Internationalising online programs/Consortia Participation

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World University Network (WUN)

Description of the Activity

Consortia address some of the primary institutional concerns of internationalization by minimizing risk. They limit the risk for institutions with limited international experience by providing a "veted" cadre through which less experienced institutions may learn and test assumptions and by advocating participation in international initiatives as a group member. They also can provide access to new region's and bring more resources to bear on an issue. Within this environment, Consortia must align their goals and missions with those of its membership. The Worldwide University Network (, a consortium of 16 institutions globally, achieve alignment by serving faculty and administrators interests while embracing the more trans-institutional goal of integrating technology and education. WUN embraces the primary mission of research institutions and the interests of their faculty by supporting innovation in research on a global scale. The research mission is supported via interdisciplinary collaboration and information sharing but also through the Consortium's second priority -- faculty and student exchanges particularly at the graduate level. WUN's third mission is bifurcated. It promotes research into the best practices of e-learning while also using e-learning methodologies to promote its other missions.

WUN provides indicators of successes while also demonstrating the challenges that exist in Consortia. Strategically, Consortia help establish trust among institutions and increase institutional comfort in the international environment. At a operational level, successes include collaborative research seminars facilitated by technology in which faculty and graduate students from different institutions dialog around specific research issues. These initiatives have motivated inter-institutional research projects in areas of transnational interest (e.g., poverty and multilingualism). Additionally, WUN has served as a vehicle for faculty interested in less highly studied topics, such as Medieval Art whose small cadre of experts is spread throughout the world, to coalesce by linking this dispersed population. Finally, WUN has provided a framework in which faculty from one institution may contribute to another institution's curriculum. For example, faculty from Penn State-Harrisburg have developed courses used by the University of York in their on-line masters in Public Policy and Management (PPM).

Beyond the research seminars and faculty interactions, WUN has promoted course sharing and program integration articulation agreements. Penn State, for example, has agreements with the University of York in which selected courses from the PPM and PSU's Master of Professional Studies in Community and Economic Development are considered electives in the other's program. Penn State's Geographic Information Systems program has a similar arrangement with Leeds and Southampton around converging interests in GIS. Constructed to allow a global student population to take advantage of unique courses at member institutions, the course sharing initiative holds a great deal of promise. Notwithstanding, participation remains limited due to a number of cultural and institutional barriers which are discussed below.

Inter-institutional partnerships coordinated through a consortium provide a venue to share experiences, develop best practices, increase faculty capacity for instruction, and offer access to a broad range of expertise. As projects such as those provided above mature and new ones emerge the value of the consortium approach should increase.

Notwithstanding, a number of threats and challenges exist in this model of internationalization. At a strategic level collaboration is difficult because of higher education's tendencies towards autonomy and self-reliance. This inherent culture is exacerbated by the fact that any organization has in relinquishing autonomy to become a group member. While collaboration on research among faculty with shared interests is an accepted practice, the ability to institutionalize collaboration in other areas, particularly related to program articulation and course sharing is hindered by different educational systems (e.g. UK vs. US), unique institutional processes that are neither transparent nor flexible, and the methods of collecting fees and more broadly the financial models and institutional business plans. The articulation agreements involving Penn State and UK institutions have been delayed and reduced in scope in order to accommodate this challenges and satisfy institutional administrations.

An additional challenge evident with the WUN is the lack of resources available to move the Consortium's agenda forward. Each institution makes a financial commitment to Consortium which is used to facilitate its administration. Some also create an internal development pool to fund faculty projects. However, a significant threat, as well as opportunity, for the Consortia model is its inability to identify and cultivate much need financial support for its projects. A Consortia that is able to secure resources to fund projects that benefit its institutional members and individual faculty would be a significant value to its membership and thus offer a range of opportunities.

A final challenge is institutionalizing Consortia work within the institutions. Often institutional participation in a Consortia is driven by a small number of faculty who have meaningful projects often of a research nature. When these faculty leave, retire, or pursue other research interests participation in the Consortia erodes. Paradoxically, faculty champions are need to truly institutionalize the Consortia in the university. While top leadership can contribute to institutionalization, true institutionalization rests upon the development of champions within the university community who see value in a consortium and are prepared to make it work.

Benefits of the Activity

There are a number of potential benefits associated with involvement with WUN:

  1. WUN, due the stability of its, membership provides opportunities to establish long-term relationship between organizations, that last beyond shifts of personal in and out of organizations.
  2. Because the institutions and activities are sanctioned through the consortium, risk is spread, so the potential for creative problem solving and collaborative activity is higher.
  3. There is a certain level of trust that is established through membership that allows for a little more transparency and candor between member organizations allowing for enhanced understanding of international institutions.
  4. Provides external reference organizations to test assumptions and to validate local activities. (“See who else is doing XXXX, and there a member of WUN.”) I our case, we were able to more easily find partners for eMM and learn from the implementation at one of our WUN partner institutions.

Success Factors for the Activity

There are a number of factors that we believe will help this project along:

  1. Institutional support at the most senior levels.
  2. Consortia mission aligned with institutional mission.
  3. There are obvious net benefits to collaboration and information sharing.
  4. Connections made between individuals as well as institutions.
  5. Resourcing has been made available for project support.

Organizational Readiness Factors

Consortia are designed to reduce risk through building trust. Membership signals “good will,” a sense of collegiality, and institutional commitment. There are responsibilities that come along with benefits, and a perceived breach of protocol can damage institutional relationships. Therefore it is important to understand how capable your atr to participate in a particular consortium:

  1. Penn State has international profile, commitment, and capacity in the two focus areas of WUN – research and eLearning.
  2. Although the World Campus was prepared to invest some time in nurturing relationships with WUN partners and contributing to activities, we were not ready to dedicate staff resources, which has probably sub-optimized the potential positive impact.

Exit and Sustainability Plans

As previously noted, Consortia, by their nature, mitigate institutional risk. However, they also can influence an institution's agenda and contribute to a "group think" environment. Even when consortia's goals and mission reflect those of its membership, it is important that individual institutions continuously assess the value of their participation to insure that institutional goals are setting the consortium's agenda rather than the other way around and that institutions are evaluating opportunities within the context of their strengths which are augmented by the consortium. Institutions also need to be diligent in reviewing contracts let in the name of consortium. This is probably the greatest risk to an individual institution which needs to avoid being left with a contractual commitment because a consortium as disintegrated. This is easily mitigated by absolving individual members of a consortium from liability agreed to as a whole.

Since consortia are really "coalitions of the willing" leaving the structure is not difficult. Notwithstanding, by-laws typically provide for a six month notification of termination, as a minimum. However to enforce participation and even contributions of a member leaving the consortium is nearly impossible. Therefore, from an institutional perspective consortia offer little risk.