Using Collaborative Leadership to Enhance Online Learning Across the University

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

The growing demand for online learning is challenging universities to move beyond program-specific thinking to develop strategies and resources to deliver high quality online instruction across the university. Learn how one university is using a collaborative leadership model to promote institutional learning, innovation, and change.  


Paula L. Weissman is a full-time lecturer in the Public Communication Division at American University and the Program Director for the School of Communication’s Online M.A. in Strategic Communication. Previously, she served for several years as an administrator and faculty member for Johns Hopkins University’s M.A. in Communication program. She teaches courses in research methods, communication theory, and health communication. Prior to her academic career, she worked for public relations and research firms, including Porter Novelli, the Sutton Group, and the Center for the Study of Services, on a variety of health and social change initiatives. Her research is focused on ethics and social responsibility in health communication. Dr. Weissman is the author of a book chapter on presenting risk information to audiences with low health literacy, and her research has been presented at national and international conferences. She holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Maryland.
Manager and thought leader in the realm of digital disruption. Two decades of management in the information technology field lead to a rewarding career in higher education. Working with students, faculty and staff at American University provides a daily dose of intellectual conversation and a glimpse into the aspirations and expectations of the next generation of business leaders.

Extended Abstract


Online learning is on the rise and positioned to transform the academy. In 2014, approximately 28% of all higher education students took at least one course online, and half of those students took all of their courses online. Online education enrollments increased 7% from 2012 to 2014, with most of that growth occurring at private, non-profit and public institutions with histories of providing traditional brick-and-mortar education (Allen & Seaman, 2016).

Academic leaders know they must adapt. Almost two-thirds (66.3%) of chief academic leaders describe online learning as “critical” to their university’s long-term strategy (Allen & Seaman, 2016). Despite this recognition, the barriers to launching and scaling online programs and blended learning experiences remain high. Quality online learning programs require robust infrastructures, effective management, sound pedagogy, and talented faculty.

As online learning becomes more mainstream, operating online programs separately from existing university structures and processes makes little strategic, operational, or financial sense. This realization is pushing universities to consider how to better integrate online learning into the very core of their institutions (Otte & Benke, 2006). Success will require coordination across all levels of the university, including top-level administrators, faculty, information technology specialists, and academic support services. The ability to effectively bridge these functional boundaries requires collaborative leadership that is “much more about orchestrating the interaction of all stakeholders than providing direction in a top-down manner” (Otte & Benke, 2006, p. 23).

In recognition of these challenges, American University launched an Online Learning Leadership Council (OLLC) in Fall 2017. The Council is a multi-level, multi-disciplinary, collaborative approach to leadership that engages a variety of stakeholders across campus to help guide and promote all aspects of online learning throughout the university. Online education has evolved quickly at American University. More than 15 new programs have been launched through a combination of partners and internal resources in the past 5 years. Now the university must learn how to manage for both effectiveness and efficiencies.

This interactive presentation will share key insights from the first year of this innovative leadership initiative from the perspective of the OLLC’s Chair, Jill Klein, and Paula Weissman, an online Program Director and faculty member. Participants will become familiar with institutional-level barriers to online learning that appear in the literature; learn how to assemble and manage a collaborative, university-wide online leadership team; and explore examples of some of the team’s successes and challenges in year one.

Session Structure

  1. Participants will fill out a brief mobile phone accessible poll upon entering the session to assess their opinions about the overall online learning climate at their university, whether they think their university is positioned for success online, and how integrated online offerings are in traditional university structures and processes. Poll results will be displayed as a way of kicking off the session.  
  2. A brief overview of major findings from available literature on institutional-level barriers to delivering and scaling quality online learning will be provided. Participants will engage in a short activity that encourages them to interact with one another and the speakers about barriers at their own institutions.
  3. An overview of the philosophy and objectives of American University’s OLLC, how it is structured and assembled, and its collaborative leadership approach will be presented.  
  4. Examples of the OLLC’s first-year initiatives will be provided with discussion of successes and challenges.
  5. At least 10 minutes will be provided for audience questions.


Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2016). Online report card: Tracking online education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group. Retrieved from

Otte, G., & Benke, M. (2006, May). Online learning: New models for leadership and organization in higher education. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 10(2), 23-31 (May 2006). Retrieved from