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Making Distance Learning Work: Fewer Snags for an Academic Department Chair

Assessment Curriculum Planning and Development

Making Distance Learning Work: Fewer Snags for an Academic Department Chair

Most seasoned academics will acknowledge that being a department chair is challenging and often difficult. The individual filling this role is essentially squeezed between two groups with differing worldviews and missions. On one hand, the chair serves as primary advocate for his or her faculty when dealing with higher university administration and external concerns. On the other hand, he or she is the personnel and fiscal supervisor for a group of faculty and staff members. The challenge is to balance these potentially conflicting roles while managing time. Further complicating the chair’s role is the movement to offer more online courses and programs. In this article, we offer suggestions, characterized by the acronym FEWER SNAGS, to understand, control, and mitigate complexities when supporting online learning.


Faculty issues (hiring, teaching load, training, evaluation, scheduling)

Evaluation (course evaluations pre and post, student evaluation and assessment of learning)

Watching the Money (faculty payment, department funding sources, setting special fees)
E-Delivery (technology, back up plans for emergencies, ways to augment on-campus offerings)

Retention (students and faculty)

Student Services (advising, technical assistance, complaints)

New Opportunities (adding courses, being flexible, thinking outside the box)

Adding programs and courses (instructional design, technology resources, quality)

Growing (keeping degree offerings fresh and pertinent)

State Authorization

Faculty issues:Offering online courses and programs raises a set of faculty-related issues that you need to consider, including assigning faculty members to teach, hiring adjuncts, providing instructional design training, conducting evaluations, and determining class schedules. If traditional, full-time faculty members in your department teach online, you must consider workload, course scheduling, and how it might affect research productivity. Also, realize that the transition to online teaching can be difficult and time consuming as instructors struggle to transfer their face-to-face skills to this new environment.


Evaluation:Online courses often require unique evaluation techniques. For instance, testing may require proctoring and may make it more difficult to maintain academic integrity standards. Department chairs may find themselves caught between students questioning the quality of courses and concerned or frustrated faculty members. Rather than become reactive and attempt to mediate disputes, try to be proactive to preempt potential problems and ensure that faculty understand the options for evaluation in online learning. There are resources that offer instruction on ways to build in evaluation throughout a course. Many universities provide instructional designers who can offer student assessment ideas. You need to emphasize that most distance students are anxious and wish to get test results quickly with meaningful feedback. In the long run, poor-quality courses result in more issues for department chairs.


Watching the money:A department chair often is responsible for the staffing of online courses. With this comes a decision on how to compensate faculty members (overload, in-load, or deposits into expense/travel accounts) and how to maintain a fair workload without neglecting on-campus duties not related to online instruction. In some cases, faculty members may be paid according to the number of students enrolled in a course, which might require departments to assess additional fees to pay for technologies, faculty training, and student support services if not enough tuition comes back to cover costs. In other cases, a department benefits financially from a distance program and comes to rely on the extra money only to have courses discontinued or fee structures change. You need to pay close attention to the financial side of online learning and plan ahead on an annual basis.


E-delivery: Be aware of the technology resources required for online instructors and students. If your department uses adjunct instructors, be aware that you may need additional resources for course creation and delivery. Students with slow Internet connections or dated computers will struggle. Digital resources generated in online courses might be lost when faculty members leave. Devise backup plans to minimize these issues.


Retention:Pay attention to student retention as competition among institutions increases. Although the department chair is not solely responsible for student retention, there are several things you can do. First, ensure that instructor communication with students is strong enough to keep students engaged with their programs. Review courses to determine student activity and monitor the quality of all courses in a degree program to ensure that you are aware of potential problems. Low retention rates may indicate problems with marketing and course representation or course frequency.


Student services:Many universities offer centralized services electronically (e.g., libraries, IT support, job placement, etc.) for online students. These services may include virtual graduation, chances to participate in special events, and frequent communication. To ensure that students are being served, department heads must evaluate these offerings. For instance, a high-quality course orientation and introduction will set the course tone, provide a reasonable level of comfort, help students understand course demands, and introduce the instructor. Many studies indicate that frequent and meaningful communication by instructors can lead to positive course outcomes. Department chairs should also encourage faculty members to promptly return homework and test results, and train departmental staff to accurately answer questions from distance students. Departments must take ownership of their distance students and provide the same level of service as their traditional student population.


New opportunities:It may be difficult for a department chair to initially persuade faculty members to teach online. Some faculty members have heard horror stories about the difficulties of teaching online, and others are reticent to master new technologies. Using campus resources is one key to help faculty members move into online teaching. Using an instructional designer, offering graduate students to assist with the course development, and providing release time are among the incentives a department chair can offer. Also, finding a mentor or showing faculty members examples of successful courses can help. A department chair can also describe how important and fulfilling it is to embrace opportunities to learn new skills.

Adding programs:Department chairs should remain aware of emerging job markets and education needs. In some cases, distance programs may be the only way to serve the demands of the workforce, particularly in niche or specialty areas. You can mitigate lack of physical space and other resources by adding new programs and courses. You should engage in frequent conversations with faculty to remain current on employment trends. It’s also helpful to consult with campus marketing professionals in continuing education or employment centers. In addition, departmental or college advisory boards can offer suggestions related to workforce needs and emerging careers. You need to be proactive in reviewing current distance degrees and certificate programs, and updating current offerings as well as developing pertinent programs.

Growing:Recent figures indicate that approximately 37 million Americans and large numbers of international workers have completed significant course work but still lack degrees. Approximately 70 percent of today’s students are nontraditional, so online programs will likely continue to grow. Although explosive online course growth may be slowing, you must make calculated decisions when it comes to offering new programs. Before moving into new program development, weigh societal needs, expense of offerings, faculty resources, and other pertinent issues. Factor institutional goals into any decision regarding growth. Also, continually scan the environment and be ready to move if a program seems viable because competition will not wait!

State authorization:This is a relatively new complexity in online education. State authorization means that each student’s home state has authorization over distance courses and programs offered by institutions outside the student’s home state and each state has its own way of handling this authorization. While most state authorization concerns are managed at the college or university level, the department head might be required to supply information about a particular course or program with internship requirements or location of faculty members if residential requirements exist. Stay in the loop with the university administrators who deal with state authorization, and become very aware of requirements for every degree program or certificate offered through the department.

Although managing online learning issues may not be a department chair’s highest priority, a proactive and well-considered approach can reduce pressure and ensure distance students and faculty are well served. By considering a few key elements, a department chair can ensure his or her efforts are more effective and characterized by FEWER SNAGS.

Roger McHaney, a professor of management information systems, is the Daniel D. Burke Chair for Exceptional Faculty Professor and University Distinguished Teaching Scholar Management Information Systems at Kansas State University. Lynda Spire is the assistant dean of K-State Global Campus.


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