The Online Advisory Board: Luxury or Necessity?

The Online Advisory Board: Luxury or Necessity?

Written by Brian Udermann, Ph.D

Article originally appeared in the May 1, 2014 issue of Distance Education Report (Volume 18, Number 9).

One of the first things I did after becoming the director of online education at my institution was to create an online education advisory board.

According to Dictionary.com an advisory board is “a board appointed to advise the chief administrator.” Generally, this is an informal group of people who have no official position within a corporation or institution. Advisory boards are common in business and to a lesser extent in higher education.

Sometimes in business, individuals who serve on advisory boards receive compensation, such as a small stipend or a bit of stock in a company. This is not the case in higher education (well, maybe with the exception of some refreshments at a meeting).

When I started the process, my first question was “who should be on the board?” So, who should be on the board?

My first suggestion would be faculty members. I always try to have a minimum of one faculty member from each of the three colleges on my campus (the College of Liberal Studies, the College of Business Administration, and the College of Science and Allied Health). If one particular college offers a disproportionately higher number of online courses than the others, then I consider having two faculty representatives from that college. I also try to have one of those faculty members be a program director of one of our campus’s fully online degree programs.

I also suggest having at least one student and one administrator on the board. Students and administrators can give you great perspectives in regard to decisions or online initiatives that are being considered. If you have instructional designers or instructional technologists on your campus, their contributions to an advisory board can be invaluable (we have two instructional designers on our online advisory board).

If your institution offers online programming through the office of continuing education and extension, consider having someone from that office on your board, too.

You might also want to consider having someone on your advisory board from a different institution, an individual not familiar with campus history and politics, who can give a fresh and unbiased perspective.

Sometimes members can temporarily be added in response to large projects or initiatives. For example, if your board is being asked to discuss items related to an upcoming accreditation visit, someone from a university-wide accreditation steering committee could be added. Or if your institution is proposing a new or revised revenue-sharing model for online courses or degree programs, someone from business services could be invited to join the group for those discussions.

I would suggest having at least one advisory board member who is highly critical and skeptical of online education and will question every decision you make. While that can sometimes lead to some stress, tension, and fireworks during the meetings, it also means that you will likely hear the types of questions and resistance your board’s decision or initiatives will face when they are shared with campus.

How many?
I don’t think there is a magic number in regard to how many members should be on the board. My recommendation would be 8-12. I think if the number is below 8 then the board might not have adequate representation from across campus, and if it is above 12 you take the risk of the board becoming too unwieldy. I would have an odd number of members so if there is a close vote on something there won’t be a tie.

One benefit of having an online advisory board is that it’s not just one person making significant decisions. If others (especially faculty) are involved in the decision-making process this helps reduce the number of conspiracy theories bantered about by online skeptics and resistors on campus.

Consider adopting a standard replacement rotation schedule for your advisory board. For example, if you have nine members on the board you might replace three members every three or four years. I think this helps bring fresh ideas and new energy to the group.

Board or committee?
If you don’t have an online advisory board or online education committee on your campus and are planning on creating one, it would be wise to discuss whether an advisory board or a more formal faculty governance committee would be appropriate for your institution. That’s a discussion we had years ago and we decided on an advisory board. My institution has 26 faculty senate-sponsored committees, so we felt people might not see the need to create another one.

You want members of the advisory board to feel like their voice has value. If the board suggests an idea that you are not all that excited about–maybe it would result in a significant amount of additional work for you–I would still encourage you to be open to such suggestions and take them seriously.

An advisory board can be ad hoc (set up for a limited period) or it can be ongoing. I know of some institutions that, in beginning to explore online initiatives, have created ad hoc advisory board to help in that process, and then disbanded the group after their initial charge was accomplished. My recommendation, however, would be to establish an ongoing advisory board since new opportunities and challenges related to online education will likely occur.

Finally, it’s important to be clear from the start about what the purpose of an advisory board is, how often it will meet and what the workload expectations are.

So, luxury or necessity? I’m probably a bit biased here but speaking from my experience over the past seven years, I would definitely cast my vote for necessity!