Redefining the Research University: Non-traditional Learners, New Markets, and Cultural Change.


The following is a paper presented at The University Centre Saint-Ignatius Antwerp (UCSIA) conference in December 2008 at the University of Antwerp. The conference theme had the participants looking beyond the traditional role of the university and was framed in the context of a post-Bologna Europe. Although this paper was listed in the program, I do not believe that it was published in a proceeding. While looking through old files I came upon a draft of the presentation and decided that it has enough merit to post here. More than a decade has passed since the paper was first written, so it obviously does not reflect current practice, but I think that it may still resonate with universities that are rethinking the ways that they serve non-traditional learners through their continuing and online practice. If not, at the very least, it possibly has a place in the historic record and is perhaps something worth reflecting on. It is worth noting that I wrote this while serving as executive director of the Penn State World Campus, and the paper reflects how I perceived things at the time.


American post-secondary education is going through significant transitions that include growth in private for-profit education, online learning, and distance education. Many traditional universities have struggled with maintaining their identities as high-quality resident-based institutions, while also integrating distance education into their mission. The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) applied a policy-based model that allowed a traditional resident instruction and research-intensive university to integrate an adult serving online distance education campus into its operations. The World Campus was established and integrated into the University to serve learners studying at a distance. The model was designed to balance the need for academic quality within the context of the dominant University culture, while also allowing for the development of services and infrastructure to serve the World Campus student population. Although the Penn State model has proven successful, questions are raised about the next wave of challenges facing traditional US higher education institutions as we enter an era of enhanced openness and the potential for the disaggregation of university services.


This paper will explore the changing nature of the US public research university as it responds to and helps shape the social and economic realities of an integrating world. The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) World Campus is used as an example to illustrate the organizational implications of embedding an entrepreneurial market-driven campus into a traditional US research-intensive university, pointing to the evolution of higher education as universities balance traditional values with entrepreneurial programming and commercialization within the academy.

Since 1998, the World Campus has served as the principal vehicle for serving the growing population of non-traditional and adult learners seeking formal learning experiences at a distance through Penn State. Serving this population is becoming recognized as an increasingly important part of the academic mission of traditional universities and has been identified as an important market targeted by for-profit tertiary education providers. In response to economic pressure caused by decreasing funding from public State sources and increasing pressure by commercial universities, Penn State has sought an organizational model that allows for agility, financial sustainability, and market responsiveness within the larger University. The World Campus has adopted a model that balances the academic authority needs of the academic colleges (faculties) and the flexibility and service focus necessary to satisfy non-traditional adult learners, with commercial activities for sustained success at scale.

Having established a viable organizational structure and financial model, the World Campus is increasingly developing partnerships to improve access and learner success, through involvement in the larger open education resources movement, adopting social networking applications for learner and faulty support, and more actively seeking international opportunities to take advantage of wider communities of practice. While our first set of challenges was introducing the needs of non-traditional learners into a traditional research-oriented university with a strong physical “destination-campus” culture, our next set of challenges is introducing the values and practices of open education to redefine and expand access not only for Penn State students, but the larger community with which we are engaging and integrating.


Organizational Diversity and Changing Expectations

Like in Europe, the landscape for American higher education is shifting. American higher education exhibits a significant amount of organizational diversity. The diversity is characterized by funding sources, historic mission, targeted service population (market), Carnegie classification, tax status, delivery modality, religious affiliation, among many others. In addition to being diverse, US higher education is in the process of significant transition, which is partly due to the enhanced focus of serving new markets of learners. These changes are being driven from within the higher education sector, and from demands for accountability and transparency that are expressed quite clearly through US federal government sources.

To help illustrate the intersection of change and diversity, we can note first the size of the sector. According to a 2007 report of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were 4,314 accredited degree-granting institutions in the United States and an additional 2,222 non-degree granting institutions that are under State control. Of the degree-granting institutions, 1,688 are public, and 2626 are private. During the ten years spanning from 1996-1997 to 2006-2007, the total number of accredited degree-granting institutions grew approximately 7.5%, but there was a significant disparity within growth categories. The number of public institutions decreased slightly, while private institutions increased by almost 14%. Within the private sector, though, the number of accredited non-profit institutions decreased by more than 3%, while accredited private for-profit institutions grew by over 60%. Please see table 1 for details. This trend is interesting because it represents shifting market pressures. Private for-profit institutions account all of the institutional growth across the sector.

