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

Rare is today'sinstitution of higher education that d'es not use some distributedlearning technology &emdash; e-mail, Web sites, chat rooms or thelike &emdash; in at least some of its courses or programs. Most havegone beyond this, perhaps planning how to use these technologies notonly for their traditional students, but also to reach new audiencesthrough distance learning. A growing number of colleges anduniversities, in fact, are launching distance learning programsdelivered by a variety of new communications and informationtechnologies.

The University ofPennsylvania has begun exploring this new electronic learninglandscape in a variety of ways, including virtual classroomdiscussions among faculty and students, a new pre-freshman coursethat introduces students to Penn even before they arrive on campusand a variety of new professional continuing education initiatives.The new electronic tools allow us to extend learning beyond thetraditional classroom and provide new options for how and whenstudents can learn. They allow us to take advantage of some of themost up-to-date research results anywhere in the world, and they alsoallow us to reach new students anywhere in the world.

These notions wereanticipated in Penn's 1995 strategic plan, Agenda for Excellence. Oneof 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 Fallof 1997 the Provost convened a Committee on Distributed Learning toassess the changing landscape of academic programs and deliverytechnologies and to recommend strategic directions. That Committee'sApril 1998 Report proposed that the basic objective in the area ofdistributed learning should be predicated on the institution'sposition as a premier teaching and research university:

"This new environment carries with it both enormous promise and considerable risk &emdash; 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 mostsignificant conclusions was the recognition of for-profit companiesas 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 andOutsourcing

Why is this collaborationimportant and necessary for a large Ivy League university'sdistributed learning programs? What are the issues associated withsuch external collaborations? What specifically are the collaboratorsdoing for Penn? What will Penn gain from thecollaborations?

There are several reasonsfor Penn's interest in such collaborations and selective outsourcing.Chief among them are the University's decentralized institutionalstructure; the high initial costs of staffing, infrastructure andsupport; uncertainty about which techniques and directions willultimately succeed; and a desire to test-launch new programsquickly.

Penn is a large, highlydecentralized institution (see Figure 1) that for two and one-halfdecades 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 verysuccessful in establishing and maintaining the prominence of Penn'sschools and programs, it has also meant that the University d'es notgenerally aggregate resources across its twelve schools veryeffectively &emdash; in many respects it resembles a collection ofsmaller colleges without effective economies of scale.

Penn At a Glance

  • Founded in 1740 as the nation's first university
  • Located in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Birth of ENIAC, the world's first electronic general-purpose computer
  • Four Undergraduate Schools with over 10,000 students
  • Twelve Graduate Schools with over 10,000 students
  • Over 4,000 faculty
  • Faculty/Student Ratio = 11:1

Figure 1

Thus, when Penn's schoolsdecide to launch new distance learning programs with short timeframes and limited investment resources, targeted collaboration withoutside firms can allow them to selectively outsource some of theworkload to specialists who work exclusively on these types ofprograms and can produce results in short periods of time. In theprocess, it also allows the schools to concentrate on the academiccontent while outside experts are developing the delivery method tothe school's specifications. Moreover, it is often less expensive, atleast initially, to outsource the needed services than to hire newemployees and invest in additional infrastructure for theinstitution. Outside collaborators may also provide expertise inmarketing to complement the institution's strength in content andfaculty. Finally, Penn learns new skills from these relationshipsand, eventually, if cost-efficient and equal or superior in quality,it may provide those services itself. The broader challenge for thecollaborators is to continually offer value and pricing competitivewith the University's own developing capabilities in thesefunctions.

But, such collaborationalso carries risks. Distributed learning initiatives are still intheir early stages of development and as such, importantphilosophical and practical considerations need to be considered.Will such programs limit a university's flexibility? Will the outsidefirm simply be able to adapt the academic content for its ownprograms? Will the university retain full control over the coursecontent, admission standards and distribution? For these reasons,collaboration with for-profits needs to be closely monitored by theschools and the University (see Figure 2).

From The Report of the Provost's Committee on Distributed Learning Issues

The new tools of distributed learning force us to rethink our approach to educating students. This is not only a challenge that must be accepted, but an opportunity that we should embrace. This environment of enormous promise d'es carry with it considerable risk and forces us to address some difficult and groundbreaking questions.

1) What technologies work and how will they differ across programs? The visual and audio content of distributed learning programs can be critical to their success. To date, distributed learning programs have experimented with a mix of two-way videoconferencing, Web-based audio and video formats, e-mail, videotapes and short-term face-to-face instruction.

2) What type of infrastructure will be needed to support these programs and make certain that they are successful? Production of any educational program using the Internet will require new investments in computing equipment and personnel. Videoconferencing requires remote classroom facilities and equipment and on-site remote technical support staff. Providing these resources often leads to the formation of business relationships with for-profit firms or other educational institutions that possess the needed facilities, equipment and staff.

