3.3 – Models of Support

Institutions have taken a variety of different approaches to supporting e-learning, ranging from fully integrated central support departments that provide IT, instructional design, faculty development and technical media support to a fully decentralized approach in which each faculty or school has its own support units. Almost all institutions have a central IT department but the range of services provided is changing with an increasing number being either decentralized to individual faculties or schools or contracted out to cloud-based providers.

Centralized Departments

Centralized departments that are funded from the institution’s core budget are often seen as the most desired approach because they provide more stable support that isn’t dependent on generating revenue or attracting grant funding. They also make it possible to develop a critical mass of expertise that will be available to the entire institution. They can also be more cost effective as resources can be allocated more efficiently across an institution than across a small faculty. For example, there may not be enough work in a single faculty or school for a multimedia developer but more than enough work across the institution. With a decentralized approach in which each faculty or school provides its own support either some expertise will not be available or it will not be provided as efficiently because economies of scale are not possible.

On the other hand, centralized departments can often be seen as remote and unresponsive to the needs of faculties and individual faculty members. More often than not they operate according to project management principles which can create conflicts with some faculty who resist the idea of relinquishing control of their projects to others. I discuss this issue in the chapter, When Worlds Collide: Project Management and the Collegial Culture, which you read in an earlier unit.

A well-funded centralized unit can also become a target of cost-cutting when times get tough. There is a tendency in colleges and universities to regard anything “non-academic” as less important or even an unnecessary frill. When institutions are facing budget cuts (which seems to be an almost permanent state these days), faculties tend to look to the non-academic departments before they look at their own operations. Since institutions are governed by Deans and senior administrators who are beholden to Deans, it’s not surprising that a well-funded e-learning department would be seen as source of funding that could be used to prevent any cuts to the academic operations. This is even more likely if the e-learning department does not sit on the academic side of the organization, as is often the case. By this I mean that it doesn’t report to the senior administrator (e.g., Vice-President) responsible for education but instead is situated on the administrative side.

Decentralized Departments

Decentralized departments have the advantage of being closer, both physically and organizationally, to faculty members. A faculty-based support unit will likely be more attuned to the particular culture of the faculty and the needs of the faculty members. They tend to be smaller and thus, possibly, more agile and responsive compared to large central units that have to balance competing priorities from a variety of different faculties. However, as mentioned earlier, they may not have the same ability to provide for a full range of services and expertise. This will depend on the size of the faculty and the level of funding provided but it is difficult to achieve the economies of scale that are possible with a large central unit.

Neither of these models is clearly superior. It really depends on the institution and the size of the faculties and the level of support within the institution and faculties. For example, if the central department is not well-supported both financially and organizationally, it may be preferable to let each faculty take care of its own support. This may produce an inconsistent level of support across the institution but at least the faculties that decided to make e-learning a priority would provide a higher level of support than might be available from a weak and poorly-funded central department.

Bates & Sangrà conclude that the specific organizational model is less important than having a “clear picture of responsibilities and authority for decision-making about technology. In other words, institutions should have a clear governance structure for technology” (p. 121).

reading iconReading
pp. 114-121 of Bates & Sangrà (Chapter 5 from the beginning of the section Permanent Organizational Units to the end of the section, Conclusions From the Analysis of Organizational Units to Support Technology Integration) to find out more about how the institutions they studied used organized their educational technology departments.