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Lessons Learned from 13 Years as a Director of Online Education

Leadership and Management

Lessons Learned from 13 Years as a Director of Online Education

Back in 2004 I made the decision to develop my first online course. I was using online discussions in one of my face-to-face classes and having success with them—really, my primary motivation to teach fully online. So in 2005 I took the leap and offered my first online class. No training, no instructional design support, no media specialists to help me create fancy videos, not much of a clue as to what I was doing. 

It wasn’t a complete train wreck. I enjoyed teaching in the online environment, and the feedback I received from my students was positive. Additionally, other instructors at my institution, the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, were expressing interest in online instruction, and we started to offer more online courses. Our provost at the time decided to hire a director of online education (DOE). I applied for the position and was hired. That was in 2007; I served as the DOE until June 2020. Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the past 13 years.

Lesson 1: Get others involved

When I was hired as the DOE, it was a brand-new position at my institution. The job description advertised during the search and screen process was more of a best guess as to what the hire would be doing than an exact outline of their duties. I soon learned that we had a lot to do, and while I enjoy working hard and finding satisfaction in accomplishing the goals I set for myself, I realized that many people across campus contributed—or would contribute—to the success of our online students. 

Almost immediately, I decided to create an online advisory board. I felt it was important that others across campus had input into decisions being made about online initiatives. The board consisted of representatives from our faculty, student body, administration, teaching center, division of continuing education and instructional design staff. That was one of the better decisions I ever made as it ensured others across campus had a say in online education priorities and initiatives and it also helped spread my future workload a bit. 

Lesson 2: Choose courtesy, not conflict

My early years as DOE were challenging. Resistance to offering online courses and degree programs was high. Some of you know what that is like. This resistance came from not only faculty but also university staff and administrators, and I was sometimes surprised by the intensity with which my colleagues expressed their resistance. Here are the concluding sentences of a three-page, single-spaced typewritten letter I received from a faculty member in 2010:

I earnestly hope that UWL prohibits online course instruction. Let us stick to our mission of excellence in the classroom and not fall prey to compromising trends. If I may be blunt, put an end to the academic cancer which increasingly adulterates our campus. 

On numerous occasions like this, I was faced with a decision: get defensive and react harshly (go to battle) or respond in a polite and respectful manner. I always chose the latter. I’m happy to say that some of those faculty who vehemently opposed online education later became some of our most skilled and valued online instructors, although sometimes that took years to happen.

Lesson 3: Be open and transparent 

Please don’t stop reading! I’m in no way trying to be trite or cliche here, but I truly believe that this lesson was one of my biggest takeaways from the past 13 years. Early on I communicated a lot with our campus community, maybe too much. I’ve worked in higher education for the past 25 years and have met plenty of faculty who believe that administrators are constantly scheming behind closed doors to implement secretive campus initiatives. I didn’t want that to be the case with my new position and online education. 

I communicated about new policies and procedures that the advisory board and I were developing, about plans to better support online learners on our campus, about the online education initiatives we were discussing, and much more. And I tried hard to never say anything in a closed-door meeting that I wouldn’t want to become general knowledge across campus, whether about an initiative we were considering or a colleague. I believe that my attempts at being open and transparent led to faculty, staff, and administrators trusting that what we were doing was always in our students’ and institution’s best interests. This lesson has value no matter what administrative position you might hold. 

Lesson 4: Consistent policies and procedures are important

In 2014 I published an article in Distance Education Report titled “Policy and Procedures Manuals Aren’t Sexy—But They Are Important,” a belief I still hold today. I realized the importance of creating a policy and procedures manual specific to online education shortly after becoming the DOE. I was receiving many questions related to online education, questions that I didn’t have answers for. Can I get paid more for teaching online? Can I start and end my online course when I want to? Can I teach my online course on my personal blog and not our learning management system? How do you drop an online course (we didn’t have a process in place)? Each question we couldn’t answer led us to create a policy; the policy and procedure manual ensured that policies were consistent and that everyone got the same answers.

Years ago I was reading an article about online education and came across something that has always stuck with me. The authors stated something to the effect of, “The only thing consistent about online education on our campus is inconsistency.” Establishing policies and procedures, departmental bylaws, or guidelines in general improves consistency and standardization. Policies often help clarify expectations, decrease confusion, and promote fairness. If as a leader in higher education you are receiving questions you don’t know the answer to, ask yourself whether it would be beneficial to develop policies or procedures related to them. 

Whatever your administrative or leadership role is, I believe you can benefit from the lessons above. Those lessons include not doing everything on my own even though sometimes I may have wanted to, resisting the urge to get defensive and be confrontational, to communicate openly and honestly with my colleagues, and to develop standards and policies to decrease confusion and promote consistency. 

Brian Udermann, PhD, is a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.

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