Technology-based Inter-institutional Collaboration

In 1993, ten colleges and universities located across the country, New York to Oregon, and Wisconsin to Texas, formed a formal collaborative called the Concordia University System. From their inception, these ten institutions have been owned and operated by the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, but they were only loosely connected operationally, each having its own separate governance structures and regional accreditation.

In subsequent years, 15 collaborative initiatives were initiated. A broad-based, highly representative team, with faculty and staff representation from across the system, explored each area of collaboration. Among the areas investigated for collaboration were cooperative purchase of goods and services, faculty development for affective education, visiting student programs, library collaboratives, and technology-based distance education.

I was given the opportunity to serve on the team that explored opportunities for collaborative distance education activities. This project has since given rise the Concordia University Education Network (CUENet), a formal confederation of the Concordia University System institutions sharing courses via compressed video. CUENet is continuing to develop a broader constituency, with over 20 high schools joining the collaboration in fall, 1998. In addition, CUENet is exploring a variety of other technologies and delivery modes. During the two year period from 1996-1998, CUENet also provided training for over 300 faculty and professional staff members in the areas curriculum selection, course development, instructional design, and general activities aimed at diffusion of academic technology. This project is now completing its second year of funding from a US Department of Education FIPSE grant. (For more information on the project, see

Through my experience in this project since 1993, I have come to believe that the largest barriers to implementing a truly collaborative inter-institutional activity are neither technological nor pedagogical. I believe, rather, that the largest barriers to be overcome are structural and cultural barriers to inter-institutional collaboration.

In a period in American Higher Education where costs are escalating and delivery systems are demanding significant institutional investments in infrastructure and curricular design, inter-institutional collaboration has more promise than ever before. It is my impression, however, that as many collaborative projects are failing as are succeeding.

I recently had an opportunity to synthesize some findings from the CUENet project. In addition to the findings in the area of curricular design and faculty development, some of the most interesting and useful findings from the first two years of the study were in the area of inter-institutional collaboration. Research in the area of collaboration suggests that there are a variety of risks associated with these types of activities. [If you make an assertion involving research, you should include a brief sumary of that research, with citations, even in an informal paper. -N] Included are the possibility of development of exclusive relationships which can limit other forms of collaboration, increased homogeneity across participating institutions, a feeling of a loss of autonomy at individual institutions, the costs of supporting collaboration (collaboration is not a passive activity), and a move to collaboration as an end in itself.

My findings related to collaboration are largely anecdotal and qualitative, but tend to agree closely with the findings of the research described above. Among the "truisms" related to inter-institutional collaboration that have arisen from the CUENet project, are the following:

In my experience, inter-institutional collaboration is most likely to be successful if it is mission driven and mission consistent, if it incorporates elements of broad shared governance, and if it is collaboration that is distance enhanced (i.e. enhanced by the fact that the collaborating institutions are physically located at some distance from one-another). [This paragraph simply restates the previous list. -N]

I would suggest that time spent in shaping and managing the collaborative aspects of such projects is time well spent. Attention to these aspects of the project will pay great dividends down the road. [I doubt that many would disagree. However, what practical suggestions can you offer to engage campus leaders and planners to move their behavior toward the vision that you previously laid out. What works, what doesn't? -N]