Adventures in Online Program Management (A.M.A.)

Rob has invited me to write a guest post as an ‘Ask me Anything’ learning experience for students in his current program. I’m honored to be able to participate! If you’d like to know more about my background, feel free to visit my LinkedIn profile or my Portfolio.

Online program management can definitely be an adventure. Sometimes I show up at work and ask myself which law we’re going to break today. There are so many rules and requirements from competing stakeholders, that it’s nearly impossible to run an online course or program without breaking some of them. Much of my work involves negotiating political minefields and treading lightly around fragile egos.  I love my job!

I’ll share a brief story about something that happened just yesterday, and then feel free to use the comments section of this post to Ask me Anything. Often with online programs, we count on third party partnerships. We currently use a state consortium model for shared online courses between the 34 community and technical colleges in Washington. One of the options in this consortium is for our college to pay an instructor to teach a system owned shared course where students from other colleges can enroll. We pay the instructor, and our college collects instruction fees from colleges where participating students are enrolled.

Currently we have it set up so those instructors report directly to me. Yesterday one of the instructors sent me the following email (summarized):

A student who is enrolled in this class has not taken part in the class all quarter. The only assignment I’ve received is posted under Exam 4 where the student submitted an x-rated photo of one of their body parts.

Adventure time!  To resolve this issue, I had to take into consideration everything from student discipline to concern for a safe environment for instructors. The instructor is remote. I don’t have access to the course because it is hosted by the consortium. The student is enrolled at another institution. It took many sensitive communications to get the system rolling to take care of this situation.

Feel free to leave comments and questions and Ask me Anything about my adventures in Online Program Management.

Jen

  • Rob Nyland

    Hey Jen, let me start out with a question to get the ball rolling. What single thing would you say you spend your most time with when managing online programs?

  • Jen

    @Rob That’s a tough one, because managing online programs is only a small part of my job, here. We don’t have any programs fully online right now, just individual courses. We aren’t even accredited to offer full programs. Last week I helped write some language to submit a ‘substantive change’ request to accreditors about a specific program.
    We’re pretty new to this online stuff, so it’s almost like starting from scratch. We just completed our LMS migration, so my next focus is on developing a strategic plan for eLearning. I’m aligning it with the college strategic plan, but being careful to incorporate considerations from the faculty union contract.

    I can’t pinpoint a single thing, because it’s really a juggling act. Because we have an open lab and I sit where people can access me easily, I do a lot of just-in-time professional development and problem-solving. I think if I could identify a single thing that took up most of my time, I’d be looking for a job with better stimulation 😉

  • Tyler Beckstrom

    Wow. That situation sounds interesting. I must admit that humanity can really amaze me sometimes.
    I’m sorry if perhaps I’m not understanding your situation fully, but a question I have right now is if you’re program is kind of a “middle-man” for other institutions. You offer online programs and universities use you as a resource to teach certain courses. Is that how it is? Is that what makes your job so difficult by having so many stakeholders?

    Could you also identify some of the stakeholders you need to help placate?

    -Tyler Beckstrom

    • Jen

      Hi, Tyler! I’m at Lake Washington Institute of Technology. When we’re talking ‘Programs’ at the college, it usually means a whole degree or certificate. I’m the Director of eLearning, but we don’t yet have any fully online programs. We do have online and hybrid courses.

      The one I described the challenge with is part of a state-wide consortium agreement. We have an organization called Washington Online, which hosts courses for the 34 community and technical colleges in the state. You can see the cost model at http://www.waol.org/faculty_and_staff/resources/shared-courses/waol-cost-model/cost-model-graphic

      In theory, it’s a great idea. Consider if I have students who need one course to graduate, but we don’t have enough students at our school to fill and run it. That student can take it online through WAOL and get credit at our college. Or we may have an instructor with expertise and a great course, but not enough students. We can run it as a College Shared course on WAOL and enroll students from other colleges.

      In practices, most colleges are frustrated with the system and are reducing their participation. One of the challenges is that we have to list WAOL courses we want to run in our schedule, but sometimes the other colleges don’t run the courses. Also, the WAOL quarter schedule doesn’t always match the college schedule.

      I could write a book about competing stakeholders! To start, I report to a dean, who reports to the VP of Instruction, who reports to the College President. So I am in the Instruction department, but it wasn’t always that way. I think it works better to have eLearning in Instruction, than IT, as it is in some schools.

      One of the biggest drivers of decisions in a college is the quest to meet enrollment numbers. The state assigns us targeted enrollment numbers. When we meet the numbers, we get the anticipated funding. It’s on a rolling multi-year schedule, so we have the chance to make up for dropped enrollment to average out a few years. For many years, online learning has been targeted as a fast and easy way to increase enrollments. I have to keep enrollment in mind with all my decisions, because the people above me are accountable for those numbers.

      Here are some particular stakeholders:

      President/Cabinet/Board of Trustees – These folks will always want us to look innovative, and show increased enrollment and adoption.

      Deans – These folks are all over different departments and programs, so will want special attention for their people. They also hire the instructors, often at the last minute and with no regard for their technology proficiency. I need to make these folks look good to their bosses.

