• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Seeing the Matrix

Managing online courses.

 

September 2, 2015
 

I can see the matrix, and I don’t like what I see.

I’ve seen a few different ways of managing online classes, but they all (with one clear exception) lead to “matrix management,” or cross-cutting responsibilities that often create diseconomies of scale. In other words, the org chart starts to look like a drawer full of unmatched socks, and the resulting conflicts wind up consuming far more organizational resources than they should.

As a dedicated non-fan of the matrix, I’m hoping there’s a better way.

I’ve seen the model of housing responsibility for online classes in a separate division, usually with its own dean or director. The advantages of that model are that there’s a go-to person, it’s easier to ensure that the course offerings are consistent and coherent, and it’s obvious where to locate professional development responsibilities.  

But that model brings real issues when the person in charge of the classes isn’t responsible for the faculty who teach them. The deans with responsibility for staffing -- who are often campus-based -- often regard online sections as parasitic on their own. From a quality control standpoint, it’s hard to say who’s in charge. Finally, some departments rebel on general principle when they don’t “control” their own online sections.  

I’ve also seen the model of treating online classes just like on-campus classes. In that model, departments and deans who staff say, Tuesday morning sections also staff online sections. 

The advantages of that model are real. Most basically, it ensures that people fluent in the subject matter are close to the staffing. It also ensures that faculty have a single dean to report to, rather than multiple deans who may have conflicting opinions. And it tends to reduce departmental anxiety, and therefore opposition.

But it also tends to prevent the development of a coherent online program. Online classes often become afterthoughts, or get offered unevenly across the curriculum as some departments move quickly and others drag their feet. Deans or departments who don’t see value in online learning can kill it through casual neglect.  

The most radical solution is simply to ignore online altogether. But in terms of student demand and serving the needs of the community, that ship has sailed. Like it or don’t, but online education is a fact, and an increasingly large one.

The most radical positive solution is what Southern New Hampshire University did. It simply spun off the online unit and made it entirely separate. The online unit has its own managers, its own faculty, its own schedule, and even its own support services.  

The “secession” approach has the considerable virtue of clarity.  Folks on either side of the division know which side they’re on, and prioritize it. Instead of trying to get nervous departments to try something new, they simply created new departments. No matrix there!

As much as I envy SNHU’s panache, though, I envy its resources more.  It charges far more than we do, and has much more control over its own money than we do. Accordingly, it can take calculated risks without jeopardizing the entire enterprise. When “acceptable losses” are quite high, you can afford to take audacious risks. None of that is to diminish SNHU’s achievement; I’m a fan, and have been for some time. It’s just to say that some of its methods aren’t portable to most of the community college world.

Assuming that the resources to establish an entirely separate and parallel college won’t be forthcoming, then, the other solutions lead to some pretty basic organizational dilemmas. If the same faculty teach onsite and online, what’s the best way to structure that?

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those in administration at places at which online runs smoothly -- have you seen a better way?  Is there an elegant alternative to the matrix?

 

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