Importance of Supportive, Informed Administrators

I have experience with distance learning in three very different universities:

  • as a faculty member in a research-one university where faculty in the field of learning design and technologies were encouraged to explore and test the edges of the field,
  • as the inaugural distance learning administrator in a regional university where resistance to implementation of distance learning was profound in some areas, and
  • as a College of Education faculty member in a research-two university where leadership and faculty have interest in social justice and scaling-up the quality and number of distance offerings across a state.

At Texas A&M University, College Station, the Master’s in Educational Technology program in which I taught received $60,000 from the provost’s office to develop the first online degree program offered at that university. We did a bang-up job developing a program that has contributed substantially to the intellectual and financial health of the Educational Psychology program for two decades. This was the ’90s and a number of faculty across campus spoke then of their fear of developing online courses due to the possibility that the university would claim ownership of the online versions of their courses. I made an appointment with the Dean of Faculties to discuss this issue, not because I cared that the university might use my courses, but because I wanted her to know of and address the barrier to broader online course delivery. Much to my surprise the provost and other members of the administration came to the meeting. The result was establishment of a guideline in the entire university system that the course developer and the university would share ownership of content in online courses.  My big point here is that the university and our students benefitted from academic administrators support of distance learning and of me as an early-adopter of  distance learning, and thoughtfully considered and addressed academic issues related faculty concerns.

In 2011 the president of Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi invited me to initiate an Office of Distance Education and Learning Technologies (ODELT) on his campus which I accepted. I immediately set in motion collaborative development of a strategic plan to address the objectives the president set before me, to identify other objectives, and to establish action items to help facilitate change on that campus. I reported directly to the then provost who understood the academic role and importance of DL as a social justice issue and to student success and who implemented measures to improve quality as well as increased online offerings. For instance, he required that all new faculty each semester complete thirty-two hours of workshops on online course design, development, and teaching.

The College of Nursing already had nationally recognized online degree programs, was poised to develop more, and was extremely receptive to ODELT’s help. Although the dean of the College of Education saw value in developing online programs, he was not willing to take substantial steps toward growing offerings in spite of declining enrollments. The president of the university told the dean of the College of Business that if he didn’t build an online MBA he would be asked to leave his post. That online MBA program grew from about 25 students to over 500 over the years since. The current COB dean enthusiastically supports online learning, and implements quality assurance measures administered through the ODELT.

On the other hand, the deans of the College of Science and Engineering and Liberal Arts opposed ODELT’s mission. One dean expressed that there is no difference between online courses and correspondence courses and that effective online delivery of instruction is not possible for topics in science, mathematics, and engineering. The other did not want an office external to her college to influence instruction there. In the context of establishing her college’s policies for DL, she discouraged participation in ODELT activities and often contradicted ODELT’s recommendations. For instance, best practice suggests that instructors develop courses in development shells and import those to delivery shells that would be deleted every 3 years. On the contrary, the dean suggested developing courses directly in delivery shells and specifically recommended against using development shells. Although many faculty members in that college were receptive and excited about developing online courses and degree programs, many would come to ODELT complaining that they were not allowed to do so.

Sadly, shortly before I left that university the new president who had been the dean of the College of Liberal Arts required that ODELT report to the Chief Information Officer rather than to Academic Affairs. My big take-away was that, for distance learning to contribute to student success, deans as well as high level administrators must be on board and recognize the academic role that distance learning plays. The large body of knowledge associated with the field of distance learning is primarily academic rather than technological and faculty need support in the academic roles as well as technical know-how. Sometimes administrative mandates are the most promising approach to academic change, and academic administrators are the ones in positions to implement mandates.

Just this Fall I joined the faculty as a College Professor at New Mexico State University where I teach in the Learning Design and Technology program. The campus has an active, centralized, highly supported office that reports directly to Academic Affairs as did ODELT for its’ first seven years. Here for only 6 weeks, I have already been approached by deans who are interested in my expertise in DL reflecting the broad interest and openness to DL. I feel so honored in my new role and have every hope that I can contribute to increased quality and numbers of DL offerings to facilitate student success here and beyond graduation. Faculty in the College of Education promote critical theory and understand the social justice issues addressed by online delivery of courses and degrees. It is an intellectually exciting place to work where faculty challenge norms and understand that how we teach and what we choose to include in our courses are political decisions impacting social justice.

Based upon my experience in these three universities I conclude that as an academic enterprise distance learning can be most successful on campuses where the president, provost, and deans recognize that DL contributes to student success and meets academic and democratic goals of the institution. In my next entry I plan to post results of an investigation the ODELT team conducted in an attempt to better understand university administrations’ perceptions regarding distance learning so that we could devise tactics to address barriers.

All the best,

Lauren Cifuentes

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