Online Leadership at the Vortex of Academic Destiny

This is the first of a two-part essay on the organizational implications of online distance education.
As online education becomes more ubiquitous nationally, it becomes even more strategic locally on each college campus. But these efforts are not dispersed comparably across institutions. Some higher education institutions have been more dynamic and decisive, and others paralyzed to act. The very balance of academic power—as measured by enrollments, institutional reach and public awareness—has begun to shift over just the past decade. About one-quarter of the nation’s students enroll online, and about one-eighth do so exclusively. A small percentage of universities have secured a disproportionately larger share of distance learners—primarily within their own territory, though some have gone nationally and even globally. Some regions have created an enormous array of access options for their residents and others; while other regions (like New England) have not nearly the same proportion of online learners. Some institutions have amassed large numbers of online programs and students, while a far greater number watch from the sidelines.

Those colleges and universities lagging behind are understandably concerned about their future competitiveness as those more nimble encroach on their territory. In this ever-more boundless environment, many colleges and universities are unable to even identify the culprits for their decline. Some are slowly suffering death by a thousand cuts. With ever-shrinking opportunities, many institutions are frantically trying to define their strategic position in a now-less hospitable environment.

Consequently, online education leadership is emerging as the significant internal issue in how best to organize and innovate. Whom to tap for this role, what structure to develop or usurp, which resources to assign, and what markets to target are key questions at this critical juncture. As e-learning comes out of the shadows as a dubious and peripheral activity and into front-and-center prominence in academic strategy, century-old clashes resurface between: proponents of centralization and decentralization; administrative versus academic leadership; liberal arts versus professional education; traditional/full-time versus older/part-time students. The more the external environment changes, the more the internal battles stay the same. But the very solvency of some schools is now at stake.

Over the past year, I have been conducting qualitative research on those institutions with a bias towards action—and interviewing academic leaders at 29 universities where significant progress has occurred in restructuring online initiatives. We are in a time of flux, as organizational models emerge and evolve. Though institutions engage in independent, internal efforts to build their own unique models, they are following remarkably similar paths and arriving at very similar places.

Practical factors dictate direction. Universities are naturally conservative and cautionary, and more prone to evolve gradually through low-risk experiments than high-profile upheaval—and more inclined to extend what they know, within their comfort zone, rather than venture aggressively into unknown territory. They tend toward the familiar and the opportunistic. We are in a pre-professional phase of online leadership—as universities tap tried-and-true individuals and units to help take their institutions to their next stage. Unlike the for-profit world, which invests capital on new enterprises and major restructuring, universities work within a carefully circumscribed view of themselves, and avoid risky, dramatic, controversial change. They dwell on the potential downside: the improbable what-ifs that rarely occur, but still worry lawyers and faculty. They worry too little about the opportunity costs of inaction—and often fail to appreciate that how long they wait could be fateful for the institution in the years ahead. While eventually we are likely to see a clearer professionalization of online leadership and structure, for now, these tectonic structures are more tentative than confident, more familiar than radical, and more evolutionary than revolutionary.

A broad portfolio of roles and responsibilities should be addressed in emerging structures:

  • Advocacy—The ability to nurture new online initiatives on campus, take on the naysayers and win faculty confidence, and provide and promote a template for excellence online and the vision to extend the university’s reputation and reach.
  • Entrepreneurship—The innovative spirit to serve as campus change agent in creating new program opportunities and attract new student populations by building alliances and new educational, outreach and business models.
  • Services—The administrative skill to support and enhance the quality of the faculty and student online experience, ensure reliable services and delivery, encourage new techniques and technologies, and collaboratively set the standards from program creation through to student graduation.
  • Externalities—The presence to represent the university in alliances, third-party agreements, state and federal regulations and accreditation.
  • Professionalism—The integrity to ensure that online education operates with the highest ideals and aspirations, and the willingness to participate nationally in the continuous pursuit of best practices.

Not everyone in charge of online management can play all, or even many, of these roles at their institutions. But these are the idealistic components of a potential job description for an emerging profession expected to possess a wide-ranging skillset to lead the online education enterprise. And this only begins to define leadership, not the infrastructure itself that must permeate all the development and delivery processes across an institution unaccustomed to such intervention in academic prerogative. Defining the person and the organization follows a clear understanding of the division of labor between faculty and a new, potentially threatening administrative entity.

Depending on an institution’s goals and experience in online learning, three different models seem to be emerging at this transitional point, which were somewhat equally distributed within my sample of institutions: Stand-Alone, Shared, and Virtual.

The first reflects schools with the most mature stake in online education—where clearly defined and delineated stand-alone operations have emerged—headed by a senior administrator, who typically has university-wide responsibility for supporting all online efforts. These established entities provide a smorgasbord of services and resources to academic departments. They are high on deference and responsiveness but generally low on the clout to promote participation and set consistent standards of excellence. They judge their success quantitatively by the numbers of online courses, enrollments and programs. They use financial incentives to entice faculty participation, which might lead to the unintended consequence of shifting otherwise on-campus students to other modalities.

As a result, some large institutions have dramatically expanded their catchment areas (and, by doing so, drained enrollments from smaller colleges) and successfully enticed adult learners back for further their education. This model has been the nonprofits’ best hope for competing with rising for-profit behemoths. And, like those proprietary online schools, they represent a potential massification of higher learning –where institutional size trumps institutional diversity. Smaller schools cannot easily compete with the vast menu and reach of these institutions.

The second model is less costly and perhaps most transitory—where an existing person and entity is enlisted to take on an enterprise-wide role in distance learning. More often than not, these are the deans of the institution’s school of professional and continuing education (by whatever name used on that campus), who have earned the trust to extend their unit for the next step in online ventures. These units often have an entrepreneurial, multidisciplinary orientation, and a willingness to experiment and collaborate. Typically these deans are already engaged in distance learning, and see this as an opportunity to extend their reach. Those with whom I spoke, however, doubted how long they could sustain two major roles.

The third model is more virtual and symbolic. In these cases, the university provost appointed a senior member of the faculty to a new position, typically an associate provostship, to serve as advocate—a head without a body—for an otherwise decentralized effort to introduce digital technology across academic programs. This model recognizes the semi-autonomy of individual colleges and builds a federated network to encourage distance learning and negotiate contracts with outside third-party service providers. Unlike the stand-alone model, this intensive approach promotes sporadic experimentation and a few, very large fully online programs, rather than an extensive campus-wide effort.

These organizational decisions have serious consequences. Without an ongoing infusion of international students, an increase in college participation and degree completion, or a compelling case for more academic credentials—all of which are mitigated by the sobering costs of higher education—we are likely to see a slow but steady zero-sum game occur in the nation’s enrollments. Online education has reduced local monopolies, expanded student choice and pitted institutions against one another in a way that places some at risk and others in the position of vastly expanding their size and reach. Academic fate will largely be in the hands of those given the mandate to develop and grow online distance learning.

Next: What strategic factors dictate the organizational features of online education? What are the future implications for the professionalization of online leadership?

Jay A. Halfond is the former dean of Boston University’s Metropolitan College. He is currently the Wiley Deltak Senior Fellow and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Online Leadership and Strategy, as he joins the full-time faculty at BU. Sarah J. McMahon, a doctoral fellow at BU, assisted in the interviews. Halfond and Peter Stokes previously reported on attitudes about online education among New England’s local small college presidents.

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