Table 1: Changing Profile of US Accredited Degree Granting Institutions[1]
YearAll InstitutionsPublicPrivatePrivate Non-ProfitPrivate For Profit
% Change7.61%-0.82%13.83%-3.13%60.57%

The ascendance of for-profit post-secondary education in the United States has been coupled with demands for increased accountability and transparency. In the 2006 US Department of Education’s influential report, A Test of Leadership Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, the Commission ties the changing demands of US higher education to a) access, b) cost and affordability, c) learning, d) transparency and accountability, and e) innovation. The report highlighted failings in all areas, pointed to a relevancy gap between what the US needs and what higher education is typically delivering, and decreasing standing internationally for higher education attainment. The report continues with numerous recommendations, including a pervasive message that the traditional input and process-related measures of quality that the US accreditation approach heavily relies on needs to be shifted to measures of outcomes and competencies. Additionally, the results should be tied to the needs of a “knowledge economy” and learner success.

Although some of the messages from the federal government around US higher education might change with a new administration, the underlying issues seem reasonably systemic, in that the changes being experienced in higher education and the market reaction to educational needs will continue to place stress on higher education institutions and the sector at large. The complexity of American higher education, with its diversity of institutional types, market orientation, and loose coupling between accreditation and government, will almost certainly serve to catalyze creativity and entrepreneurial activity. One might argue that the ascendance of private for-profit institutions, speaks to an innovation gap in meeting underserved and non-traditional learner needs. The hallmark of many private for profits is a concentration on excellent and responsive student services, flexible program and delivery design, and rapid time to market for new programs and program options to meet perceived needs in the job market.

[1] 2007 Digest of Educational Statistics:

Changing Demographics

American higher education is grappling with changes that are occurring within its service population. While many university administrators, faculty members, and members of the general population still think of the typical undergraduate as an 18- to 22-year-old with a recently acquired high school diploma, who attended classes full-time at a physical four-year institution, the this is becoming less thee case. Of the nation’s nearly 14 million undergraduates, more than 40% attend two-year community or technical colleges, while nearly one-third are older than 24 years old, and 40% are enrolled part-time. (US Department of Education, 2006) The change is reflected in a nearly 25% increase in the percent of adults participating in career or job-related courses when comparing statistics in 1995 and again in 2005. In addition, participation in higher education has increased across ethnic groups, and most age groups up to 60 years old. (NCES, 2007)

It is also worth noting that distance learners who choose to study online are one of the fastest growing populations that higher education institutions are serving. According to a 2008 publication by Sloan-C, the growth rate of online enrolments in the United States is 12.9 %, while the overall growth rate in higher education participation is 1.2%. According to the study, over 3.9 million students, representing over 20% of all students, took at least 1 online course in fall 2007, representing a 12% increase from 2006. Furthermore, the study indicates that rising unemployment, economic uncertainty, and fuel costs will increase the desirability of online study. Distance learners tend to represent a population of learners who are important to the economy and posses demographic characteristics that are quite distinct from learners studying in residence.  

It is important to recognize that US higher education has gone through several periods of significant change. One such time was during the introduction of Land Grant Universities. As the principal case study in the paper is set in a US Land Grant university, it is worthwhile to provide a brief overview of the Land Grant mission and how it relates to the current affairs of US higher education.


Founded in the late 1800’s, U.S. land-grant universities have played a profound role in the economic and social development of urban and rural America. The Land Grant legislation intended to improve access to practical education to everybody in the United States. Although the impetus behind the Morrill, Hatch, and Smith-Lever Acts that shaped the land grant system was to address the needs of a growing nation settling vast expanses of land, the land-grant mission has well served continued development. The Land Grant legislation came in three significant pieces. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 allocated large areas of public land to nearly 100 colleges and universities in the United States. The granted land was intended to fund the development of the University either through sale, leasing, or some other form of development that would generate income. In addition, several of the public Historically Black Colleges and Universities were established as part of the 1890 legislation, while in 1994 twenty-nine Tribal Colleges and Universities become Land Grant institutions. The Hatch Act of 1887 provided a mandate for applied research through experimentation stations. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established Extension services as a way to diffuse knowledge in the field. The effect of the land-grant acts was to develop a system of universities that would meet the current workforce and social needs through educational activities, practical research, and extension into communities. The actual granting of land served as both a way for the federal government to fund the new universities and as a laboratory for experiential education and applied research. At the time, traditional university education was principally reserved for the social and economic elite.

