New Challenge

Happily, the dean of the College of Education here at NMSU has invited me to help facilitate distance learning in our college. Her specific directive is to develop systems for increasing the quality of online instruction. From conversations thus far, I believe our leadership and faculty will embrace the support. The campus already has effective supports for online learning in place. Just today I received an email with an “NMSU Basic Online Course Check” of the online course I am currently teaching. Staff in the NMSU office that supports online instruction check courses using eight criteria. Interestingly, and contrary to guidelines in the office I led at TAMU-CC, staff in the NMSU office enters and reviews courses without faculty permission. In addition to the “Basic” check, staff conduct formal reviews using the Quality Matters framework. I believe that such reviews are conducted upon faculty request and that they are encouraged but are not mandatory. Discussions of whether or not such reviews should be mandatory abound across campus. Our task will be to establish specific goals for the college that complement those already in place.

My first steps in helping the college is to schedule meetings and listen to a number of different people in the college who have ideas about what would be most helpful. At TAMU-CC, among other change models, I adopted John Kotter’s “eight-step process for creating major change.” The first stage in the model is to establish a sense of urgency. At TAMU-CC the urgency was profound due to campus vulnerability to hurricanes. Our office impressed upon faculty the importance of having online course materials in place as a way of dealing with potential campus evacuation. I vividly remember the dean of the College of Liberal Arts telling me that I was playing on faculty fears and I should stop providing that message. When urgency is real, I think it is important to make it known. Online presence in courses can actually mitigate fear and help faculty feel in control in the face of dangers such as Harvey that lightly hit campus in 2017. Those of us who had online course materials were able to support those students who still had access to online tools. So I am asking myself and will ask others, what is our sense of urgency here at NMSU and how can we establish that sense among faculty? A little fear can provide motivation.

Kotter’s second stage is to create a guiding coalition. The dean here will help me get the Executive Council and a few faculty and students to serve on the team. That is the perfect group to help as they have enough power to lead the change. The final six stages are developing a vision and strategy, communicating the change vision, empowering broad-based action, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and anchoring new approaches in the culture.

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

Application of Change Theory

“We must be strategic about who is taking on what role in fighting injustice: Some of us are warriors, out there vocally calling out racism and other forms of oppression. Others are bridge builders, helping to teach, heal, and connect people.” quoted from, website Nonprofit AF; Hey progressives, can we stop using the tools of social justice to tear one another down?

Being an educator can be a revolutionary activity. Those of us who promote distance learning act as revolutionaries by simultaneously, and perhaps unwittingly, promoting social justice. We make education available to those who, without online delivery, would not have access.

However, I am no warrior! I stay away from conflict as much as possible. Rather, as an administrator of distance learning I make every effort to challenge norms while keeping the peace, always respecting and giving voice to both the naysayers and the promoters. Naysayers help you know why they and others resist change so that you can develop tactics for addressing the reasons. Promoters help you advocate for change by sharing their positive perspective and experiences with others – positive experience being the most powerful tactic for change.

Change theory provides an essential foundation for working effectively as a distance learning administrator. I looked to change theory and applied the principles daily to help administrators and instructors anticipate, identify, take advantage of, and facilitate change from lecture modes of delivery to online modes:

  1. Change is a constant- Think of ways in which education has changed over the past few years?
  2. People often resist change- It is safe to say that everyone has at least some resistance to distance education. Can you think of some reasons that keep you or others from readily embracing online education?
  3. The technologies we use, the procedures we follow, and the values we hold are institutionalized and make us comfortable- Can you describe the social equilibrium of technologies, procedures, and values in higher education that might be shaken by distance learning?
  4. An innovation is the introduction of a new idea to its users- As we innovate, we can be too enamored of the idea such that we forget to take the higher education administrators’ and instructor’s experience into account. How might online instruction threaten administrators’ and instructors’ current procedures, roles, or values?
  5. The potential adopter cares only about the ideas that apply to him or her- How well have we identified the benefits of online learning that are most relevant to administrators and instructors? How can we improve?
  6. In times of crisis, change is more readily accepted- What crises may our nation and world be facing that might be partially addressed by broadening participation in higher education through distance delivery?
  7. Never underestimate the power of social climate- Can you think of any changes in the social climate going on now? How might those changes impact attitudes toward online education?

Reflecting on answers to these questions can help you and your team design tactics.

Nine Tactics for Facilitating Positive Change

  1. Perceived Advantage- What are some advantages of distance learning? For whom?
  2. Small Negative Consequences- What are the downsides of distance learning? How can those downsides be minimized?
  3. Small Steps/Divisibility- How might online course design, development, and teaching be broken down into small, easily adopted steps? What might be introduced first to break the ice?
  4. Familiar Language- How can we best communicate the advantages of distance learning? What is some specific language we might use that will resonate with potential adopters?
  5. Compatible with Current Practice- How is distance learning similar to what people are currently doing?
  6. Credible Messenger- Who are the best, most credible messengers to promote distance learning? How can you team with those people?
  7. Reliability- How does distance learning do what it is supposed to do without breaking down?
  8. Easy and Low Cost in Money, Time, and Effort- What will be the costs of online courses in terms of time, money, and effort? How can we make it take less time? How can we make it less costly financially to try? How can we make it take less effort to try?
  9. Easy Reversibility- How easy is it to back out of online teaching once an institution or person has dedicated time, money, or effort? How can we make it easier to back out if a person wants to?

