Pleasures and Challenges of 24/7 Online Program Responsibility

Thoughts after getting a bit of distance from distance learning.

September 14, 2014

Much of my academic career has been spent helping to run online and low-residency programs. Nowadays, I’m doing something different.  

Getting some distance from the daily responsibilities of running an online program has provided some perspective on the pleasures and challenges of that life.

The Pleasures:

Providing Educational Opportunities: The best thing about working on online and low-residency programs is the students. Online learning creates opportunity. The online and low-residency programs that I worked on allowed students to work towards their degree while continuing to work. Or while living at home in the summer. They were able to move through courses without having to move. Online learning extends educational opportunities because online learning transcends challenges of distance, schedules and time.

Creating Great Courses: Anyone who has ever worked in an online program understands how deeply the research on learning has come to define the methods for online course design. It is not possible to design effective online courses without some grounding in effective pedagogical (and andragogical) practices. Online courses are still much more likely than traditional residential courses to be designed around learning outcomes. Assignments in online courses support and map to specific learning goals. Online courses contain frequent opportunities to improve learning through low-stakes testing and rapid feedback. Students in online courses are encouraged to reflect on the material in journals and discussion boards.  Active and collaborative learning is always the goal.

Extending New Practices to Residential Courses: Perhaps the least understood institutional outcome of online learning programs is the degree to which they catalyze new teaching and learning practices in existing residential courses. Once faculty experience the process of partnering with a learning designer to develop a course they start to ask for this type of collaboration in their on-ground classes. Once instructors see the benefits to student learning of incorporating learning outcomes and frequent low-stakes assessments in online courses they start to migrate these practices to their residential classes. The great thing about online learning is that it uses the same platforms that are used on campus for residential learning. The same LMS platforms. The same tools that can be used to record quick video lectures for online students can be used to flip the residential class.  

Working With A Team: If you have ever worked in an online program you know that you do not work alone. You partner with faculty. You work with learning designers, media experts, system administrators, and support professionals.  In some programs you work closely with academic and curricular specialists, admissions and advising counselors, and marketing folks.  Creating and running quality online programs is a complicated business. It takes a team to do it well. I miss working with an online learning team.

The Challenges:

The Relentless 24/7 Schedule: The biggest challenge of working on online programs is that they never stop. Students are accessing the online courses, taking online quizzes, and submitting online assignments 24/7.  They expect (quite fairly) the technology to work flawlessly whenever they log on. Of course, 24/7 student learning has migrated to all of higher ed. Every course now is a blended course. Learning now always exists on an online continuum. The difference, I think, is that when you are helping to run an online program is that you are directly responsible for the technology always working. If a student cannot get access to an online course on a Saturday at 2:00am you feel their pain. You will personally work to track down and hopefully fix the problem. There is really no such thing (at least in my experience) of free nights and weekends if you are ultimately responsible for the online learning platforms. It can wear on you after a while.

Technology Always Breaks: The other side of the 24/7 responsibility is that things always go wrong with technology. The server will always go down at some point.  The application will break. The network will lose connectivity. The bug will appear at the worst time. Most often the tech problem is on the student end. Their home network, their ISP, their computer.  But sometimes the problem is on our end. And sooner or later the technology will always fail.  The key is how you plan for resiliency. How you increase levels of redundancy. How quickly, honestly, and transparently you communicate with the students when things do go wrong. How you recover and communicate about tech failure.

Always Falling Short of the Consumer Tech: This last challenge is also a pleasure. Online learning technology always seems to lag behind consumer technology. This has become particularly apparent to me in the area of mobile learning. We can have really good banking, entertainment, gaming, and news experiences on our smart phones. Online learning on mobile devices has a ways to go. This gap between learning and consumer technology is a terrific motivator for change. But it could also be frustrating to always feel a few steps behind.

Do you work for an online / low-residency program?  What do you see as the pleasures and challenges of your work?


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