The Big Question(s) with Online Leadership

The Big Question(s) with Online Leadership

Greetings from the San Diego airport! I just left the UPCEA and ACE joint conference “The Summit for Online Leadership and Strategy.”  First of all, many thanks to ACE and UPCEA, this was one of the best conferences on this subject I have attended in a long, long time.  Second, I know, “Jim, San Diego? Really?” Hey, it’s tough work but someone has to step forward.

Back to the Summit, as I listened to the presentations and the hallway conversations, there are lots of ideas and challenges facing our institutions and our professional continuing education units as we attempt to strategically implement online efforts.   While none of the presenters put it quite this way, I started to see a theme of what are the “big question(s)” we need to address as we implement our online efforts.  So what follows are some of my big question(s) I took away from the meeting (these are in no particular order):

  • Big question: is this effort aligned with our institution’s mission and strategy?
    • Or another way of asking the question: Is our online learning strategy reflected in our institution’s mission and strategic plan?  Is it part of the overall plan or is it simply an add on, one of those things that continuing education does?
  • Big question: what is the financial model for our online efforts?
    • Are our online efforts part of the general budget or does they reside outside the general budget with a self-support unit?  There are certainly pluses and minuses to having them either central or outside the general budget.  Having them as part of the general budget certainly sends the message that the university intends to support this effort, which includes course development, course delivery, student support, etc.  Others have argued that it is important to have this effort in separate unit, similar to Clay Christensen’s disruption theory, that is “the disruptive innovation and its business model can best be implemented by an autonomous unit within the larger organization. This autonomous unit is free to concentrate on outcome measures such as student learning and meeting student needs as compared to prestige.” ( In addition, these units should be allowed to collect the revenues because they will plow that revenue back into continuing innovation.
    • A related Big Question to the financial model:
      • With our online efforts are we building a financial model that hopefully results in student learning or do we have a student-learning model that breaks even or makes money?
  • Big question: what about student services?
    • Most of our institutions have great student services, but these services are designed to meet the needs of traditional (we could argue about what is a traditional student) students who are 18 to 22 and live on campus.  How do these student services generalize to students who may never step on our campus? And let’s face it, a large majority of our “traditional students” are taking online courses anyway. Do we have the sorts of services that support them when they are using this mode of delivery?
  • A related Big Question: who should provide these services?
    • Should we “repurpose” (not the best word but for now) our existing student services to include support for online students or is it best left to units who have developed the expertise of how to work with adult students because of years of experience in this area, say the professional and continuing education unit?
  • Big question: how do we exploit and blend the many modalities in which our students access learning materials whether it be face to face, online, from a cell phone, etc.?
    • To very roughly quote my friend David Schejbal, it isn’t about modality it is about learning.  If a student goes to a lecture and still doesn’t get certain concepts, then the student should have access to online learning modules and if the student still doesn’t get it, then there should be access to an expert—a teaching assistant, face to face or virtual, and if the student still doesn’t get it then there should be study groups, face to face or virtual.  In the end it is about student learning.
  • Big question: how do we move our online efforts from providing access to maximizing completion?
    • For many of our institutions one of the central goals of our online programs is to provide access to the promise of education to those who are underserved.  This is one of the goals that has driven me throughout my career, but is that enough? No it isn’t, we need to move beyond providing access to maximizing completion for the student. Therefore, in my mind, we need to look at the processes, policies, and support services we have that will assist the student to complete.  This could include coaching, strategic advising, the use of action analytics, and other ways.

I have several other big questions that need to be addressed relative to implementing online efforts as well as big questions related to moving to a competency-based degree program.  But I will need to leave those to a future blog.

I do want to leave you with on the big questions I’ve had in my nearly 30 years in professional and continuing education:

  • Big question: when will we move beyond referring to students as regular versus “irregular” students and move to the place where no matter how the student is accessing the institution they are all the institution’s students?
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2 Responses to The Big Question(s) with Online Leadership

  1. Don Swoboda says:

    Well Jim I’m sure you have answered your Big Questions for JMU, as everyone must in their own institution. In my six years with WKU I had the great opportunity to start from scratch with an outreach unit, and had an extremely intelligent provost who under stood education and business. We not only had to make up the answers to the Big Questions but we had to make up the Big Questions. You’ve identified them well, and we did too. The good thing about our situation was that we had the opportunity to create ourselves as part of the overall mission so we didn’t worry about the “if” here. After 38 years of experience at four universities I knew that if we were part of the institution’s hard budget we would be doomed, because we were going to be successful on the revenue side and shortly be taken over by the powers of the university’s wise leaders that didn’t have a clue about why we were successful. That allowed us to grow a budget from $600,00 to $12 million in six years and return $25 million back to the university. It also allowed us to grow from 14 to 44 full time staff, and on the online side alone grow from 6,000 enrollments to over 27,000 in these same six years. We not only met the student services question we solved them and added the faculty development services into the mix as well. Schejbal is correct, it’s all about learning, and we utilized all of the modalities we thought appropriate. We co-opted or allowed ourselves to be co-opted into all parts of the academic and student services areas of the institution, which allowed us to be partners in success instead of competitors for limited resources. Much was accomplished by using motivational opportunities that really worked, some called them bribes, but in a good way :>). Finally we called everyone “students” without a regular or irregular descriptor which worked throughout the institution; while at the same time we worked hard at trying to get everyone to see every kind of students as customers, which in the final analysis they are.

    Keep up the blog and your thoughts, I love it.
    Stay warm,
    don s

    • shaeffjm says:

      Thanks Don. The WKU story is one of the great ones in our business. Thanks for your note. Always appreciate your insights.

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