Published on 2018/08/13
The EvoLLLution | From None to Known: How We Launched Our Online Education Office
Launching a new division, and evolving that division into an institutional hallmark in a short period of time, requires patience, leadership and a commitment to the mission above all else.

During early 2013, I faced a daunting challenge: weaving online education into the fabric of a decentralized institution that prided itself on its commitment to and focus on in-person education. It was a challenge in every respect. It was a new job level with new contacts and colleagues. We had no formal processes, definitions or infrastructure to lean on, and ambitious expectations that seemed to be continually ratcheted up.

Fast forward to January 2018. Ohio State’s online undergraduate programs were ranked #1 by US News and World Report, with its online Nursing – Master of Science program ranked #2. We’ve grown to 25 programs with more in the approval process pipeline. During the same timeframe, the Office of Distance Education and eLearning (ODEE), which I co-lead, grew from around 40 staff in December 2012 (focused mainly on classroom and learning technology support), to more than 100 today with the expansion of online education, open education, active learning with mobile technology, and other enterprise-level strategic priorities for the university. Importantly, this growth was accomplished with positive feedback on our annual Voice of the Employee survey, indicating a healthy, happy culture. In five years, our work went from operational or small-scale support to being a strategic partner for the university community to meet the challenging higher education landscape.

Talk about rapid change at every level and in every respect. I receive questions about how this was accomplished. As I reflect on the journey of growing online education, I’ll share context and advice. It’s important to note as I describe the steps we took that I believe our culture and how we went about our work is just as, if not more, impactful. For today, though, I will share key steps we took.

Additional Context

University leadership was working to determine how to approach a changing dynamic in higher education, with fewer high school graduates and a growing number of adults with some college credit or credential. It was necessary to consider how to expand the borders of a traditionally residential higher education experience to accommodate those changes.

To ensure faculty remain at the core of academic work while adopting best practices in a new medium, Ohio State has woven online education into the fabric of the institution: faculty drive the curriculum and existing student support units provide equivalent services to online students as to our traditional students. Our office was positioned to take on new responsibilities where it did not make sense to invest in each unit (think central website, marketing, state authorization, instructional design) and to coach the university community about best practices of online instruction and student support.

Our work is mission-driven. ODEE’s instructional support and research initiatives fit directly into the university’s strategic plan by enhancing the accessibility and affordability of an Ohio State education while generating new revenue for the institution. Our team is on the front lines to meet the university’s core institutional goal of becoming as highly regarded for world-class teaching and learning as it is for research.

What We Did

I approach work in a transparent, honest and accountable way, which does wonders to build rapport and buy-in. Our launch has offered tangible lessons learned, which I share with you as reminders and words of encouragement.

Start With The Why And Focus On The Student

It’s funny what happens when you’re focused on the mission and values. Whether you’re trying to navigate creating a policy about tracking student location and state authorization reporting requirements, enacting online definitions and labels in the SIS, or developing an online course syllabus, sharing the need for a better student experience helps all stakeholders rally behind a common, noble cause.

For example, our laser-like focus on the student experience paved the way for our policy and process to embed state authorization considerations into our university’s work. The typical initial reaction to State Authorization was frustration with perceived additional bureaucracy, but when we explained student protections, the ramifications for our own standards, and how transparency is important to our success, some of our early resistors became our biggest champions.

Emphasize Stakeholder Feedback

Continually seek feedback from your stakeholders and constituents, and don’t forget to report back on the changes that were inspired by it. Partnerships and relationships are critical for success. Listening to and responding to feedback is a logical thing to do, yes, but it also expedites the trust building process. Everyone wants to be heard. So listen. And close the communication loop to share how feedback was incorporated, or the rationale for why it wasn’t.

This was just so meaningful. For example, as we started, there were hesitations about letting a non-academic group into the academic program approval process. Ultimately, we became a trusted partner and advocate for our academic partners in the approval process by demonstrating quick reactions to feedback as we negotiated our role.

Be Inclusive

Ask to be involved in groups by explaining why your involvement will support the university mission. The most impactful network I gained access to was the monthly meeting with the academic deans of each college and campus. This has been invaluable to becoming a partner in strategic enrollment planning and addressing concerns and issues about online education across the university.

Protect Change Agents

Find champions. Highlight their stories and use them as peer influencers to achieve the university’s goals. We know early adopters tend to experience the strongest winds of resistance. We leveraged our plans to put storytelling and communication behind early adopters to share their success stories in order to normalize their work and elevate the individual and academic unit as a center of excellence.

Clarify Your Goals To Help Others Help You

People want to help, grow, and learn—especially in education. Be transparent about your goals by sharing them, the why behind them, and from whom those goals came. I found time and time again that providing that simple context turns stakeholders into advocates. Once groups can identify how goals align, opportunities for mutually beneficial partnerships appear.

Be Patient

There are always competing priorities with the complexity of this work, so move toward an end state knowing that you have a plan in place. I had a sense of what my ideal organization would look like at maturity; however, I didn’t have the resources, nor was the university ready, for every service I envisioned offering. By leveraging my networks, I could readily see the most immediate gaps, as well as those that were bubbling to the surface. This helped me appropriately prioritize hires and services and gave me the confidence needed to navigate uncharted waters. I knew I was addressing an immediate need as it happened, and I knew how that solution fit into a larger plan.

In Conclusion

As I continue to network with colleagues in similar roles across the country, I know how wide-ranging our responsibilities are. It can be daunting at times because success seems to include needing to know every area of the university’s business, often with cultures and silos that do not welcome outsiders. I experienced that five years ago. I’ve learned, however, that with perseverance, dedication, transparency and honesty, you can win over the biggest critics. Your staunchest naysayers can ultimately become the champions who bring your goals within reach.

I hope this helps inspire you as you’re working through opportunities at your institution. Let me know how it works out. I’d love to learn from you.

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