Don’t Go It Alone

Written by Brian Udermann, PhD

Article originally appeared in the March 1, 2014 issue of Distance Education Report (Vol 28, Number 5).

Hello everyone.

My name is Brian Udermann, I’ve been the Director of Online Education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse since 2007. I’ll have the privilege of writing monthly articles for this new column titled “The Administrators Advocate.”

Over the past 7 years I’ve made more mistakes than I’d like to admit and have learned lots of lessons on how to be an effective administrator. Now I’d like to share some of the benefit I’ve derived from those mistakes. So, a lot of the articles you’ll see in this column will be reflections on mistakes I have made, with practical tips and strategies on how you can avoid those mistakes at your own schools.

Topics may include how to achieve faculty buy-in for online initiatives, or the importance of having a strong online education advisory board on campus, or gathering and disseminating data related to online programming, or ways to improve student support services for online learners.

But I thought it would be appropriate to have the inaugural article for this column be about “not going it alone” as an administrator.

I came up through the faculty ranks and I can honestly say I really didn’t know what to expect when I stepped out of the classroom and into my administrative role. My position was newly created on campus, so the advertised job description was more a best guess at the types of things that would need to be done, instead of an actual description of duties and responsibilities that had been performed in the past.

I can sense some of you smiling right now, as you may have been in similar situations.

One of the better decisions I made early on was to write down everything I was doing. Consulting with faculty who wanted to teach online, attending faculty governance committees, drafting policies and procedures related to online education, etc. If you are a new online administrator I highly recommend you consider this.

Why? Here’s a story: Not long after I became the Director of Online Education, my institution hired a new provost. During one of our first interactions she tilted her head and looked at me with a puzzled and skeptical expression and said “What is it you do anyway?” For a second panic overwhelmed me and I froze. I had a flashback to being five years old with my mother asking me “Did you eat that cookie I told you not to eat?” Luckily, the panic didn’t last long. Since I had been documenting everything I had been doing and reviewed that information regularly, I was able to rattle off 8 or 10 things I had been working on that week alone. After about a minute of my enthusiastic sharing, she said, “Wow, there certainly is a lot of activity occurring on campus related to online education.” 

I learned quickly that I shouldn’t be the one making all the decisions related to online education, so an online advisory board was created. I also learned that many faculty, staff and administrators across campus had questions related to online education, so we created an online education handbook. Both of these will be the topic of a future column.

Basically, we were starting from scratch. Everything we proposed, developed and implemented was something new on campus.

We implemented a grant process by which faculty could receive funding to develop online courses and degree programs.

We developed our own guidelines to review online courses offered on our campus.

We started surveying our online students and faculty to get a sense of the things we were doing right and the things we could improve upon.

We hired an instructional designer and she developed an in-house online instructor training course that now approximately 150 of our faculty have completed.

Another piece of advice I would offer is to seek out online administrators at other institutions whom you can turn to for advice and support. I did, and it was a tremendous blessing. I asked questions. I asked to see documents or policies they had created. Other times, I just called to talk.  All of these people had been where I was at and they all gave me the same advice: keep working hard and things will continue to get better.

For those of you who are more experienced and have been in administration for 5 or 10 years, I would encourage you to consider getting a mentor. Someone you can talk to once or twice a month, to share ideas and get advice. Someone to hold you accountable to do the things you say you are going to do. I recently asked someone who has been in the world of online learning for 20 plus years to serve as my mentor and she said yes. It has been incredibly fruitful up to this point and I know it will continue to be in the years ahead.

(A quick word of caution for new online administrators at institutions that are just starting to expand their online efforts: Avoid looking at colleges or universities that have been offering online education for many years and comparing your institution to theirs. It can be overwhelming to think about all the work that needs to be completed. Start by figuring out what needs to be done, then set priorities and realistic timelines to get that work accomplished.)

But back to not going it alone.

The day-to-day duties of an administrator can be significant and very time consuming. When you add new large projects, initiatives or requirements (e.g., adopting a new LMS, state authorization, or developing of new online degrees) things can become overwhelming. Examine what you do on a daily basis and see if some of those more routine duties could be completed by a program assistant or maybe even a graduate assistant. 

It’s important that we know our capabilities and limits. Many of us tend to say “yes” too often and “no” too infrequently. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced I’ve adopted the policy of not taking on new initiatives or projects unless I feel I can complete them in a high quality manner. One thing that frustrates me at times about higher education is that if you do a great job with things your reward is often that you get asked to do more. And more. And more. So remember, its ok to say “no.”

One strategy you can use if you get asked to take on a new project is to ask your supervisor which of the projects you are currently working on should be put on hold.

I think it’s also good to ask if there are others at your institution who could help you or who might actually be in a better position to tackle a new large initiative. For example, if someone asks you to take on the task of exploring a new learning management system, might there be a university-wide technology committee that would be in a better position to do that? Or consider the workload associated with state authorization–is there a compliance officer on your campus who could help with or oversee those efforts?

In conclusion, most administrators I know and interact with are very busy individuals, but at times, the job can feel very lonely as well. It certainly is rewarding when our courses and degree programs grow and are successful. But remember–it’s ok to say no. Ask for help when you need it. And you don’t have to go it alone!