Lessons from $18 million Global Campus failure
In his inauguration address in September 2005, then-University of Illinois President B. Joseph White first introduced the concept of a fourth, virtual campus to the university community.
Could the university create something that would combine the academic quality of the University of Illinois with the user-friendliness of the University of Phoenix?
The UI would give it a shot.
The result was an ambitious experiment that would ultimately cost the university $18.2 million over three years. Most of those expenses were due to personnel costs, according to UI spokesman Tom Hardy.
White brought in former UI Vice President Chester Gardner to conduct a study and consult with experts, a business plan was drafted, a proposal was shared with faculty governance groups and other administrators, and the discussions and debates began.
Initially conceived of as a for-profit, limited-liability venture that could bring much-needed revenue to the university, Global Campus was reworked and reworked again based on feedback. Eventually it would become a university unit, but the Springfield campus, long a leader in online education, opted not to participate. Programs were developed, but enrollment did not grow quickly enough, and 1.5 years after offering the first class, officials put a halt to it.
Since its demise about three years ago, several postmortems have been done on Global Campus.
One of the lessons learned has to do with money.
A university can offer online courses to generate revenue — but generating revenue should not be the main reason for offering online courses, said UI education Professor Nicholas Burbules. "One of the big mistakes of Global Campus was its big upfront expenses (they bought computers, servers, hired staff, remodeled space), then had to bring in revenue to cover their expenses. They were instantly under pressure from the board to show income to help defray the expenses," Burbules said.
Instead, if you start from the bottom up, you can grow and expand existing programs.
"I think the idea of minimizing the role of faculty at a place like the UI was the fundamental flaw" of Global Campus, said Charles Evans, associate vice president of academic affairs and a former Global Campus administrator.
Prior to Global Campus, university administration supported online learning through U of I Online and a steering committee that helped campuses develop the infrastructure, such as software, to make the courses work.
"The model of Global Campus was a very centralized approach, where programs give up control of their online courses and programs for the sake of accessing Global Campus' marketing and other resources," Burbules said.
Global Campus developed about 10 programs — six major programs, plus some certificate programs, Evans said. After it shuttered, control and management of the courses reverted to the campuses.
"The main lesson was, you have to let ownership and control of the programs stay close to where the quality comes from. The quality comes from the faculty, the departments," Burbules said.
"One of the unintended consequences of the Global Campus experiment was it did get people talking about online education a lot more," Burbules said. Either the university offers the courses or someone else will develop the courses, he said.
After Global Campus ended, the previous U of I Online steering committee, with members from all three campuses, was reconstituted and given a new name — the online management and planning team, Evans said.
"We do not have any money, but we still want to share best practices, market programs, and see where we can work together," Evans said.