There are many parallels between the environment in which the U.S. land grants were established in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the current environment in much of the modern developing and developed world. When the land grants were established in the U.S. there was social unrest, post-war reconstruction, profound economic and social stratification, expansionism paved by the systemic genocide of native populations, epidemics, economic migration, the need for developing civil infrastructure, agricultural capacity, education, health, and human service systems to support economic and social capacity to scaffold the civil society. There are some clear parallels with 21st century America that include the nature of the current educational needs of adult learners as agricultural and industrial capacity in the United States shifts to service and knowledge industries. The rise of part-time study and the balancing of work, life, and education are similar to the pressures faced by farmers, teachers, and engineers facing new challenges associated with skill development to meet the needs of agricultural and industrial growth.

The modern land grant university typically balances a robust research agenda, along with teaching, and outreach into the community, and is frequently charged with development within the State along with national and international extension. This is reflected in the mission statement of the Pennsylvania State University, which is, “Penn State is a multi-campus public research university that improves the lives of the people of Pennsylvania, the nation, and the world through integrated, high-quality programs in teaching, research, and service.”

Access to educational services is a high priority within the Penn State Mission and is reflected in its commitment to University Outreach, which is one way that the University extends into the community. University Outreach at Penn State includes a number of services that enhance access to Penn State including public broadcasting, workforce development programming, continuing education, youth programs, university extension services, and distance education, all of which serve the Land Grant mission[2].

Although the Land Grant mission, partially expressed through University Outreach is an essential part of the University’s identity, Penn State also has a very strong orientation toward resident learners. Penn State is “one university geographically distributed,” and that distribution is framed in terms of 25 campuses located across the state of Pennsylvania. Most University systems, workflows, policies, and procedures have been developed with the resident learner in mind, who will spend significant periods of time at a physical destination campus. Important features of University culture including faculty promotion and tenure, learner services, registration and billing systems, financial models, and much more is distinctly oriented to the realities of running physical campuses, for fulltime, traditionally aged learners, principally studying in residence.

This is where it gets interesting. Distance education, offered through Penn State World Campus, is the most rapidly growing program area offered through University Outreach and the most rapidly growing delivery platform at the University. In fact, the World Campus has been charged by the President’s Office to serve at least 50,000-course enrollments by 2012, which represents an annual growth rate exceeding 20%. How is it possible that a distance education unit can flourish in an institution that is clearly not designed to support it? What are the conditions under which a large traditional university can successfully serve a dynamic and growing population that is distinct from it central focus? How does our evolving approach to serving our traditional mission in the 21st century strengthen Penn State, higher education more generally, and deliver on the University’s commitment to social development through the advancement of knowledge and access? In the next section of this paper, we will explore the nature and challenges of providing distance education services in a research-oriented university with a strong traditional and destination campus self-concept.

[2] Description of University Outreach Programs:



The World Campus was founded in 1998 under the leadership of President Spanier and with significant support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It is important to recognize that Penn State had a rich and long legacy in distance learning, well before launching online learning. Penn State had delivered distance education programs as far back as 1898 when courses were offered through Rural Free Delivery. Mail delivery prevailed for 50 years until the invention of the television in the 1950s. Through TV, distance students could learn through live instructional broadcast. It was nearly 50 more years before the Internet would help reinvent distance education. One hundred years after the first distance course was mailed, Penn State entered into the online market with the launch of the World Campus. The World Campus is now the primary medium through which Penn State reaches adult learners.

The guiding vision of the World Campus was to expand our impact on the state of Pennsylvania and beyond by serving net new learners who desired a Penn State degree, but who chose to study at a distance. The critical point here is that degrees offered through the World Campus would be the same degrees as those offered through the resident university, with the same curricular and faculty quality. President Spanier did not want the World Campus delivered degree to be seen as being of lower quality than those offered elsewhere in the University. We all recognized that although the degrees would be the same, the delivery methods would be different, as would some of the characteristics of our learners and their needs. We also recognized that the World Campus’ emphasis on openness, access, and flexibility would be quite different from our counterparts in resident education. Historically, distance education at Penn State had been of little consequence to the rest of the University. Distance education was about providing access to correspondence programming, with no mandate to provide “university quality” programming, while resident instruction was about exclusive programming driven by resource constraints that necessitated limiting supply and access to educational services. The World Campus and online learning changed that relationship. Distance learning was now recognized not only as part of the University’s Land Grant mission but also contributing to the academic mission.

