Monday, November 13, 2017

The Limits of Collaboration

Apparently, California is mulling creating a statewide online college, and it’s looking at three different models with which to do it.  Model 1, which could work, involves designating one community college to be its home.  Model 3, which could work, involves creating an entirely new organization.  Model 2 involves a consortium.

California, I know we’ve had our differences.  I don’t care for quinoa, and the ocean is on the wrong side.  But for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t choose option 2.  It won’t work.

I speak from experience.  Massachusetts tried a version of option 2 about ten years ago, called Mass Colleges Online.  It relied on existing campuses to provide seats in online courses to students from other colleges; the idea was to accumulate courses from across the state so a student could take classes that her particular campus might not offer.

It made sense on paper, but it limped along for years until finally sputtering out.  

The technology itself wasn’t really the problem, which means that saying “but the technology is better now!” doesn’t really address the issue.  The problem wasn’t the technology or the pedagogy.

It was incentives.

Each individual college is likely to offer classes that it thinks will attract enough students to run.  Those tend to be the introductory gen eds, and the staples of high-enrollment programs.  Intro to Psych will run reliably, as will Intro to Business.  You don’t need a consortium for those.  Colleges won’t run classes that they don’t think will fill.  Those are precisely the classes for which a consortium matters.

Those small classes become tricky when it comes time to make the go/no-go decision on running the class.  Let’s say you have a minimum section size of 12.  You have only 8 students registered, 4 of which are from other colleges.  By cancelling the class, you’ve just annoyed your counterparts at up to four other colleges.  If you defer to the consortium and run the class, now you have to explain to your annoyed local faculty why students from other colleges count for more than students at your own.  Good luck with that.  

And that’s before getting to the finances.  If each college keeps the tuition from its own students -- and I’ll admit not really understanding how California does its finances -- then I’m inclined to cancel any section that doesn’t have at least 12 of my own students in it.  I still have to pay the professor and cover overhead; if only six of the students in there are from my campus, I’m losing money.  When budgets are tight -- generally, on days ending in “y” -- that’s a non-starter.  When everybody else in the system runs the same numbers and reaches the same conclusion, the consortium sputters.

Let’s say a student from Bakersfield takes an online class from a college in Fremont.  (Substitute whatever cities make more sense.)  The professor accuses the student of plagiarism.  Whose regulations and processes are in effect?  If it’s the college in Fremont, and it mandates a hearing, how does the student from Bakersfield manage that?  

Worse, neither curricula nor calendars are uniform across most states.  That means different add/drop dates, refund policies, bookstores, and the rest.  That doesn’t matter much when any given student only attends one college at a time, but when she attends more than one, the issues become real quickly.  Is my college obligated to provide tutoring for a student from another college?  If so, will we get compensated for that?  And don’t get me started on financial aid, which allows a student to receive aid only at one college at a time.

The appeal of the consortium model from the outside is that it promises something for (almost) nothing.  But that’s exactly why it doesn’t work.  Unless the budgets for individual institutions are adjusted to account for the new costs of inter-institutional collaboration (and small sections), the consortium will die of accumulated indifference.  

Think twice, California.  A consortium may sound appealing from the outside, but if you don’t align the incentives internally, you’ll just be repeating a ten-year-old mistake from a small state where the ocean is on the right side.