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It's hard to find a college or university these days that doesn't have some kind of strategy for online education or digital learning. But it may be even harder to figure out who at those institutions is responsible for setting that strategy.

Eric E. Fredericksen may have as good an idea as anyone. For research he presented at the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate meeting in November, Fredericksen, associate vice president of online learning at the University of Rochester, scoured the Internet to identify the singular official who oversees online learning at nearly 1,110 doctorate- and master’s-granting colleges and universities. (He plans to expand his search to include Carnegie’s baccalaureate and associate institutions.)

Fredericksen pinpointed 820 such leaders – some were easy to find, others took some sleuthing -- and 255 of them responded to a survey about their roles and their views.

“With so many institutions realizing that technology is an important part of their future, it seems important to figure out what we know about the leaders that are guiding these critical efforts,” Fredericksen said.

Part of the reason many of the officials were so difficult to identify is because few clear structures have emerged for who leads digital learning efforts.

While 29 percent of respondents said their positions were created more than a decade ago, the majority were established within the last six years as digital technologies took hold more strongly.

About half of the survey’s respondents reported to the provost and another quarter or so to another senior academic leader, such as a dean. Others report up through a technology office.  

Nearly a third have no background in information technology, about half hold a tenured (or tenure-track) faculty appointment, and more than 25 percent have more than 20 years of face-to-face teaching experience.

Asked which courses at their institutions they thought were in their domain, a solid majority – 60 percent – said all classes. Just 18 percent limited their purview to courses that were exclusively online, and another 18 percent to those that were completely online or hybrid.

“It appears that these people are being put in place to have a positive impact on all types of courses,” Fredericksen said. “They view ‘online’ as including a continuum from any web-based enhancement to delivered fully online, and by that definition these people may have a positive impact on lots of the academic offerings.”

The leaders surveyed by Fredericksen identified their key strategic goals as being increasing their institution’s enrollment (82 percent) and driving instructional innovation (74 percent). At universities classified by Carnegie as Research 1, 86 percent cited instructional innovation as their chief goal.

And asked to identify their top priorities and issues, faculty development and training led the list, following by strategic planning and staffing for instructional design and faculty support.

Fredericksen plans to expand his research to include other four-year and two-year institutions, and ultimately to publish the work. His study – and a similar survey on which Eduventures and Quality Matters are collaborating – could help inform the landscape for digital learning going forward.

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