Since 1998 the World Campus has grown from 4 programs serving 44 enrolments to delivering over 65 programs with forecasts of serving over 23,000 enrolments during the 2008-2009 academic year. This type of growth has had an impact on the allocation of university resources, a shifting of attention to distance education, and a refocusing on teaching and adult learners within a dominent research culture. So, how did the University organize its global distance education efforts to allow for growth of programming that addressed learner needs, but challenged Penn State’s concept of quality resident-based education, and all of the practices that came along with a resident faculty serving resident learners principally in rural Pennsylvania?

Challenges and Opportunities

Penn State’s decision to form an online distance education Campus that is neither an independent single-mode provider or integrated into the academic units has dramatically shaped the creativity and innovation exhibited within the organization. It was felt by executive leadership that establishing an independent entity such as the University of Maryland, University College or Colorado State University, Global Campus would create a parallel but inferior set of programs, which was clearly unacceptable, even if it allowed for more flexibility and rapid growth than integrating the World Campus into the University. It was also recognized that if the distance education function were to be integrated into the academic units, the unique quantities and needs of learners who study at a distance would be marginalized because of the University’s self-identity as a research university serving traditional students. This was also unacceptable.

Due to what appeared to be conflicting commitments within the University, the more substantial challenges for the World Campus become obvious. Given the context, we had to identify ways to ensure quality, as defined by the university, for a population of learners who the University did not fully accept or understand. In essence, we had to establish protocols, processes, and services that served both the University and our students. This challenge, coupled with support of executive leadership, provided fertile ground and opportunities for fundamental and systemic changes within the University. Success required several changes that catalyzed continuous refinement with the University structure. There was the need for, a) policies that guided behavior and boundaries for relationships, b) an incentive system that promoted growth, c) formal connections that assured academic integrity as defined by the dominant academic culture, and d) enough organizational autonomy for the World Campus to meet the needs of a population different than that served by a majority of the University.

Policy Framework

In a large and complex organization like Penn State, there is frequently the need for official organizational policy that supports goals. The policy will be most effective when it is transparent, well communicated, enforceable, and enforced in practice. This means of course, that there are protocols and procedures in place that formalize policy in the short-term, and that in the long-term, eventually, that policy has to be seen as being useful, yielding results that are perceived as valuable.

There is a lot bundled into having policies that allow for parts of an organization like the World Campus, to operate successfully within a larger organizational like Penn State. This is particularly true when the smaller unit functions as a change agent, creating disruption within the larger system. In 1997, when planning for the World Campus started, university leadership was unwilling to have the World Campus operate independently from the rest of the University, so it was established as a “Specialty Campus.” At Penn State academic authority is vested in particular units. Among other things, academic authority allows for the creation of academic programs and the management of faculty members. That is, academic authority translates into responsibility of all that goes into defining and maintaining academic quality standards within the discipline.

At Penn State, academic authority is conferred to Colleges and other “academic units.” This gets relatively complex because, as mentioned earlier in the paper, Penn State describes itself as one university that is geographically distributed. So, in addition to Colleges, such as the College of the Liberal Arts, Engineering, Science, Law, Medicine, etc. there are Campuses, such as the campus at Aloona, Erie, the World Campus, and there are groups of Campuses, such as the Commonwealth College. While Colleges have academic authority, campuses do not, which means that the World Campus does not have academic authority. The World Campus is referred to as a Delivery Campus. Most of Penn State’s 25 campuses do not have academic authority. Instead, they deliver programs for which the Colleges have academic authority. This means that for all programs delivered through the World Campus, the academic units has academic responsibility for the approved curriculum, course content, assignment of faculty members who author and teach courses, and the academic unit either provides or approves academic advising. This means, as a delivery campus, the World Campus actually has no programs or faculty. This is a matter of University policy and is enforced through a system of protocols and procedures that govern the establishment and modification of academic programs and the selection, assignment, and review of faculty members. Academic authority helps to define the relationship between the academic units and the World Campus. Every program offered through the World Campus requires an academic partner who has responsibility for the academic program.

