Distance Education Administrators Face Unique Challenges

Distance education administrators must constantly juggle concerns about academic integrity, technology, and student access, along with campus politics and their own learning curve.

Fred Lokken is chairman of the Instructional Technology Council and associate dean for teaching technologies at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev. As part of an ITC Conference panel, he and his colleagues considered some of the challenges that distance education administrators face. Some of the issues identified include the following:

1. Learning curve and lack of historic place
“Distance education administrators face a different set of challenges than [do] any of the other administrators,” Lokken says. He explains that most universities’ senior administrators are uncertain about how to handle distance education, and part of this is due to the lack of historic precedent about how distance education fits into the larger academic scheme.

Many administrators take a distance education position after spending their career as a faculty member in a traditional academic department, Lokken says. This means the new distance education administrator faces a steep learning curve as he or she learns the special concerns of distance education.

“Other areas have career tracks,” says Lokken. Deans of traditional academic departments typically rise through the faculty ranks, taking on increasing areas of service and responsibility and observing the way the department is handled for many years before becoming dean.

On the other hand, a dean of distance education may assume that position with very little experience in the field, and there is not an established career track at most institutions for those who wish to become a distance education administrator. “Our responsibility or role is defined day by day and interpersonal relationship by interpersonal relationship,” says Lokken.

2. Campus politics and lack of power
Distance education administrators are also affected by a lack of power, as the successful discharge of their responsibilities often rests on the decisions of others. “We’re always outside our traditional silo,” says Lokken. For example, he explains, traditional departments often decide their future course offerings well in advance. However, some distance education departments don’t know which courses the departments wish to have offered online until they pick up the printed schedule for the upcoming semester.

This is a problem, because distance courses require “a longer planning cycle than almost any other kind of course on campus.” The lack of lead time leads to “train wreck after train wreck,” he says. These disasters happen when the departments want the distance courses taught by faculty members who are untrained or inexperienced in distance delivery, or who are unprepared for its particular challenges.

Added to this concern is the challenge of campus politics. Departments typically want control over what courses they offer and which faculty teach them, and they often resist attempts by the distance education office to give input on the hiring and assignment process, such as insight about the characteristics that are needed to teach successfully online. “Teaching online is dramatically different,” says Lokken. The distance education department, like any other, must meet its charge of maintaining quality of courses and meeting accreditation standards. “When we offer a degree online, it needs to meet the expectations of the traditional classroom,” he says.

3. Loss of autonomy
“There is a need for distance education administrators to be very proactive, to know what’s coming,” Lokken says. Sometimes, the failure to predict the worst can damage a reputation built during a time of success.

At the ITC Conference session, one participant told of a program that received a substantial federal grant for development of its distance education courses. The money was enough to allow for careful development, training, and execution. “They were really able to do it right,” says Lokken. “Doing it right” yielded good results. The distance education offerings “went from being a miniscule part of the enrollment to a significant part,” Lokken says. This was threatening to some of the traditional departments, and they responded by pulling back some of the autonomy of the distance education department and dividing this authority between the traditional departments and the deans. The distance education department’s success in this case led to its being rendered less powerful by the traditional departments.

4. Staffing concerns
Distance education can also present staffing challenges, as it is particularly vulnerable to damage from changes in personnel. Lokken notes that a single change in administrators can mean the loss of a champion of distance education, something that has a far greater impact on these programs with shorter histories than it would have on a traditional department with a long history of operation and success.

Faculty who teach online for the first time also “find it offers brand-new professional development challenges,” says Lokken. “It challenged me to think about teaching in ways I never had.” Some traditional faculty members will find they thrive in the online environment, while some will find their traditional classroom skills do not translate well.

This creates further problems for department chairs who “feel they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Lokken says. Some chairs find they are “losing their best to teaching online,” and suddenly they find themselves “struggling to cover classes they never had [problems with before],” Lokken says. This creates an administrative headache that may make traditional departments question the need for distance education.

5. Student concerns
Campuses also need to be aware of student concerns and demands, particularly in a climate in which higher education options are plentiful and sometimes seem to have few differentiators. “Students don’t have to be loyal to your campus. If you’re not offering [the desired classes] online, then they will find another option,” Lokken says.

Distant education programs are also charged with maintaining quality and assuring that students have a good chance at success. Some attempts have fallen flat, however, like a program that mandated an on-campus orientation for its distance learning students. The students responded very poorly, and administrators had to rethink the program’s approach.

Excerpted from “Distance Ed Administration: 6 Hard Lessons.” Distance Education Report, 14.9 (2010): 5.