At SOLA+R, Anxiety and Anticipation of Online Growth

Highlights from conference on online leadership illustrate diverse priorities and challenges for institutions trying to expand their online initiatives.

June 20, 2018
 

WASHINGTON -- The general mood at the Summit for Online Leadership and Administration Plus Roundtable (SOLA+R) from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association can be summed up by a quote from a university vice president during a session on traditional institutions exploring online programs.

“A lot of schools can’t afford to develop online,” he said. “But you also can’t afford not to.”

That dawning realization animated several sessions Tuesday. Administrators at institutions with small online programs know they need to do more -- even if their supervisors have yet to fully invest. For institutions already submerged in online education, questions of cost and value are keeping attendees up at night. Policy observers, in the meantime, see a need for more flexible governmental policies to account for the diverse learning experiences of modern students, though the road to achieving that goal is long and winding.

"Inside Digital Learning" gathered a few highlights from sessions and conversations. If you were at the conference, be sure to comment below with your takeaways.

Some name-brand institutions feel ashamed of their online offerings. A session on building a culture around online education opened with a sober admission from Jeff Grabill, associate provost for teaching, learning and technology at Michigan State University.

“Michigan State University is frankly a nonplayer in online education,” Grabill said. “We’ve been doing it for a long time, but not particularly strategic. It’s a hodgepodge of tactical programs.”

Online programs were forbidden at the institution until recently, he said. Shifting the culture there will take years, though he’s attempting to lead the charge with the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, an internal design consultancy that has helped reshape the institution’s veterinary training program and aims to soon reinvent several other majors.

Not to be outdone, George DiGiacomo, associate dean and chief information officer at the University of Virginia’s school of professional studies, told Grabill that UVA has an even larger “uphill battle” ahead. It’s been nearly impossible to persuade top-level administrators to swap out old features of the campus with innovation spaces, DiGiacomo said. Meanwhile, plans are in the works “to reignite a fifth or sixth attempt at trying to get some sort of institutional investment or attention paid at all to online education.”

Online innovation is happening within the institution’s schools of business, law and continuing education, DiGiacomo said. But crafting a universitywide initiative remains a tougher sell.

More From the Conference

Diane Auer Jones from the Department of Education hints at a road map for revamping the accreditation landscape.

Talent lies beyond the traditional sources. Vincent J. Del Casino Jr., vice president for academic initiatives and student success at the University of Arizona, had a mandate from his state to expand online offerings. But Del Casino found that learning designer candidates from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University didn't offer the dynamic range of experience that he believed was key to crafting a successful new slate of programs.

Instead, Del Casino made some moves that at first alienated some observers on his campus: he hired a former University of Phoenix staffer who “had massive expertise in building retention programs for … adult learners.” That person has been influential on the institution’s program, and Del Casino said he’s promoted him three times in three years. He also poached an enrollment specialist from an online program management provider.

“You meet people that are outside the box, that might not have seen themselves at a research university,” Del Casino said. “We’re desperately in need of people who challenge us, break us outside our box. It’s really important and absolutely liberating.”

No one knows for sure how instructors should be compensated for teaching online. Stevie Rocco, assistant director for learning design for the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at Pennsylvania State University, asked attendees at her session on the cost of online programs to share the financial incentives they offer instructors to teach online. Their answers were illuminating; every one was different.

A representative of George Mason University said faculty members get paid $8,000 for developing a course -- but some may get more or less depending on how involved they are in the process, and whether they’re adjuncts or full-time.

Another institution reported offering large incentives to instructors when it first launched online programs, followed by gradually smaller incentives for each subsequent year -- “Thanks for coming to the party that everyone else is already at.” Indiana State University doesn’t pay instructors for developing courses, though it offers instructors a free course to help them with the basics of course development.

Hamline University, a small liberal arts institution in Minnesota, just started its online programs with a mandate from the provost “to do almost anything,” a representative from the institution said. Course development started two weeks ago, and each faculty member will get $5,000 per course.

Rocco’s institution and its online arm, Penn State World Campus, are so vast that it has numerous models within a single institution. That level of variation extends to revenue models, Rocco said.

“It seems like every unit has a different way revenue comes in,” Rocco said.

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