Fortunately, academic authority only defines part of the partnership relationship between the World Campus, academic units, and other campuses. The World Campus is the University’s distance education campus. Relative to distance education, the World Campus has authority and responsibility for serving learners studying at a distance. The source of World Campus authority for distance learning is Academic Directive 55 (AD55), which states that, “The purpose of this policy is to ensure high-quality program design and delivery, financial accountability, and student services in all distance education programs that use technology to serve off-campus students through the Department of Distance Education (The Pennsylvania State University, 2000).” Within the policy statement the World Campus was identified as the single University-wide administrative unit to support academic units in the delivery of credit and noncredit programs and courses, workshops, seminars, and non-formal learning opportunities, for individuals studying at home in the workplace, nationally, internationally, and part-time learners studying at a distance, as well as students who study at a distance using facilities at Penn State locations.  

Although AD55 does identify a few areas in which the policy does not apply, it creates a broad scope of activities for which the World Campus is assigned authority and responsibility. Like many workable policies, AD55 provides some specific procedural direction. In our case, the policy creates a direct connection with existing academic policies, making particular references to the established authority of the Faculty Senate and academic units, while also identifying some examples of specific services that the World Campus will provide, while placing responsibility on the World Campus for ensuring that programs conducted in the name of the University through distance education comply with the policies and procedures established by the University. The Policy also places responsibility for approving distance education programs on the World Campus, creating an expectation that the World Campus will review factors such as academic strength of the proposed programs, readiness of faculty to deliver and develop high quality distance education programming, appropriateness of the program relative to available technology, evidence of an identifiable and attainable market that can sustain program and student services costs at the necessary scale of operation needed to recover full costs based on anticipated net income.

It is important to note that AD55 goes beyond typical academic and service responsibilities, specifically indicating that distance learning programs must be financially viable, and World Campus operations need to be based on cost recovery. This point is made even more explicit within the policy where the World Campus is charged with funding costs and collecting all tuition and fees for off-campus students, and then sharing net income with partnering academic units, once again, making reference to University policy that exists at the time of delivery. This is important because it creates expectations for the World Campus that on the one hand create expectations that seem alien to many of our academic partners, and other the other hand, creates opportunities and incentives through revenue sharing not available to our counterparts in resident education.

Organization & Incentives

AD55 creates a general framework within which the World Campus can operate with some level of reliability, in which relatively clear roles and responsibilities for academic and administrative units are described.   Although the policy environment articulated through AD55 is a critically important enabler, the ability for the World Campus to deliver on its responsibilities is predicated on having appropriate organizational capacity and incentives to motivate academic partners. As we are all aware, it is virtually impossible to motivate scholars and members of the faculty through administrative directives. Penn State has an administrative structure and revenue flow model that complements AD55’s stipulation that the World Campus will collect all tuition and fees, allowing for the creation of powerful incentives for growth through partnership.

The World Campus is organized differently than other campuses within the University. It is housed in University Outreach, rather than in the Provost’s Office. As mentioned earlier, University Outreach is an administrative division that is responsible for numerous programmatic activities including Public Broadcasting, University Extension Services, Workforce Development, and Continuing & Distance Education, in which the World Campus is organizationally placed. The impact of having the World Campus in University Outreach is rather significant. In addition to placing World Campus leadership in a different cultural environment than leaders of other campuses and academic units, it also creates opportunities to manage revenue flow in accordance with AD55’s directive to ensure that programs are financially sustainable as full cost recovery centers.

One of the principal advantages to being located in University Outreach is our ability to directly collect tuition and fees from students who register for courses. When a student registers for a course delivered through another campus, the tuition and fees flow into Central University Administration, and a portion of it is returned to the academic unit to cover direct costs. In comparison, when a student registers for a World Campus course, the World Campus collects the revenue and shares it with the academic unit. There are a few significant differences between how revenue is handled for resident instruction and distance education. In the first place, the revenue received by academic units through the World Campus is discretionary and can be invested in any way the academic unit chooses, while funding tied to resident instruction is associated with direct costs that have already been encumbered. The discretionary nature of the revenue allows the academic unit to develop new capacity, rather than merely servicing current activities.