      Instructors – I spend a great deal of time working with and advocating for instructors. Our faculty is 78% adjunct. That means I have 300+ instructors who get zero pay for learning new technology. There is a faculty union with specific contract requirements for online learning. I keep that contract in my top desk drawer to reference when I’m doing anything that will involve increasing faculty time commitment or workload. (For example, our faculty union contract limits the number of students in an online course to 24.)

      Students – Our office is in a heavy traffic, highly visible location and we have a computer lab for faculty. Students often just wander in because they have no idea where to go for help. I advise my staff that we may be the only friendly faces students see in a day, and we will try to find them help, even if it’s not related to eLearning. We help a lot of students with general IT stuff because we don’t want to have to send them searching when they are already frustrated.

      Other college departments – I have to work closely with IT and tread lightly with the library and bookstore, because we offer competing services. Bookstores are a revenue center. An eLearning department promoting OER can drastically reduce their revenue. I also have to be diplomatic with student services.

      Vendors – I love working with technology vendors. Publisher vendors are nice people, but it’s hard to not hate what they do. Many instructors have been completely seduced by publishers and it’s hard to get them to break their loyalty when they’ve been using a text for years.

      State eLearning Council – This is a group of directors from the 34 community and technical colleges in WA. I don’t always agree with their plans and recommendations, but I love the people and try to be gentle.

      Rules and Regulations – FERPA, HIPAA, ADA, accreditors, compliance for financial aid, state authorization, copyright and fair use are just some of the legal things we have to juggle every day.

      There are many more, but I don’t want to create too much content for you to read. I hope that answer helps!

  • Rebecca Thomas

    Hi Jen! I’ve enjoyed reading all your posts, they’ve been very informative. You mentioned that your college doesn’t offer programs that are fully online, so your job is to manage the individual courses. I was wondering how you think your duties would be different if you did offer programs that were fully online. Would that introduce a new set of stakeholders you’d have to consider?

    • Jen

      Hi, Rebecca. It’s mostly the same stakeholders. Consider us ‘pre-program’. We aspire to have programs fully online. We’ve got to submit ‘substantive change’ paperwork to our accreditation organization. We’ve also got to work on State Authorization to be eligible to teach students who reside in other states.

      One of the other challenges with moving to fully online programs is getting buy-in from existing programs and faculty. There are instructors who insist their programs cannot run online. Because of union contracts, we can’t just create an online version and potentially put instructors out of work.

      Other stakeholders are based on industry and market needs. Consider what happens as the market needs shift and existing programs become obsolete, or faculty skills aren’t up to speed with what industry needs in employees. Because we’re a technical college, we’re more responsible to employers than a university might be. Our programs have advisory boards with representatives from industry. We have to balance their desires with what we’re capable of implementing with existing resources.

      • Noelle Anderson

        Thanks for sharing Jen! You don’t always think of the logistics behind online classes when you are talking about them. I was wondering what are your thoughts on online classes, whether fully online or not? Do you feel like the online course offers as much, more, or less than typical classroom instruction? As well, how are the instructors for the online courses chosen? Is it typical to a normal teaching position?
        Thanks!

        • Jen

          Noelle, those are great questions. As far as comparing online to face-to-face, every circumstance is unique. When I interviewed for this position, one of the questions asked how I would convince faculty that online courses would be as high quality as their face-to-face courses. I replied that it must be a trick question, because I don’t know that their face-to-face courses are high quality.

          Unfortunately, most higher education instructors have not been taught to teach and there is very little oversight and accountability for what happens in the classroom. We’ve been distracted too long comparing online and face-to-face when we should be working hard to teach our teachers teaching, regardless of the medium.

          I believe to successfully teach online, you need a strong understanding of pedagogy/andragogy, instructional design, and the technology you will be using. The instructional activities need to work well with the type of content, and the learners. Not everyone will be successful in an online course. We need to be careful not to set people up to fail. Often I have students walk into my office straight from registration asking why they are in an online class, when they said specifically they don’t want to be in one. I tell them to go back and change it. I’m not going to sell a student on something they are determined to hate. I give them the respect to ask why they don’t want to do it, but I need to trust that they know themselves and their weaknesses.

          As far as how instructors are selected, this is one of the things that I’m trying to focus on in my planning. I’ve been in too many places where leaders just expect all instructors to be able to move into this. I think that is setting people up to fail. I tell the deans that if they want instructors to teach online, they need to hire instructors who can do it. I am opposed to forcing our current faculty to do it if they are not qualified. This is not fair to them or to our learners.

          I do think it’s an important skillset for instructors to build, but it takes a lot of time and effort and institutions need to recognize and compensate instructors for that kind of development.

          If you have a chance, I recommend watching the old musical Singing in the Rain. I know that sounds silly, but the friends in that movie are a good metaphor for what we’re going through in eLearning. They have to find a solution for an actress moving from silent to talking pictures. Not everyone is going elegantly make the transition to online learning http://youtu.be/OTFCctdiS04