Should Your Institution Have a Dedicated Online Administrator?

Should Your Institution Have a Dedicated Online Administrator?

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

I have the opportunity to regularly attend and present at a variety of conferences and workshops across the country related to online education. I often ask the participants in my sessions how many of their institutions have a dedicated online administrator, someone whose primary responsibility is to administer online learning.

Seven or eight years ago, I would estimate that approximately 10 percent of participants would raise their hands. Now that number usually ranges between 20 and 25 percent.

I’ve been unable to find published research or reports showing the percentage of institutions that have a dedicated online administrator, a person whose primary job function is overseeing online education. But based on experiences like the above, I feel that I can say–anecdotally but with relative confidence–that the number is increasing.

One challenge with trying to track the number of institutions in higher education that have an administrator solely dedicated to overseeing online education is that online directors can be housed in a variety of different units or offices on campus. They might be in an office of continuing education or an extension, in an office of distance learning, or a dean’s or provost’s office. Other possibilities might be the library, a teaching center, academic technology services, or an alternative delivery unit.

In addition, the titles assigned to an online administrator can vary widely and may include “director of online education;” “director of e-learning;” “director of distance education;” “director of continuing education;” or even chair, dean, or provost of online education.

To complicate things further (sorry!) the job responsibilities of online administrators can differ across institutions. They might include overseeing efforts related to faculty development, quality oversight and assessment, state authorization, assisting with regional accreditation efforts, hiring and personnel decisions, learning analytics, marketing and promotion of online programs, and more.

When an institution is seeking administrative oversight for its online courses and degree programs, those duties sometimes are assigned to an existing administrator on campus. It might be the dean of an academic school or college (especially one with lots of online programming), or it might be an assistant or associate provost, or even a vice chancellor.

This practice has its drawbacks, as these administrators are usually very busy individuals and may not have adequate time and energy to dedicate to online education. They also might lack necessary experience or expertise in the area of online learning.

I have seen numerous examples over my 20 years in higher education where a small but often highly vocal group of faculty resists the hiring of any new administrator on campus, even if it appears the hire would potentially benefit the institution.

Benefits of having an online administrator
In 2007, my current institution decided to hire an administrator to oversee online education. The provost at the time felt strongly that it was important for that individual to come from the faculty ranks, and I applied for and was fortunate enough to be hired for that role, one I still hold today.

In the rest of this article I’ll describe some of the benefits of hiring a dedicated online administrator that I’ve observed in my experience.

  • Many institutions use a decentralized approach in the oversight of online education, which often means that policies, procedures, faculty development, student support services, technology support, and quality oversight related to online education can vary widely by department, school or college. On the other hand, having a director of online education can lead to more standardization and consistency across an institution, lessening confusion for students, staff and faculty.

  • Having a director of online education can also increase efficiencies, since the different academic units on campus will not need to develop their own policies and procedures, to decide how faculty will be trained, or to determine how online courses and degree programs will be evaluated. All of these efforts can be time- and energy-intensive.

  • More consistency and standardization can also produce fairer practices and comparisons when faculty are reviewed and evaluated for promotion, tenure and retention.

  • Yet another benefit of having a dedicated online administrator relates to the frequent questions that arise about online education: People know who to contact. I routinely field questions from faculty, staff, other administrators, students—and even parents. The media may be looking for background or a quote. I can usually answer most questions, but if I can’t, I know the person on campus who can. I have found that having one individual with online learning oversight responsibilities on my campus has led to more trust and confidence in our online efforts, especially with faculty.

  • I believe that when one person has the oversight responsibilities related to online learning, it can lead to enhanced efforts in the area of continuous quality improvement. Those efforts could involve evaluating the quality of online courses and degree programs; surveying students and faculty to determine satisfaction levels and identifying areas for improvement; gathering and disseminating data related to online education; or helping coordinate faculty-development efforts.

My institution recently completed the Online Learning Consortium’s Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Programs. Conducting this voluntary self-study and critical review of our online education program was time- and energy -intensive, but it helped us clearly identify the strengths and weaknesses in our online programming, and it will help determine future priorities and initiatives. Had we lacked a dedicated online administrator, we likely would not have completed the Scorecard or gained these valuable insights.

Some faculty express concern about having a centralized online administrator and more consistency and standardization across campus; they fear that faculty and departments may lose autonomy and not have the ability to implement policies and make decisions they feel are in their best interests. One way to address this concern is to have strong faculty involvement in decisions related to online education, which can be accomplished when the online administrator collaborates with an online advisory board or faculty senate online education committee.

Online courses and degree programs are gaining in popularity with both students and faculty, and the interest and growth in online education will likely continue. In my experience, creating a culture of quality online education cannot be forced; it needs to be developed and nurtured. A strong online administrator can help cultivate a healthy culture on campus for that growth.