Collaboration and Innovation Key for Online Education Coalition
As higher education costs are coming under increasing levels of scrutiny and administrators look for ways to move their programming online, western Kansas’ community colleges have had a system in place for over a decade to provide students with easier access to online higher education programming. In this time, a number of lessons have been learned, including the need for a focus on innovation and navigating the sometimes turbulent waters of collaboration.
In 1997, the presidents of western Kansas’ six community colleges came together to find the most cost-effective way to enter the emerging online education market. Although many of the community colleges could not afford to start their own online programs, their presidents envisioned a consortium that could be cost-effective while distributing the risk of undertaking such an initiative.
Each of the six colleges invested $125,000 into the consortium, which would be called eduKan, to cover the costs of management, technology and initial course development. Since then, thousands of students have enrolled in eduKan courses. The founding presidents established an operating agreement that is not reliant upon member fees or dues. Rather, it allows eduKan to be self-sustaining by using the tuition from its online courses.
Today, as many fee-based consortia are disappearing because of a dwindling membership and inability to express their value proposition, eduKan continues to grow. Over the past several years, eduKan has experienced growth at double-digit rates, resulting in a substantial return on investment for each of its member institutions. Last year alone, each of the six member colleges received an annual dividend payment of $90,000.
This recent growth came after bumps were experienced, though, After a decade of growth in the years after its founding, eduKan’s enrollments began to flatten out in 2007 and remained flat for three years, in spite of the growth experienced by other online programs. Later, three of the six member colleges were involved in a lawsuit against each other over state technical education funding. The flat enrollments combined with the legal brouhaha fostered contention among the once-collaborative members of eduKan. After much discussion and introspection, the Board concluded eduKan was no longer leading the online education market because it had lost its emphasis on innovation.
Historically, the presidents required consensus before any new programs or initiatives were undertaken; however, as eduKan continued to grow, this process hindered — and even stifled — the innovation required for future development. In 2009, several philosophical changes were made to the operating dynamics, beginning with a focus on identifying new markets and launching innovative programs, which resulted in an increase in enrollments and renewed growth.
While eduKan is successful at meeting the challenge of flat enrollments by leveraging innovation, we are challenged by the subtle difficulties intrinsic to collaboration.
The Board members face the inherent conflict of competing for students and funding, competing against other colleges, against each other and against eduKan. To protect and promote growth for both the member colleges and for eduKan, the presidents adopted a new approach to innovation that insures a copacetic co-existence. As a result of its forward-thinking leaders, the Board is no longer constrained to an “all or nothing” position when determining eduKan’s participation in new initiatives. The Board has first rights of refusal to participate as a consortium and, now, individual member institutions have the option to implement any initiative not adopted by eduKan.
Recognizing the need for ongoing innovation, eduKan has built an innovation fund (read: research and development) into its annual operating budget. This allows the consortium to launch new projects on a small scale using a “beta” approach with one or two colleges with the intention of future consortium-wide implementation. Using this model, eduKan has developed a new program featuring digitally embedded content to reduce student textbook costs, a Spanish General Education program that significantly reduces time to degree completion for students who might have been delayed by traditional second-language programs, development of international partnerships to deliver online education in multiple countries and a new corporate education program that gives college credit for prior learning. We are currently developing fee-for-service programs for member institutions that will reduce costs for services and programs, including consortium-wide faculty training for both online and traditional faculty, joint purchasing of software and services, centralized grant writing and grant administration and facilitating the transition of campus-based programs to online platforms.
The focus for innovation at eduKan is intentional; we view it as our competitive edge.
Author Perspective: Administrator