The institutional decision about how much technology should be used to scale distance education enrollments, reduce costs, maximize profits, and protect course and program quality is both institutional specific and complex. Guri-Rosenblit (1999) noted that “many conventional universities worldwide operate as largescale universities and are in a continuous search to find the right balance between massification trends, quality education, and the catering to the individual needs of students” (p. 289). This research is an outgrowth of the authors’ own efforts to identify relevant scalability factors and their interrelationship one to another in a traditional university’s distance education program. This article identifies 10 additional factors beyond information technology (IT) or information communications technology (ICT) that merit careful consideration by decision makers as they define their own institutions’ degrees of scalability. Each institution’s level of scalability is determined or characterized in part by the interrelationship of these 10 factors within their given technological context or infrastructure: interaction, learning levels, student class standing, faculty tenure or continuing status, completion rates, cohort versus noncohort settings, degree- versus nondegree- seeking programs, market type, tuition costs, and profitability. The authors briefly examine their own distance education program and others, including those of mega-universities, across these 10 scalability factors.
Scalability at many universities is defined as the ability to increase enrollment while still remaining profitable, or at least financially self-sustaining, without adversely affecting course and program quality. Scalability for many mega-universities is defined as reducing costs to retain eligibility for government subsidies, grants, foundation awards, and other funding sources (This will be discussed in further detail later in the article.). In any case the perpetual challenge for universities is to effectively manage the tensions of the eternal triangle: to widen access, to improve quality, and to lower costs. Achieving success within the constraints of this straitjacket sounds impossible, but is nonetheless deliverable in varying degrees (Daniel & Mackintosh, 2003).
One large distance education program in the United States, Brigham Young University (BYU), with total annual enrollment approaching 100,000—the threshold for being considered a mega-university—has experienced extraordinary growth in the past 7 years in its university enrollment and unprecedented growth in its secondary and noncredit enrollments. In 1996, there were 37,691 total enrollments, and at the end of 2003, there were 96,513 enrollments. The program has managed to multiply three times over this time period and remain very profitable, but like many other institutions, BYU is trying to “manage the tensions of the eternal triangle” as it seeks to determine the acceptable but certainly varying degrees of scalability and success. (Professor Farhad Saba, Letter, June 11, 2003), international distance education consultant, recently made a site visit to BYU and wrote in his final report, “The outstanding question for [BYU’s] Independent Study, as well as for the university community, in general, therefore, is to what extent courses could be made scalable...”
The large mega- and open universities of the world, such as Anadolu University, China TV University System, Universitas Terbuka, Indira Gandi National Open University, Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, Korea National Open University, Payame Noor University, the Open University (United Kingdom), and so forth, are accustomed to an enrollment scale that most distance education programs elsewhere in the world have not even considered. Sir John Daniel, president and chief executive office of the Vancouver-based Commonwealth of Learning, reported on September 7, 2001, that a new course at the Open University (United Kingdom) entitled, An Introduction to the Social Sciences: Understanding Social Change “attracted nearly 13,000 students, an all-time high for a single course” during the previous year (p. B24). Contrast this success scaling a course at a mega-university to the following perspective on scalability by Jeffrey E. Feldberg, chairman of Toronto-based Embanet Corporation, which represents a much smaller North American distance education program: