Does Structure Matter? The Evolving Nature of Online Organizational Structures in Higher Education Institutions

Concurrent Session 6
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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.  Let’s discuss the findings together!



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.
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.
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

Shelley Kurland is the Dean of Virtual Campus at the County College of Morris in Randolph, New Jersey. She has been an educator since 1999 and involved in distance education since 2003. Shelley’s areas of expertise and interests are in distance education, active learning, faculty learning, and the use of digital technologies with pedagogical considerations. She uses the question, 'Is this the best for the student?' as the compass for her professional work. Shelley's scholarly activities involve active contributions through professional presentations in the areas of teaching and learning in all delivery methods. As part of her action research dissertation study, Rethinking Teaching in STEM Education in a Community College: Role of Instructional Consultation and Digital Technologies, Shelley discussed educators’ tendency to introduce or to implement technology without aligning it to a theoretical framework, which may lead to the 'using technology for the sake of using technology mindset'. She developed and introduced the Learning-Teaching-Technology Cycle. Each of the elements – learning, teaching, and technology – is critical, connected, and inform each other as an educator designs and implements an activity and/or lesson. Shelley holds a B.S. in Exercise Science and Sports Studies from Rutgers University, a Master of Arts in Teaching with a concentration in Teacher of the Handicapped and a Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Teacher Education/Teacher Development. Both postgraduate degrees are obtained from Montclair State University. She also serves as a member of the Instructional Technology Council (ITC) Advocacy Committee and a member of the New Jersey Community College Consortium’s Distance Education Affinity Group. She is part of OLC's IELOL Class of 2018. Shelley was also the recipient of NJEDge Distinguished Service Award for Educational Technology in 2018.

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 study to investigate and determine a typology of the structures of online education units in U.S-based colleges and universities.  Moreover, the study intends 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).

With the understanding that higher education institutions are complex organizations, this study seeks to create a typology of organizational structures of online units that institutions can identify with, and then use to better understand strengths and challenges of the [their] current structure(s) through the findings of the study.  Specifically, Chief Online Officers (COLOs) at institutions across the United States were 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:

1)      Work specialization - the degree to which tasks in an organization are divided into separate jobs.

2)      Chain of command - answers the question of “who reports to whom?” and signifies formal authority relationships.

3)      Span of control - represents how many employees each manager in the organization has responsibility for.

4)      Centralization - refers to where decisions are made in organizations.

5)      Formalization - the degree to which rules and procedures are used (not simply codified) to standardize behaviors and decisions in an organization.

COLOs were then asked 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 are conducted with 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. 

This presentation will include an overview of findings from the first round of qualitative interviews specific to the online Academic Functions conducted in the late Fall of 2019.  Attendees will have an opportunity to self-assess their Academic Function according to the organizational structures used in the study, analyze the implications of their current structures, and discuss possible future changes for optimal performance.  

Attendees can expect to:

  1. Evaluate and identify the organizational structure of their online academic affairs function.  

  2. Analyze the implications of the current organizational structure of their online academic affairs function.  

  3. Compare and contrast the benefits and consequences of other organizational structures of online academic affairs function for future strategic planning.  

  4. Reflect on future changes that may optimize online academic functions at their institution.  

CORAL is comprised of educational administrators from a diverse set of higher educational institutions across the United States who were participants in the Online Learning Consortium’s (OLC) 2018 Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Education (IELOL) program.  CORAL collaborative members are engaged in several research studies. This study was planned with advisement from the lead researchers of the CHLOE reports as well.