This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
Despite the gazillion-or-so articles written over the years about effective leadership practices, I feel a tug to write another, specifically on strategies for being an effective distance-learning/online-education administrator at your institution.
I understand that if you were to ask 20 administrators to write this article, there would be a tremendous variety in the “strategies” they would propose and discuss. The strategies I’ve identified stem from my experience of the past eight years, during which I’ve served as the primary online administrator at my institution.
Strategy 1: Don’t feel as though you need to win all the battles
I vividly remember the day I was offered, and accepted, the Director of Online Education position at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL). Even though UWL was an institution very much focused on serving the traditional 18–22-year-old student and offered little online programming, I was confident that within a few short years, I would be leading a fully online branch of the university, with enrollments far surpassing on-campus enrollments—tripling, quadrupling, or more likely quintupling our current numbers. Hah!
I quickly realized that not all faculty members, administrators and students were as excited as I was about expanding UWL’s online courses and degree programs. I witnessed a fair amount of hesitation and resistance, especially from individuals who had zero experience with online education, which was a sizable number. I frequently found myself getting defensive and becoming argumentative when someone, or a group of someones (e.g., faculty governance committees), opposed an initiative or policy I was proposing related to online education. Early on, I felt I needed to win all those battles.
I also quickly realized that being defensive and argumentative isn’t an effective strategy to build trust and relationships with others at my institution. There are some battles I’m still pretty adamant about pursuing—usually anything related to improving the quality of online education at our campus. However, I’ve come to realize that I won’t always get everything I want—and probably shouldn’t. I’m frequently reminded of something my parents, who attended school through the eighth grade and then had to end their formal education to work on their parents’ farm, taught me from a very young age: Work hard, and always treat people with respect—amazing advice from two of the most “educated” people I know.
Strategy 2: Be relentless in your pursuit to improve the quality of online programming on your campus
Much has been written about ways to improve the quality of online courses and degree programs. I’d like to discuss three things my institution has focused on over the past eight years that I believe have had a tremendously positive impact on the quality of our online offerings.
First, I believe it is vital that faculty have the opportunity to engage in faculty- development opportunities to prepare them to teach online. Being fearful of the online teaching modality, combined with feeling unprepared to teach online, are frequently cited as major barriers to faculty developing and offering their first online course. I’m a huge proponent of institutions offering their own in-house online instructor training (nearly 200 faculty have completed our three-week online instructor training course over the past five years). If this is not feasible at your institution, there are a number of national associations that can assist with these efforts.
Second, employing some type of online course review process is an excellent way to provide faculty feedback on the online courses they develop. Institutions could use an established fee-based review such as Quality Matters, or again, they could develop their own quality course review rubric, a practice that is becoming more common. My institution developed our own set of quality standards for online course development and delivery, and we conduct about 45 online course reviews a year. The vast majority of faculty greatly appreciate the feedback and recommendations that result from these reviews.
Finally, quality reviews at the program and/or institution level are becoming more common. Two examples of these types of reviews include the Online Learning Consortium’s Quality Scorecard: Criteria for Excellence in the Administration of Online Programs, and the United States Distance Learning Association’s Quality Standards Certification. Each of these options requires completion of an extensive self-study, with external reviewers examining an institution’s practices and providing feedback and recommendations. This kind of review will be the topic of a future column.
Strategy 3: Be authentic. Be real. Be you.
Of the dozens of “strategies” I considered to include in this article, this last one might rise to the very top. As I reflect on the last 20 years I have spent in higher education and think about all of the leaders/administrators—directors, department chairs, deans, provosts, chancellors—for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration, all have had one thing in common: They were authentic. In simple terms, authentic means genuine, real, not fake.
Sometimes leaders feel that they need to be all things to all people. That’s simply impossible and is not an effective leadership strategy. I think most of us can decipher relatively quickly when we are interacting with someone who is not genuine. The “authentic” leaders I mentioned were always the same, whether they were interacting with students, faculty, other administrators, community members, legislators, etc. They were present no matter who they were talking to, versus seeming to always be in a rush to get to the next meeting or appointment.
In my opinion, we become more authentic when we become comfortable with who we are—comfortable with both our strengths and our weaknesses. Not all leaders are visionaries, have Type A personalities, or are creative and inspirational. Being comfortable with who we are, and admitting we don’t always have all the answers, can help free us from feeling that we need to be perfect. Freeing ourselves from the drive to perfection can also help us capitalize on the strengths of others working around us.
As you gear up for what I hope is an amazing new year for you and your institution, I hope this article gives you encouragement and inspiration in your quest to be the best leader you can be!