The amount of revenue that is shared is based on four general service level agreements between the World Campus and the academic unit for each program that is offered. The service level agreements are referred to as Gross Revenue Sharing levels (GRS), which specify the level of risk each party assumes and the support that the World Campus provides to the academic unit. The percentage of revenue that is shared correlates to the level of risk that the World Campus assumes and the services that are provided to the academic unit. For example, at GRS 1, which is the least risky and most heavily supported level from the academic unit perspective, the gross revenue will be divided with 10% flowing to the academic unit, and 90% remaining with the World Campus. At GRS 1 the World Campus provides the following services and others:

  • Marketing and Recruiting (Market research, program promotion, general brand development, etc.)
  • Program Management
  • Registration Services
  • Financial Aid Counseling
  • Pre-Enrollment Counseling
  • Academic Advising (undergraduate students)
  • Client Development
  • Faculty Development Programming
  • Learning Design and Development (course design and development, and content management)
  • Faculty Support (funding of faculty expenses)
  • Technology Services

At GRS 1, the academic unit assumes virtually no financial risk or cost. As the academic unit assumes more responsibilities, the GRS level changes and they receive a larger percentage of the revenue share. It is important to note that positive as well as negative revenue flow is shared.

This approach to revenue sharing has several benefits. First, and perhaps most importantly, it provides a financial incentive for academic units to actively participate in distance education, which as stated earlier in the paper, is an important part of the University’s mission. Because the revenue received from programming delivered through the World Campus is discretionary, they can invest it in any way that they like, which makes it more valuable to the academic unit than revenue from other sources. Second, the GRS options allow for academic units to enter into distance education with minimal risk and capacity. At GRS 1 the academic unit is responsible for delivering few services and has no financial investment, so the barriers to entry are shallow, particularly given the potential rewards that come along with a successful program. Some academic units have invested their revenue in developing capacity to deliver high quality online learning and have moved from lower to higher GRS levels, increasing their capacity, ability to provide high-quality online classes and services, while also increasing revenue. The net effect for the University is the overall development of additional capacity and a better understanding of the needs of nonresidential and adult learners.

In addition to the benefits of revenue sharing, the stipulation that the World Campus is responsible for ensuring that programs are financially viable and sustainable creates political separation between the academic unit that proposes that a new program to be offered and the unit that might have to reject the idea based on financial considerations. Because the academic units tend to be culturally less concerned about financial implications of academic programming and have not invested in the capacity to conduct financial analysis and continuous monitoring of financial performance of programs, the World Campus serves as a entity that can absorb the political damage of making unpopular decisions about not investing in financially risky and unsustainable programs. These are frequently decisions that the Dean’s Office in a particular College would not be comfortable making because it might be culturally distasteful and because of the collegial nature that tends to define the relationship between academic administrators (deans and department chairs) and faculty.

Maintaining discipline about the financial viability and sustainability of distance education programs is one of the World Campus’ more important responsibilities. Because the World Campus maintains a portfolio of programs, it can use the gross revenue share that it receives from established programs to effectively underwrite the investment needed when starting new programs, allowing for the growth of the portfolio and serving as a way of shielding risk from the academic units. This is only feasible if there are enough financially sound programs in the portfolio to ensure that we have sufficient revenue flow to invest in new programs. The total cost of bringing a program from concept to delivery can range between a few hundred thousand US dollars to a few million dollars. In addition, it may take another million dollars to get the program to the point where it is covering its own costs.

Taken together, gross revenue sharing, the division of responsibility between the World Campus and Academic units as specified in AD55, the mandate for financial viability, and the expertise that exists in the World Campus, allows for responsible program growth and new program incubation, which serves the interest of the University as well as individual academic units. These factors will also help ensure that students are well served. Well-researched, developed, and resourced programs are more likely to be of higher quality than those that are not. Financially sound programs are also likely to be able to expand to meet the demand of new learners seeking educational opportunities and are much less likely to be forced into closure for financial reasons. Our experience suggests that closing academic programs is very expensive, creates ill-will with learners and partners, and is perhaps the very worst way that we can serve our learners. Maintaining and growing financially viable programs is one way that the World Campus meets its responsibilities. We also invest heavily in providing an environment that helps support learner success. Some of the learner services that we provide are described in the following section. It is worth noting too that we can invest in creating new services and improving existing services through the revenue generated by active programs.

Serving the Learner

As indicated in the last section, the World Campus provides several services that directly support the University and academic units, while indirectly serving the learners by ensuring high-quality academic programming. Before describing some of our learner-focused services, it is worth briefly noting those services we provide that support the programs.

