Well before COVID-19 and the recent rapid shift to emergency remote teaching, online education had been gaining in popularity in higher education. The number of students enrolling in online courses and degree programs continues to increase, as does faculty interest in teaching online. Many central administrators see the value that online education brings to their campuses as online offerings are able to provide flexibility to their current students and also reach new student populations.
I’ve had the pleasure of directing online education at my institution for the past 13 years. Over that time I’ve given many presentations and workshops and often asked participants to describe the administration of online education on their campuses. Participants have frequently used words such as messy, disorganized, and even chaotic in their responses. Often those participants’ institutions don’t have one individual directly responsible for overseeing online efforts.
To help provide direction and leadership in the area of online education, more institutions are hiring dedicated online administrators. Common duties and responsibilities of online administrators include recruiting and evaluating online instructors, providing professional development opportunities for instructors wishing to teach online, assisting in preparing for accreditation reviews, overseeing the quality of online programming, marketing and promoting online courses and programs, getting state authorization, and helping faculty effectively use technology in the online classroom.
Dedicated online administrators often find themselves as being true go-betweens for faculty and other administrators. For example, while some chairs, deans, provosts, and chancellors may desire to quickly ramp up the number of online courses and degree programs their institutions offer, they might not fully understand the infrastructure that needs to be in place to ensure the quality and success of online initiatives—or that faculty buy-in and support are often vital in growing high-quality online offerings. That is where a dedicated online administrator can help.
One benefit of having a dedicated online administrator is that an institution has one main point of contact for students, staff, faculty, administrators, and even parents of students when they have questions about online education. That way the information being shared across campus is usually accurate and consistent.
Another benefit of having a sole person overseeing online education is that there is someone to spearhead and shepherd large online initiatives or projects. These could include creating a policies and procedures manual specific to online education, establishing an online education advisory board, creating an online education strategic plan, instituting online course and program quality review processes, ensuring that student support services are available to online learners, and preparing large numbers of faculty for emergency remote teaching.
Having worked in higher education for the past 25 years or so at a variety of institutions, I’ve seen numerous examples of faculty resistance to creating “yet another administrative position” on campus. Such sentiment surfaced on my campus 13 years ago, when our provost announced that she would be initiating a search and screen process to hire a director of online education. (I was fortunate to have been chosen for that position.)
Two strategies that can help overcome campus resistance to creating a dedicated online education administrative position are hiring from within the faculty ranks and sharing the benefits of having one individual in charge of overseeing online education.
As was the case at my institution, some colleges and universities decide to fill online administrator positions with current faculty. This strategy often results in the hiring of a seasoned tenured faculty member with considerable online teaching experience as well as an individual who is aware of the current campus climate regarding online education. These experienced faculty members also often have strong relationships with faculty, staff, and administrators across the institution’s various departments, schools, and colleges and are aware of the faculty governance process on campus.
When exploring leadership options related to online education, institutions sometimes have an existing administrator assume those additional duties. This person could be a dean, a director of graduate studies, an assistant provost, an associate vice chancellor. This option can be problematic for two reasons. First, these administrators are usually busy individuals and may not have the capacity to handle additional responsibilities. Second, they might not have adequate experience or expertise in online education.
In 2017, Eric Frederickson published the first national study of online learning administrators in the journal Online Learning. Here are a few highlights:
In conclusion, as colleges and universities continue to expand online offerings it is highly likely that they will also continue to hire dedicated online administrators to help ensure the overall quality and success of online learning programs.
Fredericksen, E. E. (2017). A national study of online learning leaders in US higher education. Online Learning, 21(2). https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v21i2.1164
Brian Udermann, PhD, is a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.