3) How will these distributed learning collaborations be structured? The details of the structure are of great importance to the University as well as the ultimate success of the venture. In general, a joint venture with a for-profit entity will pose significantly greater legal challenges for the University than will a more traditional vendor relationship, particularly in the area of tax law compliance and intellectual property rights. From the outset, schools and programs should prepare a detailed business plan of any proposed relationship with an outside entity. 

Figure 2

In monitoring thesecollaborations, Penn seeks to be clear about what it wants to do andwhat tradeoffs it is prepared to make in its distributed learningprograms. Penn develops a plan for each collaboration to ensure thequality it wants and the results it expects. It then carefully craftsand closely manages the collaborative relationships to address thebusiness and legal challenges that otherwise are historicallyunfamiliar in the not-for-profit world. Further, Penn seeks outsidefirms that can move forward in alignment with the institution and areable and willing to adapt their processes regarding delivery,marketing and pedagogical implementation to the University's goalsand objectives. Working with for-profit corporations is a newventure; institutions need to be prepared, astute anddemanding.

Synchronous and AsynchronousLearning

Two schools at Penn arecurrently involved in developing and launching distributed learningprograms that use synchronous learning (such as two-way video andaudio-conferencing) and/or asynchronous learning (where the studentand teacher do not need to learn and teach at the same time). Forthese distance programs, Penn's schools are collaborating forsynchronous delivery services with such vendors as Caliber LearningNetwork, Inc. and for asynchronous delivery with companies such asRealEducation.

Caliber Learning Network,Inc. was formed in 1996 as a joint venture of MCI and Sylvan LearningSystems. It integrates three key technologies:

  • Digital satellite communications permit real-time class session broadcasts;
  • Two-way video-conferencing and large-screen monitors permit face-to-face dialogue between the instructor and students in the various sites; and
  • Pentium-based PCs link all class participants with the instructor and teaching assistants via e-mail and other supporting applications.

The Caliber infrastructureis currently being used by the Wharton School and the School of Artsand Sciences. These programs can be broadcast to up to fifty CaliberCenters across the country to provide students with local access. TheWharton School launched its distributed learning program, WhartonDirect, in September 1998 with a multidisciplinary course called"Building a Business Case." Wharton Direct is targeted to workingprofessionals and managers whose time and other constraints do notallow them to attend similar executive education offerings atWharton's Aresty Institute on the Penn campus. Although not a degreeprogram, Wharton Direct will offer a number of graduate levelmanagement courses throughout the year.

The School of Arts andSciences is also using the Caliber technology for a new pre-collegeprogram called Penn Advance, which it launched in October 1998. ThePenn Advance program offers a selection of outstanding Pennundergraduate courses for college credit to academically advancedhigh school students. In the Fall 1998 term, introductory courseswere offered in Anthropology and Calculus; in Spring 1999 additionalcourses are planned, in Psychology and in Economics.

While Penn Advance usesthe Caliber technology for weekly, synchronous class sessions, italso makes use of extensive Web-based asynchronous activities,provided through a collaboration with RealEducation, Inc.RealEducation provides Web services for building and deliveringonline course materials, as well as a full range of Web facilitiesfor student services ranging from application and admissionsprocesses to online registration and payment, library access andonline bookstore services. For Penn Advance, this collaborationfacilitates the rapid scale-up of courses and programs and relievessome of the administrative burden with its delivery of student andadministrative services over the Internet. The professors teachingthe courses use the PennAdvance Web site created by RealEducation forassignments and lecture enhancements.

Wharton Direct andPennAdvance have benefited greatly from outsourcing services tofor-profit collaborators. Using Caliber, both programs have been ableto reach students across the country that would not be able to attendPenn because of time constraints, work and school obligations, orfinancial reasons. Caliber has enabled Penn to offer face-to-faceservices to markets that have been underserved. RealEducation, on theother hand, has provided a quick way for the Penn Advance program todevelop a rich complement of asynchronous services and academiccontent for students and professors.

As with the Wharton Directand Penn Advance programs, the University will put forward the bestof its educational programs to take full advantage of the strengthsof the new media. It will continue to cultivate the kinds ofrelationships with external collaborators that will advance its basicobjective in distributed and distance learning &emdash; to continueto be, in the words of the Provost's Committee on DistributedLearning, the "institution of choice for the very beststudents."


Michael Eleey is Associate Vice Provost for Information Systems andComputing, and coordinator of distance learning initiatives at theUniversity of Pennsylvania.

Marsha Comegno is adoctoral candidate in the higher education program of the GraduateSchool of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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