Understanding the nature of the academic program and the market it serves is an essential precursor to program success. Program ideas come principally from two groups. The academic units or the World Campus may introduce new program ideas. Within the World Campus, the marketing, client development, and program management teams most frequently generate ideas. In any event, the World Campus marketing and program management groups vet all new program ideas. The idea is passed through a market research process to determine viability at different enrolment levels, GRS levels, and under different assumptions.   If the academic unit and the World Campus decide to pursue the program, the World Campus will assist in the development of a proposal for review, will develop budgets, provide enrolment predictions, construct a schedule for rollout, develop a marketing plan, and provide other forms of documentation that inform planning. In addition, the program management team, which includes professionals from all groups that support the program, will help ensure the health of the program throughout the lifecycle of the program by monitoring goals, addressing immediate problems, and engaging in continuous improvement. The World Campus also provides course design, development, and content management services for programs at some GRS levels. These services relieve the academic unit from the cost and administrative overhead of having to maintain a professional learning design and educational technology staff. The World Campus also provides faculty development activities to help support faculty using technology and serving learners studying at a distance.

The World Campus also provides a broad spectrum of services designed to increase the likelihood of learner success. All of our services are developed under the assumption that the learner may never spend any time on a physical campus. Although many World Campus services have counterparts in resident instruction, they have differences in focus and delivery. Adult learners, studying part-time at a distance frequently have different needs than traditionally aged learners studying full-time on campus. For example, most of our interaction will be done remotely with learners who are working adults. This means that our “office hours” will be extended beyond traditional 9-5 weekday service times, that our financial aid councilors are well versed in issues specific to part-time learners, and our advisors are sensitive to the challenges many adult learners face while integrating their study into their lives.

The World Campus starts providing services early in the relationship we develop with learners. After student recruitment, one of the first interactions we have with learners is for pre-enrolment and financial aid counseling during which learners receive guidance to help ensure they are in appropriate academic programs and have taken advantage of appropriate vehicles for financial aid. They continue to receive various services throughout their experience with the World Campus through a call center and help desk, with support staff to address any question that a learner might have about using technology and studying at Penn State. Learners are also provided with a faculty liaison who can help resolve problems that might arise between learners and faculty that have to been resolved within the academic unit. In many ways, the World Campus acts in an advocacy role for learners, helping them negotiate services and university processes.

The learners also are provided support through the World Campus advising and retention team, which helps learners select appropriate numbers of courses in sequences that make sense, while also providing ongoing support. Each undergraduate student is assigned an advisor, who will work with the student throughout his or her experience with the World Campus. The learner’s World Campus advisor is frequently their closest and most reliable connection with the University. The World Campus retention team does quantitative analysts on student retention and develops programs and activities intended to enhance levels of retention. They provide an array of engagement opportunities through events like graduation ceremonies, participation in traditional University activities, and other community-building efforts through physical engagement and social networking technologies such as Facebook, Second Life, Twitter, and other tools. The idea of community development through social networking is to create an environment in which learners feel connected, engaged, and supported throughout their experiences inside and outside of the “classroom,” enhancing the likelihood of program completion. For example, using technologies like Second Life allows current students, alumni, faculty, and other members of the community to participate in graduation, college football games, and other activities remotely. With live video streaming, physical and virtual participants can be connected and can interact with each other.

The World Campus team also works in partnership with many parts of the University to extend services to distance learners. For example, the World Campus was a prime mover and early partner with the University Library to develop robust electronic library services and is developing virtual tutoring services for mathematics and writing support along with the University academic support services.

Although this is far from a comprehensive treatment of the services provided to World Campus learners, it does point to the fact that distance learners require a support structure similar to learners studying in residence. The challenges of delivering quality services at a distance and the subtle attitudinal differences in serving a population of adult learners are perhaps not as clear. That said, we are now receiving enhanced interest from colleagues in the resident University about some of our more innovative uses of social networking and how we serve non-traditional learners as they see the behaviors of their learner population changing.


By many quantitative and qualitative measures, Penn State is a very successful US University. It ranks as a top 50 research university with a number of highly regarded academic programs[3], has beautiful facilities, has a clear service mission that it operationalizes through academic and outreach activities, has excellent athletic programs with a good record of student success, and continues to play an important role in the State’s economic and social wellbeing. Understandably, Penn State tends to behave as a relatively conservative institution that enjoys its success, understands how its success has been achieved and has a strong identity as a traditional Land Grant University.

