Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Autopsy results of Illinois Global Campus: It wasn't all three?

If there was a coroner's office for the deceased of the elearning world, a medical examiner could pore through file after file and find only three main causes of death: Poor academics, poor business model, or bad technology. The post-mortem on the University of Illinois' "Global Campus," one of the largest online efforts by a major state university, continues. I'm not that medical examiner, and I have yet to absorb all the details, but the following link below provides a good, fairly short description from one insider:

To risk being overly simplistic, the effort seems to have run aground on the rocks of distrust... faculty vs. business, bricks-and-mortar vs. online, even campus vs. campus. In the end, it may be safe to say that the Illinois Global Campus wasn't Global, it wasn't a Campus, and it wasn't really even Illinois. The three major university campuses could not agree, and some may have worked actively against it.

I played a role in the development and growth of another major online effort, building the product development engine of a for-profit online university that went from 2,500 students at acquisition to 25,000 students in less than seven years. I clearly understand all the pitfalls mentioned by Mr. Kantz, and can commiserate. But I had a warning fresh in mind when we started back in 2001... I had seen the recent demise of the California Virtual University, along with many startups in the online learning space, and so I brought to that effort my own heartfelt conviction: to be successful, an online entity needs to attach equal importance to three things: Education, Business, and Technology. The key to success then, is that everyone involved must understand that all three have a moral equivalency in determining the ultimate success of the project. Until this is fully understood, and those involved have insight into one another's areas of expertise, the foundation is shaky.

California Virtual University crashed because of poor business planning. "With no money for its operations, [CVU] folded up its tent, leaving only the directory," was the summation of Stephen Downs in 1999.* The IGC is not so cut and dried, but were I a CSI officer on the case, I would take a very close look at the business model here as well. I think I can eliminate education as the culprit. According to Lee Kantz, "Our programs were developed with faculty, and their admissions requirements were set by our academic partners on the campuses." It also does not seem to have been the technology. I would have to take a hard look at the product to be sure it wasn't just really, really bad, but I assume it was probably as good as many. There are standards out there now, albeit fairly low (in the future, growth will demand raising this bar).

And then there's this statement from Mr. Kantz: "I think the first challenge is to get the politics straight, and set up an environment where the entire university is on-board with the initiative. That clearly didn’t happen at U of I." Is politics business? In this case, I would say yes. Part of the business model is the structure of the entity. It must be set up in such a way as to guarantee it the authority, and freedom, and the charge to do what is required. If the enterprise is by definition beholden to other interests (like, say, faculty?), those key interests must be lined up and eager--not just acquiescent--in order to make it work. In this case, a serious misstep seems to have made in the initial decision to set up a separate company, without clear buy-in from the academic community.

Again, without full access to the all the details, it's impossible to know the whole truth. But based on what I've gleaned so far, it seems to be another case of an educational enterprise falling down on the business front. This is not a predestined outcome, as many successful online ventures in the non-profit, traditional university world prove. Business, after all, really just means assuring that the income matches or exceeds the expenditures, and that the path has been cleared for this to happen for the foreseeable future.

When I was a kid, my mother used to express her opinion of drivers who sped past her by saying, "He's in a hurry to get to his own funeral." Elearning entities that can't or won't put equal weight on their business, education, and technology underpinnings are in the fast lane on that same trajectory.



  1. While faculty may never be innovative enough to create a virtual campus, they can certainly be dogged enough to kill one.

  2. Hmmm... sounds like the voice of experience!