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When Amy Collier was a graduate student heading for a Ph.D. in family studies at Texas Woman’s University in the mid-2000s, she was “mostly not interested and not really engaged with technology,” she says, even as the institution was ramping up its online learning options. She only took a few online courses at the college, though she did serve as a teaching assistant for its fully online master's program.

That experience, she said, offered a “full, comprehensive look” into the worlds of online accreditation, instructional design and program management. She quickly grew fascinated by these topics and started researching them in depth. It wasn’t a huge leap from there into the field of digital learning as a career. She served in several director roles in digital and online learning at Stanford University before arriving at Middlebury College in 2015 as associate provost for digital learning.

Her background underscores the unusual career trajectories for digital learning leaders, charged with charting a course for their institutions toward a more technology-focused future. People in these positions come to them from a wide variety of backgrounds, sometimes benefiting from being in the right place at the time, or having a particular skill that’s called upon at a key moment.

As outlined in an ongoing study by Eric Fredericksen, associate vice president for online learning at the University of Rochester, a majority of these positions -- variously called director of digital learning, vice provost of online learning, director of academic technology and others -- began cropping up over the past six years, which means many of their occupants are operating without institutional precedent. Of the 255 administrators surveyed in Fredericksen’s report, only 29 percent said their positions existed more than a decade ago.

Fredericksen believes that the massive open online course craze during the early part of this decade spurred universities to leap into action on technology issues more broadly, seeking leaders who could help expand their initiatives. Other phenomena have supplanted MOOCs, but the positions remain, and continue to evolve.

Collier said working with technologies that enhance teaching and learning is “a great position for people who see themselves as lifelong learners -- for people who like the challenge of having to learn new things.”

Thus far, no singular path has emerged for those aspiring to these careers. But for many who land in digital learning leadership roles, they didn't know they were headed down this path -- which comes with benefits and challenges.

Starting From Different Places

Adam Croom, director of the University of Oklahoma’s office of digital learning, worked from 2011 to 2013 on marketing and public relations for the institution’s economic development and corporate relations teams. Part of his responsibilities included creating media assets and sometimes collaborating with faculty members on short video-driven courses.

In 2012, Croom helped found a locally organized TEDx event, where he met Jeremy Short, an Oklahoma professor of management and entrepreneurship who wanted to build the institution’s first MOOC. Croom found Short’s ideas -- particularly for a “graphic novel textbook” -- intriguing, so the two teamed up to build the MOOC on Wordpress.

As that project continued, Croom started splitting his time between his marketing responsibilities and new ones as program director for Oklahoma’s digital experimentation. The job began with a focus on courses and has since evolved to include master’s programs, projects around open-access resources and web tools for game-based learning. He started out as a one-man band and has hired one or two employees each year.

“It wasn’t a quick process by any means,” Croom said. “I feel like it’s been a natural evolution of the momentum we’ve been building at OU.”

Reba-Anna Lee, director of online program development at Northwestern University, taught high school before taking a job at an online secondary school that set her on a path toward her current role. Convinced that online education represented the future of her profession, in 2007 she earned a doctorate in educational technology. Then she served as associate director of academic technology and elearning at Marist College from 2008 to 2015.

For the last two years at Northwestern, she’s been collaborating with faculty members and liaisons on classroom technology projects and training programs. Years ago, her interests lay in English literature and educational game design. But, like many in the digital learning sphere, she didn’t let her interests dictate her path too narrowly.

“If I sat down and planned out my career, it never would have led in this direction,” Lee said. “I would have been a novelist living in New York City.”

Peter Shea, associate provost for online learning at the State University of New York at Albany, filled a similar role in the broader SUNY system in the early 2000s before taking a detour into teaching and conducting research on online learning at Albany through a grant from the Albert P. Sloan Foundation.

Working on campus at a research institution has been markedly different from the more abstract task of overseeing 64 campuses from on high at the system level, Shea said.

“I find that being on campus, you can actually get more done at a granular level,” Shea said. “There’s more of a results orientation to the position.”

At Boston University, Romy Ruukel, director of the digital learning initiative there, had a stint in admissions in the early 2010s. She got her official start in the digital learning world as a program manager at edX. She started out working on individual faculty development and blended learning initiatives, but she has since taken on department- and institutionwide projects, including pilots for online advising and mentoring.

Opportunities and Challenges

Almost every administrator interviewed for this article mentioned aligning a diverse array of stakeholders as one of their top challenges. Some leaders interviewed contend that some faculty members are reluctant to buy in to new online and technology initiatives.

In particular, Lee said, some instructors assume that teaching online means creating a MOOC, which gained a negative reputation after a boom half a decade ago.

“There’s still that misconception by faculty where they have to be actors, do well on camera,” Lee said. “We really work to say, ‘You need to show your face in this class and at least an introduction video, but you can show your presence in other ways.’”

Turnover at the administrative level can also pose obstacles to conversations about innovation. Shea, for instance, has had four provosts since he started in the role in 2011.

“That can be a little bit of a challenge, to reacquaint folks with what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Shea said. “Each one of the provosts has been extremely receptive and supportive. But there’s a lot on the plates of senior leadership.”

For Croom of the University of Oklahoma, a typical project faces numerous rounds of feedback and incorporates several ideas before proceeding. Croom’s colleagues sometimes have to be reminded that investing in technology represents a long-term commitment that will yield far more than short-term gains.

“That sounds sort of political,” Croom said. “It really is.”

Digital learning leaders debate to what extent working in the classroom should be part of their responsibilities. Most agree that it’s valuable, but some institutions require administrators to work exclusively behind the scenes.

Croom’s position places approximately equal weight on those aspects. He sees research as a vital component of his position.

Not everyone gets the same flexibility, though. Collier’s duties keep her almost exclusively on the administrative side. Though she occasionally teaches a one-off special course, she wouldn’t mind having more direct interactions with students. “I think it’s important for us to stay connected,” she said.

Another byproduct of this position’s relative youth is that digital learning administrators haven’t yet formed a collective identity. Croom said he often struggles to figure out which conferences to attend -- many have offerings of interest, but none focus exclusively on pertinent issues. “None of them feels 100 percent like home,” he said.

Others interviewed for this article said they often struggle to find like-minded people on campus with whom to share ideas.

Building From the Ground Up

Given that colleges are still creating these positions, starting without the benefit of institutional knowledge from a predecessor can be daunting -- but Ruukel found it thrilling.

“At first you’re driving the car as you’re building it, laying the tracks as you’re driving the train -- whatever metaphor you want to use,” said Ruukel.

Eventually, the responsibilities calcify. Lee’s position started out with a more vague set of responsibilities that involved taking faculty members’ temperature on their capacity to engage with technology. Now she’s taking a more active role.

If her job duties grow too daunting, she said, her position might be split in two -- one person would deal with online learning as it affects the university globally, and one would work directly with instructors.

Indeed, even as Fredericksen’s study boasts the names of close to 1,000 digital learning administrators nationwide, their long-term future remains in doubt. Their positions could well evolve into something else.

Ruukel is enjoying her duties -- even though a part of her knows they won’t last forever. Once the university has incorporated digital technology into every facet of its offerings, her work as it’s currently laid out will be done.

“You hope this is the kind of job where if you do it really well, you no longer need it,” Ruukel said. “It is my hope that in 10, 20 years, there’s no digital education. It’s just education.”

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