Texas A&M Decentralizing Office of Distance Ed – A Gutsy Call

Totally Online, by Jim Shimabukuro

In a memo dated 8 June 2010, Jeffrey R. Seemann, Texas A&M Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, announced the university’s move toward decentralizing its management of distance education (DE), eliminating the Office of Distance Education and “transferring the development, management, and promotion functions . . . to the college deans and placing compliance with regulations and fee oversight under the purview of the Provost’s Office.”

This decision was based on “reviews of previously completed reports and other documents, consultation with knowledgeable individuals and groups, and an evaluation of distance education models at peer institutions” as well as “input from numerous university stakeholders.” Seemann said that “the recommendation to close the Office of Distance Education and transition to a decentralized distance education model is the right course of action.” He said, “Be assured that in no way will the quality of distance education programs be lowered by this action” (Texas A&M News & Information Services).

This was a gutsy decision but one that would have been made eventually – not just at Texas A&M but everywhere, in every college and school. Better sooner than later for a lot of good reasons. The idea of a single office managing all distance education matters is ludicrous. Most if not all of its functions would probably overlap those of existing offices. I’ve been teaching completely online classes for over a decade and have never had the need for such an office. I have no idea what its function would be, i.e., besides building a separate bureaucratic entity with costly staff, offices, equipment, etc. and working hard to justify its existence with vague plans and policies that have absolutely zero positive impact on teachers in the trenches.

The worst case scenario for such an office would be power – too much and it creates a stranglehold on the development of DE programs. All decisions affecting programs and instruction would have to pass through its red tape and SOPs (standard operating procedures), and the result would be paralysis, a DE program that’s bogged down in so much bureaucracy that it’s unable to take a step forward.

The office’s power over DE budget decisions could be catastrophic. Much of the budget would go to building and sustaining the office, and little if anything would trickle down to DE teachers. Costly labs and studios will more than likely get a lot of the funding because, let’s face it, they’re a lot more glamorous for guided tours than a guy in shorts and T-shirt sitting at a table in Starbucks, with his netbook, drinking a cup of coffee and posting replies in the discussion forum for his online class.

But, say the critics, will the existing offices be able to manage their own DE programs? The answer is, “Of course!” And if they can’t, at this point in the 21st century, they should be replaced by those who can. In fact, an administrator doesn’t have to be an ed tech wiz to be able to work with her/his DE instructors. She simply has to be an effective listener who knows how to move bureaucratic mountains to help her teachers develop and grow successful, dynamic DE courses.

Frankly, I find it difficult to understand how an educational administrator today is able to function without a deep, personal, and comfortable commitment to DE technology. These are, after all, the learning and teaching tools for today and tomorrow. It’s not as if college and school administrators have a choice. Students are already using them in their personal lives and in learning. When they arrive on campus, both literally and virtually, they’ll expect to use them.

I hope Seemann doesn’t have to weather too much criticism before the majority of educators realize that he’s made the right decision. The office of DE was a bad idea in the first place, a product of institutions looking for quick and easy answers by throwing bureaucracies at innovation rather than trying to understand the innovation and figuring out how to make it work.

2 Responses

  1. On the whole, it seems a sensible decision, Jim. Yet what about legal aspects, copyright in particular? Will the Provosts’ Office cover them? If DE teachers only have the Copyright/DMCA page of the Texas A&M site to go by, it is a bit scanty and more on the side of prohibitions than of the educational exceptions under copyright law.

    In Switzerland, the DICE (Digital Copyrights for E-Learning) project did a survey about copyright issues encountered by higher education teachers in distance education last Fall: there were many, and several of them concerned actions made possible by the development of technology after the last revision of Swiss legal tools about copyright (the last version of the Copyright Law and Ordinance came into force in 2008, but the parts concerning digital works and the internet remained unchanged from the 2004 draft version).

    And when law is getting adapted to technological evolution, it can be even more baffling and threatening for teachers. In Canada, the new Copyright Bill (C-32) has a series of lock provisions that will directly impact education and especially distance education if they get approved by parliament: see Michael Geist’s Setting the Record Straight: 32 Questions and Answers on C-32’s Digital Lock Provisions, Part One.

    And the tendency to tighten copyright prohibitions and weaken “Fair Use” exceptions needed in education also uses private contracts (EULAs) to forbid uses allowed by copyright law. See Patricia Akester’s The new challenges of striking the right balance between copyright protection and access to knowledge, information and culture (PDF) working document for the 14th session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Copyright Committee, presently ending in Paris.

    So copyright issues is one aspect of Distance Education where a centralized competence center would probably make sense, rather than having each school tackling them separately. But there are probably other ones.

  2. Hi, Claude. You’re right about the need to address the specialized needs of online learning such as electronic copyright issues, but my guess is that this problem, in particular, is college-wide rather than DE and that all faculty need to be aware of it. It can be handled efficiently and effectively, I think, by a college-wide administrator rather than a DE office. Again, I believe a lot of the functions of a separate DE office is already covered by existing offices. -Jim S

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