Planning and Managing Distance Education Systems: Building a Model in Your Institution

June 2, 2013

Dr. Fred Saba

Dr. Fred Saba

Farhad Saba, Ph. D.
Founder and Editor,

In this series of articles, I presented a hierarchical model of distance education consisting of seven interrelated nested systems levels. These systems have been present in most distance education organizations that I observed, or planned and built over the past 30 years. In the previous weeks, I discussed Hardware, Software, Telecommunications, Instructional, Educational, Societal and Global Systems Levels. Last week I started to explain the process of system modeling so that you could start the planning process for your organization. I hope that conducting the environmental scan as presented in a previous article has given you a better appreciation of the components of the technology-based educational programs in your organization and the interrelationships among such components. But before I went any further on the process of modeling itself, I explained certain important concepts in system methodology in this article and showed how these principles can be applied in this article titled Planning and Managing Distance Education Systems: Applying system dynamics. In a subsequent article, I presented a step-by-step application of system dynamics for model building. In this article, I will review these steps in the context of applying it to your institution.

Nancy Roberts, et. all (1983) presented a more streamlined process for building models in system dynamics. We have adopted the following steps for building a model for your organization from the work of Roberts and her colleagues. You will see many similarities between the steps prescribed by Roberts, et all and Forrester. We recommend that you organize your modeling process with an eye on the recommendations of both of these pioneers, depending on the organization of your planning team and the needs of your organization.

1-Problem definition. In general, we defined several major problems facing higher education institutions in a series of article. These included

Past and Future - Two-Way Street SignI highlighted the need for each institution to re-examine itself in light of its current situation regarding a range of issues from contemporary philosophical thinking about what a university should be to how learners should be performing in academic programs. Some of these general issues are pertinent to the condition of the organization for which you are modeling and planning. Undoubtedly there are issues and problems that are specific to your institution, which we did not mention in Chapter One. In modeling your organization it is best to start with defining the problem that is most pressing in the eyes of the multiple constituents that have a stake in the institution as clearly as possible. Problem definition should be a consultative process and should take into consideration the point of view of as many stakeholders as possible who have a direct interest in the organization unit which is the subject of the modeling exercise. The smaller the unit the less time and energy consuming this task is. If you are modeling an entire state-wide higher education system with hundreds of thousands of students, you should keep in mind the complexity of brining all the stakeholders to agree on a set of problems. If you are working with a small group in a relatively less complex unit of an organization (e.g. an academic department) defining the problem can be as simple as holding a few meetings with those involved and coming to an agreement on a clearly defined problem statement or a set of statements. In more complex situations defining the problem statement(s) might require at least one or a combination of the following activities:

  • Reviewing sets of data collected during normal operation of the organization (e.g. enrollment rates, drop out rates, graduation rates, etc.)
  • Reviewing existing evaluation studies
  • Reviewing management documents, such as, annual plans and budgets
  • Conducting a survey of all of the stakeholders
  • Holding focus groups attended by stakeholders
  • Holding focus groups attended by experts in the field

These and other similar means would provide the leadership of the planning process the necessary information to define the problems addressed as clearly and succinctly as possible.

2- System conceptualization– We conceptualized an overall system in a hierarchical model of distance education, and asked that you engage in an environmental scan to understand the components involved in your organization in light of this general model, and define the boundary of a system which you would like to study further. This exercise in selecting specific system components and defining the boundary that identifies them as a coherent entity can be an ongoing process in planning and managing; however, for the purpose of modeling, the boundaries of a system must be defined at a certain point in time so that data can be collected for each component and the model can be simulated on the computer.

3- Model Representation– Once components that seem to be critical in addressing the problems at hand are identified, and flow diagram is constructed, it is very important to share and discuss the causal loop diagram with as many stakeholders as possible. This exercise may be time consuming and the causal loop diagram might go through some modification as a result. However, since the causal loop diagram includes the primary assumptions based on which the system is represented, arriving at a shared vision of these assumptions become crucial for the success of the model building project. Keep in mind that the process of model building is as important for the planning of the future of an organization as the results obtained from the model building activity.

It is important to run the model based on different assumptions…

4- Model Behavior– When you have created the model on a computer in the form of a flow diagram and the accompanying equations, you can run it and see how it behaves. The behavior of the model is represented in the forms of plots that it generates. It is important to run the model based on different assumptions and data collected from various sources at specific intervals to generate meaningful results for the planning team and the stakeholders to review and evaluate.

Remember the modeling process is closely coupled with the organization development process to plan for the future and bring about change in the institution.

5- Model Evaluation– Depending on the behavior of the model, some modifications and adjustments are necessary to make sure that the model runs based on the specifications and assumptions that are required by those who are involved in the planning process. It is common to make some changes to the flow diagram and review and debug the equations at this point to make sure that all of the requirements are met and the model represents and behaves as closely to the desired architecture as possible. It is also important to share the results with stakeholders and receive their feedback, comments and concerns not only to make the model more robust but also to ensure full participation in the modeling process by everyone involved. Remember the modeling process is closely coupled with the organization development process to plan for the future and bring about change in the institution.

A model may run in a seemingly sustainable manner for 12 months, but if the time of the run for the model is extended to 24 or 36 months it may show different results.

6- Policy Analysis and Model Use– Finally, the model can be run based on several initial states to see how the outcomes may vary depending on those values. For examples, one may adjust the initial value of a component that seems to be critical in the models to see how it would affect the sustainability of the model. Similarly, the duration of the time of the simulation may be changed to see how time affects the behavior of the model. A model may run in a seemingly sustainable manner for 12 months, but if the time of the run for the model is extended to 24 or 36 months it may show different results. The value of an important component may sustain the life of a model for 12 or 24 months, but not during and after the third year of the operation. While everything may seem to be going well in the first year, because of the limitations of certain variables undesired as well as catastrophic results can occur and by the same token may be prevented, or avoided as much as possible in real operation of the system. These results must also be shared with the stakeholders in policy making sessions so decision makers can make informed choices about the future of an organization.