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The Same Old Story with a New Cover: Growing Controversy over Online Learning Leadership

The Same Old Story with a New Cover: Growing Controversy over Online Learning Leadership
As online learning grows, regional monopolies on postsecondary enrollments will become a distant memory and institutions that cannot compete will slowly fade away.
As online education becomes more ubiquitous nationally, it is becoming more strategic locally. As this occurs, online leadership and direction is emerging as the hot issue in how academic institutions mobilize to offer online programs. Determining the locus of responsibility, identifying the leadership and operational structure, securing resources and articulating both focus and approach are now enterprise-wide concerns.

Not too long ago, e-learning was peripheral at most institutions. Only the brave would even venture into this controversial arena, and those few maintained a low profile to protect their freedom to innovate. But in just a few years, digital learning has emerged front-and-center as the critical component of the future of higher education, and schools are scurrying to figure out their strategy for entering this sphere. This visibility and prominence has led to clashes over who will lead these now-important efforts, what direction should be taken and how this will impact the traditional mainstream order.

Despite its newness, this controversy resurrects century-old unresolved conflicts within the academy. The online factor is simply the current nuance for otherwise perpetual dilemmas. Should online education be run professionally or professorially? Should it run through a centralized structure or remain respectful of a more decentralized model? What should be the incentives and priorities for faculty? How should scarce resources be distributed? What is the proper division of labor for new online initiatives?

Leadership Models

While many schools are still stymied in their efforts to launch these efforts, three different leadership models are emerging among those making progress. Each has been largely homegrown, tapping internal staff and units already in place.

In the more mature online enterprise, stand-alone leadership, with its own resources, has prevailed. The strength of this model is its potentially robust infrastructure as the back office for online efforts throughout the university.

A second model, perhaps transitional, is shared leadership; taking an existing person and operation and sharing them campus-wide. The strength of this dual model is its efficiency and — especially when drawn from the continuing education domain —pre-existing commitment to multiple disciplines and serving new markets.

The third emerging model is virtual leadership; appointing a senior academic head without a body of resources to support the operations. The advantage of this approach is that a prominent faculty leader can advocate among deans and faculty, as their peer, while maintaining decentralized authority.

External Factors

There are several factors that dictate the approach taken:

1. The Strategic Motivation of the Institution

What does the school hope to accomplish: idealistically, to reach new audiences; altruistically, to better serve its current market; or pragmatically, to generate much-needed enrollment and revenue? Or is it to launch a few fully online programs or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or diffuse educational technology broadly across the curriculum? Perhaps it’s to integrate educational technology into the education of its traditional student body, or to focus on distance learning degrees for adult learners.

2. The Institutional Context

What are the school’s size, prestige and fungible resources? What is the climate for academic inventiveness and the presence of potential champions among faculty and administrative leadership? Can you identify the balance between centralized authority and faculty governance? What is the strength and fragility of the institutional brand? Does the institution have a commitment to post-traditional students, and what is the stature of its continuing education operation? Are there market opportunities to expand the institution’s reach or pressures of increasing competition and budget cuts?

Likely Outcomes

It is tempting to speculate where this internal musical chairs shuffle will settle in the years ahead. I suspect we are likely to see an eventual professionalization of online leadership. This will involve clearer qualifications and credentials required to lead and staff these efforts; established career paths, job mobility and professional development opportunities; and professional associations that network this leadership on a national scale. We might also reach a delicate consensus on what can and cannot be centralized, and what remains the prerogative of faculty at the local level and what can be bundled as shared strategy and services across universities. We might even reach an understanding of what can and cannot be outsourced to for-profits; perhaps even what might be combined through academic partnerships across institutions.

The push to professionalize will impact academic products and services as well as organizational structure. We are in the midst of rising consumer expectations for what constitutes quality distance learning. The costs of entry for colleges and universities are going up as rapidly as the proliferation of online education. Homespun web-based courses will no longer be acceptable in the public’s perception of quality online programs. This, in turn, will raise the specter that not all, or even many, institutions will be able to produce credible online instruction to compete in a more boundless marketplace of options.

Most higher education is local and likely to remain so. But the age of regional monopolies is rapidly closing. We are all in each other’s territory now. Schools that cannot compete will face death by a thousand cuts. The internal political battles for how best to mobilize for online learning could very likely foretell the future of these institutions.

This article is a snapshot of ongoing qualitative research in how universities are organizing to offer online education, which Halfond is conducting with Sarah J. McMahon, a doctoral fellow at Boston University.

It is the first of a two-part series by Jay Halfond and Nancy Coleman, his co-presenter at the UPCEA-ACE Summit for Online Leadership and Strategy, exploring how universities are responding to the implications and opportunities of distance learning. To read Coleman’s article please click here.

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