Distance Education: Centralization vs Decentralization

We tend to get our undies in a bundle over learner-learner; learner-content; learner-teacher interactions, but this issue of the learner-institution transaction / interaction deserves a lot more attention. Last night at ODU, we had our new student orientation with doctoral students coming into the program this semester (held on Adobe Connect with participants all over North America and recorded for those who could not attend) and we spent over an hour just going over issues of learner-institution interaction .. what log on do I need to register for classes? who do I contact about financial aid? how do I submit my plan of work to the university? where do I get the software do I need to connect into class? how do I access recordings of sessions of classes I miss? While this is far from the "sexy" side of instruction (if there is one?), it is where the rubber meets the road in formal education. Students tend to love or leave a program based on how fantastic / horrid these learner-institution transactions are handled. As a doctoral student learning at a distance, I want these learner-institution transactions to be managed (but, not necessarily completed) primarily at a department level, so I have as much one-on-one access to people with the right answers FOR ME as possible.

Our orientation was run at the department level ... set up and run by student and faculty from our program. While tailored to doctoral students in our department, many of the learner-institution issues were likely quite generic and applicable to any new student coming to ODU ... and would likely have been more "efficiently" managed in a much larger web-conference with students from many ODU departments. Yet, I don't want my doctoral-level learner-institution interaction to be handled in the same decentralized manner AT&T "manages" its customer transactions ("before proceeding, check our online FAQ for answers to your questions, then press #1 to be ignored, press #2 to be completely frustrated, press #3 to get the wrong answer and waste time and money proceeding down the wrong path ...") However, a high level of individualized department-level interaction likely cannot scale to undergraduate programs with hundreds versus dozens of students. I haven't spent much time considering this centralized vs decentralized question, but it may be an interesting one to consider down the road ... maybe on an upcoming edition of Instructional Design Live?