals, but the path to reaching those goals is paved by serving students, and doing it efficiently and cost-effectively.

Students don’t (and shouldn’t) care about your administrative structure, your cash flow, your outdated software, internal deals about where tuition money goes, or the ongoing feud between Colleges A and B. You shouldn’t make these issues visible to them or make them the students’ problem.

Students deserve one front door to CE and distance study, well designed online interfaces, accurate answers to their questions, and technology that is intuitive and dependable. They also need access to functioning phone numbers and email communication with advisers and people who can help them navigate enrollment, course selection and financial aid, to name just a few functions of academic business.

Every one of those student-serving functions becomes more problematic as departments take them over. Web page design is inconsistent and pages quickly become outdated. Staff have other jobs than dealing with online students and may neglect them, calls don’t get returned within critical time periods, there is no consistent way to advise students about policies and events, and all the responsibilities of dealing with CE and distance students are interpreted differently. None of this serves students well.

Guideline Two: Never forget that CE and its website are your front doors to the entire off-campus world

CE is responsible for effective marketing which directs people to a website with intuitive design, excellent interactivity and a well planned set of services and contacts. This includes one (and only one) website. One set of experts interacting with customers, one set of well explained tuition options, and minimal process with every possible function made available online. Where everything can’t be simplified, students need clear explanations and directions about how to proceed, and with whom.

Everything is more efficient and effective when there is one place in the institutional structure where people interact with CE and distance students, and their answers are consistent. Go to the websites of any four peer institutions and see if you can find their CE and distance programs in 90 seconds or less. Now ask yourself whether someone from those institutions could find yours. If not, you’re losing students.

Guideline Three: Understand what business you are in, and what business you’re not in

Academics are good at what they do, but that doesn’t involve marketing, selling services, providing fast, efficient customer service, or inquiry follow-up. These items are not high on their priority list, because they have more pressing problems looking across their desks on campus. Most academic units don’t have the staff time or the resources to do any of these things consistently well.

CE and distance marketing or service is not the business academic units are in. They’re in the business of running a campus operation and dealing with students who are already on campus and who can move around campus to access information and services. This is not the case with CE and distance students, and many academic units don’t deal with that difference very well.

Guideline Four: Never forget that you are in competition with every other institution out there on the internet

Your CE web presence, design and information need to be professionally maintained and updated on a regular basis.

Your aspirational web standard should be Amazon. If they can make it easy to find information, list related products and set up systems that make it convenient to buy a course, why can’t you? Your students expect this kind of online interface, because they buy from Amazon and other top-end sites all the time. You should expect to have full-time staff working on your CE web pages every day of the year, because that’s what it takes to compete in that market.

Decentralized CE units can’t do this. Colleges and departments don’t have funding to create or update their web pages, and the critical online presence will have constant problems with inconsistent interfaces, bad links and information that’s outdated.

Do Coke or General Motors have different websites for each soft drink or each car model? Does Amazon have different websites for appliances, books, sporting goods and electronics? Of course not. Every major company has one front door and whatever you need, you can find it through that web page. Your CE unit should represent the entire campus.

Guideline Five: Money and structure are complicated, but should not be to your students

You should not inflict complexity or additional work on students just because you need to send money in different directions or fill out complex paperwork.

Decentralizing has the potential to create a whole set of underfunded, understaffed departmental shops with different websites, different processes, different contact information, and limited time to deal with the work of helping CE and distance students.

A centralized CE unit is the place where marketing expertise can be hired and retained; inquiry management can be managed in a consistent manner; web pages and the customer interface can be built for positive outcomes; and coordination with central university resources for students can be managed.

Moving Forward: To Centralize or Not to Centralize?

Churchill quoted an unknown predecessor when he said: “…it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The same may be said of centralizing your CE and distance functions. The alternatives are all worse.

If those five guidelines don’t convince you that centralization solves more problems than it creates, I’ll leave you with this: Over the past 20 years, I have watched as a number of institutions decentralized their CE and distance education units. Most of them were re-centralized within a couple of years. The reason? Student numbers dropped because of the customer relations problems that resulted.

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