How Online Leadership is Changing in Higher Education

online leadership hero

The following session was presented at Educause 2019 by Eric Fredericksen, Associate Vice President, University of Rochester; Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer, Eduventures, National Research Center for College & University Admissions; and Ron Legon, Executive Director Emeritus, Quality Matters.

Who manages online programs at most universities? What does a chief online officer (COO) do, and how does that overlap with the head of IT?  

The most recent survey from Quality Matters and Eduventures Research of online officers across all sectors of US higher education answers these questions. In its fourth year, CHLOE – an acronym for changing landscapes in online education – gathered feedback from 367 respondents, up from 104 in 2016 ﹘ the largest response yet. 

“We’re quite happy with how the survey has taken hold, ” said Ron Legon, Executive Director Emeritus at Quality Matters.

COO on the rise

More institutions now have a COO than ever before. While only 15% of higher education institutions surveyed had a COO pre-2001, now almost all have one, even if the title varies. 

“In most cases, this position is situated on the academic side of the house,” Ron explained, although some report to the president of the institution.  

Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer, Eduventures, National Research Center for College and University Admissions, at the podium giving a session at Educause 2019 about the latest CHLOE 3 survey results.
Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer, Eduventures, National Research Center for College and University Admissions, explains how the relationship between the CIO and COO may be linked with enrollment.

What COOs actually do

How exactly do COOs help oversee online teaching and learning?

At least half of all COOs in the study oversees an array of responsibilities including instructional design and course development, quality assurance, LMS support/administration, online budgeting, online policy-making, and student/faculty training. In addition to technical knowledge, COOs need excellent collaboration skills as well. 

“One of the top duties of the COO is coordination between the academic units,” Ron said.

Relationships evolve

Considering the growing presence of COOs and the potential overlap in duties with IT, what is the relationship between those two senior officer positions? 

“This year, for the first time, we asked them how they relate to other senior officers at the institution,” Ron said. “Specifically, we wanted to find out the relationship between two top officers ﹘ the COO and Chief Information Officer (CIO).” 

Eric Fredericksen, Associate Vice President at the University of Rochester, echoed the mindset of many administrators. 

“The common question that comes up is: ‘What are our peer institutions doing?’” Eric asked. “We need the anecdotal experience of working faculty and administrators to find out what the working relationship is between the CIO and COO.  Is it collaborative? Are they separate parallel tracks that seldom intersect? Or is one person wearing both hats?”

In the majority of institutions surveyed, the COO and CIO collaborate as peers, from 56% of the time at community colleges to 77% in larger universities. The two roles tend to collaborate more in institutions that have restructured to maximize the benefits of online and distance learning. Looking at Carnegie classifications, Research and Masters institutions have a high incidence of collaborating roles as well.  

“It sends a message that as online learning grows, it benefits from a closer collaboration between these two officers and their organizations,” Ron said.

While the teamwork mindset is highly beneficial at that level of leadership, sometimes it can also be tough for faculty and staff. When duties overlap between CIO and COO, students and faculty don’t know who to ask questions, or where to get help. 

Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer at Eduventures, sees the emergence of this strong relationship as reason to ask more questions about how it will mature in the future. 

“What is the optimal relationship here?” Richard asked. “Should it be a collaboration of these roles, where the COO focuses on remote students and the CIO on campus students? Or do the two roles need to merge?”

Two senior online officers collaborate and discuss strategies while pointing to two large computer screens.

Centralize or not? 

Given the amount of emerging technology for online and blended programs, it’s no wonder colleges grapple with the best way to introduce new solutions. New e-learning technology can come from the CIO, the COO, or from both offices. Sometimes departments choose their own internal systems. In past decades, universities have trended from decentralized to centralized and back again. 

“Does everybody get a sense that this is the wild west, or are we going towards a more centralized structure?,” asked Ron. 

Vendors frequently offer tools directly to faculty and departments, with cloud options that make a department-only pilot feasible. With the best of intentions, sometimes faculty groups roll out new tools without letting IT or even their department heads know ahead of time. With so many shiny new systems in the cloud, it can be difficult to stem rogue rollouts when vendors have turn-key systems. There can also be a fuzzy line about IT approval when programs are used first at home, off premise, and then slowly brought into the institution. 

This increased multi-level array of options may not always be a bad thing. 

“Today’s student, traditional or not, increasingly values the convenience of online learning, whether it makes up an entire program or just a portion. COOs and CIOs need to work together to ensure the student experience is as flexible and integrated as possible,” Richard said. “The CHLOE project will continue to explore this and many other online learning issues.”  

Next steps

The next iteration of the survey ﹘ CHLOE 5 ﹘ will launch next year with a focus on the online learning market. Moving forward, the survey will continue to look at changing landscapes in online education, after its namesake acronym.  

See the Quality Matters website for more information including full CHLOE survey results.  

Do your video tools give faculty an easy way to record, share, edit, and caption videos for online and blended learning? 

TechSmith Knowmia Pro provides industry-leading quizzing and analytics, mobile teaching and learning, and flexible accessibility options.

Subscribe to TechSmith’s Newsletter

Join over 200,000 people who get actionable tips and expert advice every month in the TechSmith Newsletter.