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The Rise of the Online Higher Education Leader

Online learning professionals are playing a bigger role in higher education as distance learning and digital course instruction continues to grow in numbers and prestige.

Not so long ago “online” meant “sidelines” in higher education. Professionals in the field often were treated as second-string players on a college's administrative team.

Things are changing. Online professionals in higher ed today increasingly say they have a seat at the table. They are equal partners in developing institutional strategy, and that new clout is giving them the freedom and the flexibility to experiment with new ideas.

It's “an exciting time to be a professional in our field,” said Khusro Kidwai, assistant dean of distance learning at Northwestern University School of Professional Studies.

Rising acceptance

The growing prestige of the online professional comes at a time of strong enrollment in online learning at the collegiate level.

Recent findings show a year-to-year increase of 226,375 distance education students, up 3.9 percent over the past two years, according to the latest Digital Learning Compass report. More than one in four students (29.7 percent) now take at least one distance education course, totaling over 7 million students. 

That rising acceptance of online learning is paralleled by the growing embrace of the online professional as a key member within university leadership.

Ray Schroeder saw this reflected in a title change two years ago. After nearly two decades with the University of Illinois, Springfield, he got new business cards that read "associate vice chancellor for online learning." It was a reflection not just of his own seniority, but of the evolving place of online learning.

“The role within the university has changed,” he said. “Online used to be held at arm's length: It was for extension, it was for continuing education. Now it has moved into the mainstream.”

Schroeder's new position puts him on a par with other senior leaders. “Practically, it means you are a member of the dean's cabinet. You are a voice at the table when it comes to making academic decisions, where before it was more of a minority interest,” he said.

New titles are usually a sign of organizational maturity, but they are in a sense just the tip of the iceberg. An even more profound change can be seen in how today's online professionals are using that newfound clout to beef up and expand their programs.

New offerings

In 2001, Debbie Cavalier helped launch Berklee Online, the distance learning arm of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Today the online program touches 9,000 students a year, more than double the 4,000 annual enrollment of the traditional campus.

Cavalier has leveraged that muscle to expand her offerings. Where Berklee Online originally was only outward facing, today it offers courses to students enrolled in the traditional school as well. This move has big educational benefits.

“Music students may get the career opportunity to go on the road with a band, and then they have to choose between their career and their education,” she said. “With the online program, we can make it possible for them to continue their studies while still following that career opportunity.”

It would almost be hard to overstate the impact online learning has had at Berklee. Massively open online courses (MOOCs) offered at no charge to students have touched 2 million students in the past three years. Online education includes 135 standalone courses and 50 certificate programs. An online bachelor's degree program kicked off in 2014, and in fall 2018, the school will begin offering online masters degrees in music business and music production.

For others, the rise of online has opened international doors. At Northwestern, Kidwai recently established a program to offer courses in India through a partnership with media company Hindustan Times. That's not something that could have happened back in the days when online education was viewed as a sideshow to the main event of higher ed.

He's also forging a partnership with Osher Lifelong Learning Institute as an outreach effort to the older adult community of learners. All this further bolsters his credentials on campus. “The other schools or colleges within the university now seek us out,” he said. “It may be to partner on joint programs, it may be to consult with us on how they can build internal capacity. We now are very much known for having expertise in online, blended and digital learning.”

How will these online leaders leverage their hard-won influence going forward?

While Cavalier is assembling that master's program, and Kidwai seeks out additional international markets, Schroeder is building “stackable certificates” — gearing his online offerings to steer learners not just toward degrees but toward potential career paths. He's also looking at online as an enabler to put fast-rising artificial intelligence (AI) tools to work in the service of the university.

“Who's going to teach calculus? Do you really need a person to do that?” he said. “If you can save funds doing it online with AI and provide the same or better quality — why not?” 

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.