Chaos vs. Centralized Administration: You Choose

Chaos vs. Centralized Administration: You Choose

By Brian Udermann, PhD

This article originally appeared in the publication Distance Education Report.

I have the opportunity to travel a fair amount and speak on a variety of topics related to online learning. I’ll often talk specifically about the administration of online education programs. When I do, I frequently ask both instructors and administrators to think about and then describe, in one word, the overall administration of online education at their institutions.

Does it surprise you that the word I hear most often is “chaos”?

Other common descriptors are “disorganized”, “disjointed”, “messy” or even “non-existent.”

When I follow up, I learn that almost every time someone describes their program this way, there is usually not an administrator on those campuses whose sole responsibility is to oversee online education. That is, no centralized administration.

For the purpose of this column, I’ll define “centralized” as having one point of contact or one individual or office with the primary function of overseeing online education for an entire campus. In contrast, I’ll use “decentralized” to mean giving authority to multiple departments, schools or colleges within institutions to make policy and decisions related to online learning.

I’m still surprised by the number of institutions that do not have centralized administration for online education. On many occasions over the past few years I’ve emailed or called colleges and universities trying to locate their primary online administrator. In many instances those on the other end had no idea. In some instances, I’ve been given three or four names because each school or college had their own go-to individual for online learning.

I believe that one of the primary benefits of a more centralized approach to online education administration is that it leads to more consistency and less confusion. Here are some ways it can do that.

• Policy and procedures manuals One of my previous columns in this series was about online education policy and procedures manuals. My institution has one policy and procedures manual for online education. If individual schools or colleges within a university are responsible for the administration of online education and creating their own policies and procedures, institutions could end up with multiple policy and procedures manuals, which could lead to increased confusion.

• Faculty development Another example of enhanced consistency with a more centralized administration might be faculty development. Is there one unit on campus (in my case it is the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning) responsible for designing and delivering online instructor training courses? Or, are multiple departments or units providing this type of faculty development?

• Increased efficiency If an institution did have three online education policy and procedures manuals or three different online instructor training courses, this would likely triple the man hours required to create such things.

• Course evaluation A number of years ago I, along with an instructional designer at my institution, created the UW-L Online Course Evaluation Guidelines. It is a course review rubric we use to evaluate the quality of online classes on my campus. I’d estimate that we spent somewhere between 40 and 50 hours working on and creating that document. Again, if the three individual colleges on my campus would have created their own course review guidelines document, that would have resulted in a lot of redundant effort and would have been very inefficient indeed.

One criticism I sometimes hear about a more centralized administrative approach is that it results in less shared decision-making. I think this fear or concern is often exaggerated. Good administrators seek lots of input and advice before making decisions.

That also speaks to the importance of having an online advisory group or committee on campus, and utilizing faculty governance committees when creating new policies and procedures related to online education. Again, both topics are covered in previous articles in this column.

I would resist the impulse to simply add the duties of administering online education across campus to an existing individual’s job description. Regretfully, this is something I see happen frequently. Individuals in administrative positions such as an associate vice provost or dean are common targets. If you haven’t shadowed an associate vice provost or dean recently, I can tell you for certain that these individuals are usually extremely busy and in most cases are not looking for additional work. Also, many of them have limited experience with online education.

I think a good starting place for discussing the administrative structure could be to talk about what areas related to online education would be better served with a centralized administrative approach (such as the areas I’ve already mentioned) and what things might be left more decentralized. At my institution, faculty and department chairs have complete control over what courses are developed and taught online. I would consider that to be decision-making in a more decentralized manner. Last year 64 new online courses were developed and taught at my institution. As much as I might like to have the authority to determine what new online courses are developed and taught, I don’t think that is my decision to make. That decision, at least on my campus, is determined at the department level.

Even with a more centralized administrative approach, departments can retain some authority and autonomy in making decisions they feel are in the best interest of their departments. For example, one department at my institution has a department by-law that states no more than 50% of a faculty member’s load can be teaching online classes. Another department has a by-law that states any new online courses taught through their department must be reviewed and approved by a subset of that department’s curriculum committee. Neither of those examples are university-wide policies.

In short, centralizing the administration of online education is something I strongly recommend. I believe doing so can lead to greater consistency and efficiency across campus, and can be done in a manner that still allows for important autonomy at the individual department level.