Planning and Managing Distance Education Systems: Institutional Realities

June 10, 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 and described how these steps can be implemented in your institution. In this article I will explain the inverse relationship between complexity and the process of planning. In more complex institutions, it is difficult to agree on a set of common goals among students, faculty, administrators, taxpayers, and decision makers.

System dynamics simulation technology is a powerful means of planning and decision making that can enhance evaluation of ongoing projects and programs and provide additional insights to the future behavior of an organization which may not be detectable otherwise. It is also a great way of demonstrating the trajectory of certain decisions and policies to everyone involved and recruiting their assistance in resolving issues and problems before they occur. Undeniably no simulation technology can supplant the wisdom, experience and foresight of decision makers in higher education organizations. However, system dynamics provides a useful support for data-based decision making, counterintuitive thinking and planning, as well as anticipating pitfalls and problems that may occur under certain policies or circumstances.

Yaure (2004) conducted a case study of decisions are made for adopting technologies in a higher education institutions and highlighted some of the realities of planning and decision-making. She emphasized that some of the characteristics of colleges and university, such as, proclivity for incremental change, and the slow process of decision making under the conditions of fast moving environmental evolution may undermine any effort for comprehensive planning processes and enterprise wide change management. In other words, fast moving environments do not lend themselves to a deliberate, reflective and purposeful decision making process. In fact in such environs a rational methodic planning and decision making process becomes and “oxymoronic challenge.”

Further, there is an inverse relationship between complexity and the process of planning. In more complex institutions, it is difficult to agree on a set of common goals among students, faculty, administrators, taxpayers, and decision. Priorities in different institutional units compete for resources and often are at odds with each other. As such, consensus becomes more difficult to achieve. In most situations priorities are not clearly defined, and cannot be quantified for the modeling and process and the related organizational development effort to proceed smoothly. The assumptions based on which priorities may be established differ widely among different units and stakeholders in an institution. In addition, deadlines imposed by institutional exigencies do not always match the time lines set by the planning process, and even if they do match, the onset of a change process often requires an incubation time to mature and develop to its potential before its results become apparent for everyone to see. It is often that in such situations leaders who are pressed to show results in a short period of time succumb to political pressure, change direction and do not let the change process establish itself in the normal operation of an organization and bring about the intended outcomes.

More technically, Yaure suggested that not all casual loops could be discerned, or may even be apparent in advance of the planning process. Some cause and effect relationships may even be an artifact of the planning process. Such relationships could be an emergent property of a system, which would make it impossible for the planners and model makers to include them in a system dynamic model a priori.

Given these realities, paradoxes, and limitations, Yaure made several suggestions for strategic planning. Although she only studied one campus, our observation or direct participation in the planning and decision making processes in several other institutions of higher education lead us to recommend her suggestions for system dynamics modeling as well. These suggestions were:

  • Integrate technology decision making into other decision making process at the campus
  • Inform stakeholders about decisions made in the planning process, specially those that are directly affected by its results.
  • Provide an open decision making process so that those who wish to participate in the process can do so
  • Include representation of all campus constituents so that their needs are not marginalized and included in the planning process
  • Educate all campus members about the subject and substance of the decision. (In this case the subject was planning for technology about which some campus constituents needed more information about how it exactly could impact or enhance their teaching, learning, or administering).
  • Plan broadly for change, but implement such changes incrementally in demonstration projects to pilot the change before expanding it to all institutional units.
  • Understand that people desire for planning for the future as they like to know that their prospects are not left to happenstance, but recognize the constraints of individual affected by change in terms of
    • their knowledge of the substance and subject of change,
    • resources available to them to make the change
    • consensus among individuals affected to make the change
    • functional demands for making the change while dispensing normal work