Building from the People Up: Collaborative Structures to Transform Online Learning at a Large Public University

Concurrent Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

If you were tasked to transform distance education at your institution, how would you do it? Through a team-led discussion, learn how leaders at one large, public research university envisioned and carried out a collaborative approach to transform online learning including examples of the networks and communities they created.


Jason joined the University of Tennessee Knoxville as the Director of Online Learning & Course Production in the summer of 2022, where he leads the development and teaching of online programs and courses across the university. Previously, he was the Director of Teaching & Learning in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky where he oversaw the launching of three online degree programs in three years. Jason’s research, writing, and presentations aim to encourage humanity and equity as part of successful online program leadership. Jason earned a Master of Divinity, a Master of Education in Educational Technology, and a PhD in Education (Educational Leadership) with a focus on online program leadership. Outside of his professional work, Jason loves listening to and playing music, traveling to national parks with his family, and nerding out with Star Wars.
Dr. Jennifer Gramling is Director of Online Programs in Teaching and Learning Innovation. Prior to returning to her Alma mater in May 2013, she held a Project Manager position in the Office of Distance Learning at FSU and served as the Associate Director of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning at South College. Jennifer has been working in faculty development and online learning administration for over fifteen years. She holds Bachelor's degrees in English and History from the University of North Florida, and a Master's in Secondary Education and a Ph. D. in Education from the University of Tennessee. In her role as Director of Online Programs, Jennifer oversees the development of policies and procedures related to online and hybrid teaching and learning; and collaborates with faculty and academic administrators to identify and facilitate opportunities for online and hybrid educational and faculty support initiatives.

Extended Abstract

How does a university support online programs in what seems to be a new world of higher education? Recognizing the pandemic will forever change the way we teach and learn, one public research university envisioned online learning as an integral part of becoming a “21st century land-grant institution” and took bold steps toward action. A new, full-service central office was created and tasked with determining an effective strategy to empower the development of online programs and courses.

A new framework emerged, developing multiple participatory networks centered on various stakeholders and tasks. These networks engage faculty and staff in robust ways, producing “bottom-up” dialogues that bring online learning and program design to the forefront of conversations across the university, leading transformative efforts at all levels of the institution. 

In this presentation, participants will briefly learn about this collaborative, community-based approach to change and then explore examples of the networks and communities that were created:

  • Online Program Management Network: designed for administrators, faculty, and staff who provide oversight and support for online academic programs. Members of the network facilitate a series of workshops and discussions covering topics relevant to managing, developing, and promoting online programs.

  • Brown Bag Fridays: Taking more of a “Community of Practice” approach as described by Wenger (2008), the virtual Brown Bag Fridays highlight faculty with varying levels of experience in online teaching and provide an opportunity for spontaneous knowledge-sharing and apprenticeship.

  • Online Learning Community of Practice: Bi-weekly meetings that bring together faculty, staff, and instructional designers for informal discussions around topics related to online learning

  • Teaching Collaborative: Monthly meetings that connect leaders across IT, Teaching & Learning, Library, and Online Learning departments. 

  • Online Learning Week: The creation of a new weeklong event that raised campus consciousness of the institution’s efforts and resources while highlighting the work of faculty and instructional designers. 

In this interactive session, participants will put this community approach into action, helping to build knowledge by sharing their own experiences of community-based support via online interactive polling. An interactive group activity will be utilized to demonstrate the strength of this type of organizational approach. Ample time for questions during and after the presentation will be provided. 

Participants will learn:

  • A collaborative conceptual approach to capacity building for online learning

  • Strategies for change management for an internal team and campus

  • Steps for facilitating community building across units

  • Both challenges and advantages to this approach versus a typical top-down leadership method

Join us as we explore new approaches to transform online learning in this brave new world! 


Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.