In the mid-90s, the leadership at Penn State recognized the potential impact of the Internet on distance education and decided that it was an important and strategic element in the University’s mission. It was also recognized that distance and online learning would challenge the University’s self-concept, business processes, and infrastructure. An additional tension was further realized as the World Campus served a growing learner population, which had important characteristics that differed significantly from the typical resident learner. Given this uncomfortable organizational fit, it is surprising that Penn State leadership decided to integrate the World Campus into the University rather than establishing an independent institution. The driving impetus was a desire to offer distance education programming that was of identical quality as other Penn State programs. Functionally this means that academic programs are held to the same standards in the World Campus as elsewhere in the University and that we are able to deliver high-quality services to a distinctly different learner population studying under different circumstances. This organizational dance is being accomplished through well-articulated policy that a) links the World Campus to the academic units in ways that respect and promote traditional notions of academic integrity, b) provides the World Campus the necessary autonomy to serve a population of primarily adult, part-time learners studying at a distance, and c) creates real incentives for partnership between the World Campus and academic units. The impact of the World Campus has been favorable in terms of the University’s mission to make a Penn State education available to a larger population, but perhaps more importantly, it has changed the University’s approach to serving a non-traditional student community, and created a vehicle to build capacity for change. Many of the academic units with which the World Campus partners have used the discretionary funding received through revenue sharing to develop capacity to deliver and grow distance education and to serve a broad national and international student body.

The scenario presented in this paper describes a method that has been successfully used to help transition a traditional resident serving university into one that serves a much broader population and fundamentally changing its ability to deliver on its historic mission. In the case of the World Campus the transition had to do with the methods of delivery and the characteristics of learners who tend to study at a distance but did not really challenge the fundamental principles of the academy. In fact, one might suggest that the context in which the World Campus was introduced and operates within the Penn State has reinforced many traditional notions related to the nature of the academy and the mechanisms used to ensure academic quality. I believe that this is one of the reasons that the World Campus has become accepted within significant portions of the University during the past 10 years. There has of course been a trade-off. Integration with resident-based processes has made the operating environment more complex, has slowed program development, and has placed limitations on the availability of faculty, resulting in slowed growth.

It is my feeling that the nature of the changes in US higher education will be much more profound and threatening to the academy than has been the growth of online learning and distance education. There are several factors that are at the forefront of my thinking as we plan for the World Campus. Some of these factors include the:

  • Growing acceptance of online learning and the potential of increased access to large groups of traditionally underserved populations;
  • Rapid development of social networking technologies allowing for collaborative learning, and self- and group-publishing;
  • Rising costs of education in the US;
  • Growing phenomena of open source software, open educational resources, and open teaching, and;
  • Increasing number of institutions willing to acknowledge and certify prior learning experience.

These factors challenge the traditional notion of what the academy does to ensure academic integrity and access to quality educational services. Taken together, we are witnessing the potential disaggregation of the University, in which a learner can now self-study using open educational resources, engage with a tutor if necessary, take a prior learning examination at a university to get credit for their knowledge, and then aggregate credits at another institution to be awarded a certificate or degree. We are already seeing various models being developed that serve the new independent learner in terms of educational resources, free educational services, open learning platforms, and accredited competency-based post-secondary institutions.

If a significant portion of our adult learner population that is seeking practical education starts thinking about education as a loosely coupled bundle of educational services, that can be integrated into a modern apprenticeship, to connect theory, practice, and reflection directly, what role would the traditional university serve? Coming to grips with this type of question is a real challenge for conventional universities, particularly those like Penn State that is enjoying significant success. It is my feeling that if organizations like Penn State are going to address this new environment, as it did 12 years before with online learning, the change model will have to reflect the much more potentially disruptive and dissonant impact that service disaggregation promises.



National Center for Educational Statistics 2007, Digest of Educational Statistics, US Department of Education, Washington DC.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2005. Education at a Glance, tables A3.1, C2.2. Paris, France: OECD

The Pennsylvania State University 2000, Policy AD55 Role of the Department of Distance Education/World Campus. State College, PA, USA: Penn State.

The Pennsylvania State University 2006, Penn State’s Mission and Public Character,

US Department of Education 2005, A Test of Leadership Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, A Report of the Commission Appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, US Department of Education, Washington DC

Udas, K. (December 2008). Redefining the Research University: Non-traditional Learners, New Markets, and Cultural Change through Iterations toward Openness. Rethinking the university after Bologna: New concepts and practices beyond tradition and the market, UCSIA conference University of Antwerp. Antwerp Belgium.

About the Featured Image

The courtyard of the Hof van Liere, the oldest building of the University of Antwerp, part of the Stadscampus. The image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, and can be found at

Redefining the Research University: Non-traditional Learners, New Markets, and Cultural Change. by Ken Udas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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