These principles and tactics (Barker, 1998) as well as the resources below were so helpful to me a I tried to help my campus grow its distance learning offerings.

References and Resources

Barker, J. (1998). Tactics of innovation: How to make it easier for people to accept new ideas. Star Thrower Distribution Corp.

Ellsworth, J.B. (2000). Surviving change: A survey of educational change models. Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology.

Ertmer, P. A., & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. T. (2010). Teacher technology change: How knowledge, confidence, beliefs, and culture intersect. Journal of Research On Technology In Education, 42(3), 255-284.

Fullan, M. G. (1993). Why teachers must become change agents. Educational leadership, 50, 12.

Gutman, D. (2012). Six barriers causing educators to resist teaching online, and how institutions can break them. Distance Learning, 9(3), 51.

Hall, G. E., & Hord, S. M. (2001). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes.Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Keller, J. M. (2010). Motivational Design for Learning and Performance: The ARCS Model Approach.New York, NY: Springer.

Kotter, J. P. (1996).  Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Reigeluth, C. M., & Karnopp, J. R. (2013). Reinventing schools: It’s time to break the mold. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Education.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations(5th Ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.

Schneckenberg, D. (2010). Overcoming barriers for E-learning in universities—portfolio models for eCompetence development of faculty. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(6), 979-991.

Straub, E. T. (2009). Understanding technology adoption: Theory and future directions for informal learning. Review of Educational Research. AERA. Http://

Turner, J. C., & Patrick, H. (2008). How does motivation develop and why does it change? Reframing motivation research. Educational Psychologist, 43(3), 119-131.

Wickersham, L. E., & McElhany, J. A. (2010). Bridging the divide. Quarterly Review of Distance Education,11(1), 1-12.




Empowering Students

Empowering Students

I am writing this blog focusing on leadership in distance learning for several reasons. First, I am teaching a class in which I ask my students to create a blog. This creates in me a sense of obligation to do so as well. Second, I served as inaugural Director of Distance Learning at a regional university in Texas for seven years experiencing some success, and I feel proud regarding my choices in building that office. Third, I feel passionately about the administration of online instruction such that it does indeed serve the moral purpose of education. And, fourth, most of my teaching and research interests have focused on the power of distance learning for improving people’s learning experiences; I was an early adopter of both online-course delivery at a large research university and of distance learning integration in elementary and secondary schools.

I begin with one of my favorite poems.

So much depends

On a red wheelbarrow

Glazed with rain water

Standing beside

The white chickens

                                                                                             William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams drew a beautiful image with this poem. What I see in the image is the value of human technology, a wheelbarrow, amid natural beauty orchestrated by humans. There is elegance in how human beings over the ages have applied technology to facilitate precious activities.  Some technologies provide us with tools for doing physical activity more easily. Other technologies, such as the Internet, provide us with what David Jonassen (2008) called “mind tools.” I will paraphrase William Carlos Williams with –

So much depends

On a computer and smart phone

Loaded with bookmarks and apps

In the hands of a seeker

With time to spend

In the context of human history, the web’s power as a disseminator of information, activities, and tools for learning is unprecedented. The web can be used to facilitate what John Dewey (1899) called “The Four -Fold Interests of the Child”:  finding things out, making things, communicating, and expressing. I add here that as lifelong learners these interests apply not just to children, but to all people. Web tools abound that support inquiry, construction, communication, and expression. In addition, a seemingly endless array of digital tools support teaching.

As we educators commit to the moral purpose of making a positive difference in the lives of learners, we commit to the broad moral purpose of education: to better the lives of individuals such that each will work for the common good. In today’s age of connection (Siemens, 2005), all individuals need mind tools to fulfill their purpose of contributing to the common good.

The call to educate begs the questions; what technology tools can enhance student learning and how can we best implement them in the context of course goals and objectives, diverse needs of learners, assessment and documentation of competence, and limits to technology access? In Technopoly (1992) Neil Postman, media theorist and cultural critic, objected to the blind attitude that “we must use technology because it is there. We will become the kind of people the technology requires us to be; and, whether we like it or not, we will remake our institutions to accommodate the technology.” In many ways, Internet technologies drive current practices in higher education. We can see this trend as the tail wagging the dog, or we can take the challenge of ensuring that technologies are used to serve the common good.

Dewey, J. (1899). The school and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jonassen, D. (1996). Computers in the classroom: Mindtools for critical thinking.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jonassen, D. (2008). Meaningful learning with technology (3rdEd.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-679-74540-2.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1). Available online at:

Williams, W. C. (1923). Spring and All. New York: Contact Editions / Dijon: Maurice Darantière.