March/April 2001 // Commentary
Marketing e-Learning to the Legislature
by Ed Klonoski
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Ed Klonoski "e-Lobbying:
Marketing e-Learning to the Legislature" The Technology Source, March/April 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

As institutions of higher education begin to use the Internet in their program delivery strategy, they are confronted with the need for capital, planning, and resource integration. New organizations are forming throughout higher education, with names such as Kentucky Virtual University, the Southern Regional Electronic Campus, and Michigan Virtual University. We at the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium (CTDLC), an organization that champions the development of online education in Connecticut, have successfully lobbied the Connecticut general assembly to help higher education in our state meet the challenge of going online.

Our philosophy is simple: We believe that success in delivering online education requires collaboration within the higher education community—consortial information technology. Specifically, our collaborative efforts center around sharing information technology resources, and involve planning, lobbying, resource distribution, and outsourcing. In 1996, 25 institutions in our state established the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium and began building delivery capacity for distance learning. In 1997, with $30,000 from the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation, $30,000 from our community college system, and personnel from Charter Oak State College, we began authoring courses. In the five years since our formation, the CTDLC has grown into a $2.5-million organization serving 36 members in Connecticut and offering 13 online degree programs (see Figure 1).

Participation from many institutions within Connecticut's higher education community—both public and private—gave us four strategic advantages:

  • Collaborative requests for funding. Collective requests, from all segments of higher education, for distance-learning funding were difficult for the legislature to ignore.
  • Plausible deniability. Developmental mistakes are made by the consortium, not the partners, so any blame remains with the consortium.
  • Freedom to experiment. The consortium could employ trial and error as it figured out how to deliver learning at a distance. Because of the single focus and smaller size of the consortium, these experiments, and the decisions that surround them, can be made with great efficiency.
  • Inter-institutional planning. Consortial collaboration facilitated and required extensive planning and interaction across institutional silos.

We emphasized these advantages when we first approached the legislature for support, and in spring 1998, after fully enrolling our first four courses, we asked the general assembly for $200,000. Half of the money was for administration and half was to fund 40 course awards, to encourage faculty members to translate courses into a format suitable for online delivery. Our argument was simple: we had already begun, we were acting collaboratively, and we promised that this approach would reduce redundancy. We asked for a relatively small amount of money up front, in order to grow our capacity. The legislature gave us the amount we requested. In the years since that first request, it has increased our budget substantially. We have had a challenge keeping legislators, their aides, and branches of state government informed about our enterprise, but they have rewarded our success and diligence with robust budget growth (See Figure 2).

We believe that consortial IT can work in other states, if it includes the following:

  • A working argument that emphasizes shared resources.
  • A champion.
  • A functioning collaborative.
  • A "first-round" budget.

Sharing Resources

As suggested above, a successful approach to consortial IT emphasizes that distance-learning money will be used to supply new technology to a large number of schools, instead of just a few. Legislatures are not interested in creating or sustaining inequalities among institutions regarding the technology available to them. Legislatures acknowledge that new technologies are part of the cost of education, but do not want to create duplicate infrastructures. We showed the Connecticut legislature that we were already sharing resources, specifically software, servers, technical support, student services, and faculty-development expertise. Our course award program let us send state money to public and private institutions. Our Web site advertised the online course and program offerings of all of our member institutions. These shared resources convinced the general assembly that we were serious about proceeding collaboratively and reducing the redundancy commonly associated with technology in higher education.

Corollaries to this argument include sharing the cost and the expertise necessary to build and operate a technology infrastructure, reducing duplicate staffing—every college need not staff a 24/7 help desk, for example—and, perhaps most powerfully, showcasing higher education's capacity for collaboration. In Connecticut, institutions of higher education were not known for working effectively with each other. The request for resources to build a collaborative program spanning technology, faculty training, curriculum development, and policy intrigued our legislature. As we began to succeed, these areas became bragging points in our conversations with legislative leaders.

Finally, most legislatures are sensitive to the need to build the state's workforce. In a knowledge economy, worker re-training is critical. Our ability to deploy distance learning as part of our state's approach to creating a "smart workforce" resonated with legislators. We also stressed that adult learners, particularly working women, were the largest audience for distance learning, strengthening our workforce-development angle and reassurring those who worried that distance education would ill serve the traditional 18-25-year-old residential college student.

Having a Champion

An effective approach also requires that the collaborative be represented by one voice: your champion. This person must have the trust of the community, lobbying expertise, and a relentless nature. Our champion is Merle Harris, president of Charter Oak State College, whose reputation as an honest broker has inspired trust. I couldn't resist titling this article "E-Lobbying," but lobbying is still primarily a face-to-face exercise, and Dr. Harris has effectively reached out to legislative leaders, key departments, and influential policy groups in our state. Note, though, that it was not a top-down lobbying effort. We worked to build grassroots awareness and an understanding of how distance learning will improve educational opportunities in all communities in Connecticut.

Working as a Functioning Collaborative

Lobbying becomes easier if the consortium has begun work before lobbying begins. We started our collaboration using grant funding, seed money, and in-kind services. When we approached the legislature, the CTDLC already had a functioning collaborative, including an organizational structure and some concrete accomplishments. We temporarily enrolled legislators in courses, showed them our Web site, and provided demographic statistics of online students. This willingness to invest time and resources before asking for funding helped our consortium convince the legislature that we were serious, and it gave us demonstrable success. To demonstrate a functioning collaborative, we recommend having a functional Web site, program articulation policies, joint grant applications, joint assessment instruments, and shared hardware, software, and technical support.

Offering a First-Round Budget

This was our most controversial decision. Some members hoped we would ask for a large amount of funding, but we decided to imitate other technology start-ups and ask for just enough to build our concept. Starting small and growing the enterprise allowed us to learn from inevitable failures. We used half of the money granted to administrate the organization, and we used the other half as grant money to encourage online course development by faculty members at member institutions.

Reallocating resources to our members was our wisest decision. This has made the CTDLC a valued partner for every organization it works with, including those with funding of their own.


Consortial IT—a collaborative approach to distance education—will not only resonate with legislatures, but may actually provide some solutions to higher education's long-term problems with capital, planning, and resource integration. Clayton Christensen (1997) describes how some companies have successfully dealt with "disruptive innovations," a term that effectively describes what distance learning often represents for higher education. These companies create a small, separate company—a "skunk works"—that is charged with exploring the innovation, discovering any market for it, and then reporting the findings to its parent company. Consortial IT can provide higher education with the same opportunity to investigate distance learning and determine the best way to integrate it into education. Specifically, consortial IT can offer venture capital, customized IT solutions, risk management, focused expertise and resources, and collaborative planning.

These benefits can be presented to a legislature to secure funding. If you want to begin a venture into consortial IT, start by finding a champion, creating a "skunk works," sharing everything that is created, and not asking for too much.

Note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the 2000 eLearning Strategy Summit in Kissimmee, FL.


Klonoski, E. (2001). Consortial IT services: Collaborating to reduce the pain. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Christensen, C. (1997). The innovator's dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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