Does Structure Matter? Aggregate findings of the CORAL study into the evolving nature of organizational structures of online units at colleges and universities

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session Leadership

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Brief Abstract

In response to the ongoing dialog in the online community about where online programming “lives” in an institution of higher education, CORAL research collaborative launched a study to investigate the intersection of organizational structure and academic functions of colleges and universities throughout the United States.  All the results are in!



Dr. Bouchey is Associate Professor and Dean of Online Education at National Louis University where she is responsible for standards of quality and service for online programming across the institution. Dr. Bouchey has had the opportunity to lead all aspects of an online campus and programming in her career and spends time each week in deep dialog with an engaged personal learning network discussing the evolving nature of online education. Dr. Bouchey holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University at Albany, an M.B.A. in Entrepreneurship from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a Doctorate in Education from Northeastern University. She is a co-founder of the CORAL Research collaborative focused on online leadership and scholarship; her personal research interests include the nature and future of organizational structures of online units in institutions of higher education, as well as inventive and high-impact pedagogical practice in online teaching. Dr. Bouchey writes and is widely quoted in the academic and popular press; her articles and curriculum vitae can be accessed here:
Erin is a Librarian at Orange Coast College in Southern California. Prior to this position she was the Senior Director of La Verne Online, the virtual campus of the University of La Verne. Erin was brought in to develop and implement a strategic vision for online education at the University. Prior to working in La Verne Online, Erin was an academic research and technology librarian for more than 15 years. She also teaches online and is an adjunct faculty in the EdD in Organizational Leadership program at the University of La Verne. She is a 2018 IELOL alumni and a founding member of the Collegiate Online Research Collaborative (CORAL). Her research interests are in faculty trust and readiness for change; resistance and readiness towards online education in higher education, and effective leadership and organizational structures of online education.
Dr. Monica Simonsen is the Director of Special Education Online Programs for the University of Kansas. In this capacity, Dr. Simonsen is responsible for recruiting and training instructors, coordinating course development and revision, and overseeing admissions and student advising. She is currently participating in the OLC"s Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning. Dr. Simonsen previously served as the Program Associate for the Secondary Special Education and Transition Services online graduate program and a Senior Research Associate at TransCen, Inc., providing technical assistance and research expertise to a variety of state and national transition projects. Prior to joining TransCen, Inc., Dr. Simonsen worked as a secondary special educator and transition specialist in Maryland, coordinated a post-secondary program for 18-21 year olds with intellectual disabilities, and completed her doctorate at the University of Maryland. She has been an instructor for KU since 2010 and has taught courses at the University of Maryland and at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Dr. Simonsen has authored numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and practice briefs. Dr. Simonsen's primary research interests are on the role of family and teacher expectations on student outcomes, the impact of online learning on special education teacher preparation, culturally responsive online teaching, and organizational structures that support high quality online learning.

Additional Authors

Michael Reis brings a broad range of professional experiences as an educator, administrator, and project manager, both in higher education and community organizations. Mr. Reis currently serves as an Associate Director for Online@VCU and the ALT Lab, Virginia Commonwealth University's central administrative units for online programs and technology-enhanced learning. Mr. Reis' work as a higher education administrator has focused on building greater institutional capacity to support high-quality online learning. This includes recruiting a superb instructional design team, launching programming and quality assurance initiatives, and developing policies, processes, and analytics to support greater clarity and efficiency. Mr. Reis has also conducted large-scale institutional evaluations, managed technology implementation, and performed institutional research on student success, campus climate, and resource management. As an educator, he has designed and directed degree and community education programs, developed open-access resources for teaching and research, and taught graduate courses in education. He holds a master's degree in Ethics & Social Theory and a master's degree in Higher Education Administration, with additional graduate coursework in organizational development and distance learning pedagogies. He has presented at national conferences and international symposiums on curriculum, policy, and instructional strategies.

Extended Abstract

 In response to the ongoing dialog in the online community about where online programming “lives” in an institution of higher education, CORAL (Collegiate Online Research Leaders) research collaborative launched a qualitative study to investigate and determine a typology of the structures of online education units in U.S-based colleges and universities.  Moreover, the study intended to make sense of the potential trend identified in the CHLOE 3 Report (2019) that indicates more institutions are now identifying with a more centralized online operation; as well as address the gaps in the literature around online organizational structure and its implications on important student lifecycle functional areas (e.g., Student Onboarding, Student Support, Academic Functions, and Administration).


 Specifically, we talked to 30 different Chief Online Officers (COLOs) at institutions across the United States about their online organizations.  We asked about the precedent conditions and decisions that lead to the current structure of the online unit within the institution in regards to the five areas of organizational design.  We also asked them to indicate what the implications of the current structure of the online unit within the institution is/was and/or if any changes are planned.  Each quarter interviews were conducted with these Chief Online Officers covering one of the four dimensions designed by the CORAL team as important student lifecycle functional areas within an institution:

1)      Student Onboarding – marketing, enrollment, admissions, financial aid, entrance evaluations, and new student matriculation services. 

2)      Student Support Services – student retention services, student engagement, student well-being, and learning support. 

3)      Academic Functions – curriculum, programmatic oversight, instructional design, quality assessment, and faculty professional development and support. 

4)      Administration – online program manager (if applicable), institutional research, information technology, finance, and facilities. 

We even had the opportunity to interview COLOs before, during, and after the Pandemic of 2020 swept the nation.  During this session we will present our preliminary findings across the four dimensions and audience members will have the opportunity to discuss the findings within the context of their own institutions, to ask the following questions: 

  1. Do the findings align with our experiences?

  2. What are the implications of alignment or misalignment?

  3. Should our institutions think through upcoming change in light of the findings and/or learnings from the Pandemic of 2020? 

Audience members should leave with an understanding of different organizational structures that existed in the sample, how their institution fits within these findings and a framework for asking questions and/or making changes at their own institutions in the coming year.