Does structure matter?
In a word: yes, and it matters A LOT .
The structure of, and around an online unit within a college or university matters. It matters so much that everyone we talk to that works in online higher ed is actively thinking through what the right structure is, what it should look like, what it could look like, and what the benefits and consequences are of how things are structured around online programming.
Objectively, online units seem to come in all shapes and forms. If we draw from organizational development theory we see online units with different levels and degrees of centralization, formalization, work specialization, chains of command, and span of control. If we try to classify one online unit according to these organizational characteristics, we find it a complex mix of “maybe it is this, but maybe it is that too”, and “oh, wait, it might be this instead”. And before we know it an online unit does not fit the perfect mold that theorists in organizational development have provided for us.
More specifically, though, if we talk about our online units within the context of centralization, we might say that the student onboarding functions of our online units are centralized (e.g., there is one marketing department that performs this service for the whole institution, regardless of program or whether it is campus-based or online); but if we ask about academic functions, we might find that online is completely decentralized and managed by individual department chairs within colleges—and so on, and so on.
With so many possible ways to classify university functions that serve online students, it is difficult to answer burning questions of efficacy–and we all want to be good at what we do! The good news is that the implications of organizational development characteristics such as centralization, formalization, work specialization, chain of command, and span of control have been heavily researched and well-documented. The tough news is that the complexity of how online units are situated on a college campus does not allow us to draw directly from these theories to help us make informed and strategic decisions on structure. Because it continues to be: “maybe it is this, but maybe it is that too”, and “oh, wait, it might be this instead”, we must create our own framework, test it out, and then find a way to utilize it to help make better, and more strategic decisions about how, why, and where we situate online in our institutions.
So, what is the answer? We honestly do not know, but we want to find out. Here in the CORAL (Collegiate Online Research Leaders) research collaborative we are ready to jump in the deep end, sift through all the complexities, and develop a taxonomy of online units to draw implications from institutions that have these types of structures in place. Specifically, we have just launched a research project to explore organizational structures for online programming at a cross-section of institutions of higher education. And, through the assistance of our colleagues at OLC, want to ask you to participate if you have the most authority and decision-making around online learning at your institution. We would like to interview you about the work that comprises the student lifecycle. Specifically, we would be interested in exploring your work in student onboarding, student support services, academic functions, and administrative areas that support online programming.
Participation in this study will include participating in a series of four, 60-minute interviews spaced over the course of a year, and at your convenience. As a participant in this study, confidentiality will be guaranteed for you and your institution. If you choose to participate in the study, your total participation time would amount to approximately 6-hours over the course of the year and you will be compensated $100 after the fourth interview transcript has been reviewed and returned to us. We are scheduling our first set of interviews in late October through November; we hope you will join us in making sense of all this complexity. Let’s pull together all our intellectual capital and figure this out so we can design the best possible online units – we are all in this together! Email us if you want to swim these waters with us (Dr. Bettyjo Bouchey, email@example.com or Dr. Erin Gratz, firstname.lastname@example.org–Principal Investigators). You can also connect with Bettyjo on LinkedIn and Twitter @drbouchey, or via her website.
*Portions of this blog post were taken from our CORAL collaborative website and published with the permission of the original author, Dr. Bettyjo Bouchey.
Dr. Bettyjo Bouchey is Associate Professor of Business and Management and Associate Dean of the College of Professional Studies and Advancement at National Louis University. She also holds university-wide responsibility for online academics. She is a 2018 IELOL alumni and is co-founder of the Collegiate Online Research Leaders Collaborative (CORAL). Her research interests span online pedagogy and the effective leadership of the evolving organizational structures of online education in higher education.
Dr. Erin Gratz is the Instruction and Outreach Librarian at Orange Coast College in Southern California. She has a background in online leadership, teaches online, and has facilitated trainings for online teachers. She is a 2018 IELOL alumni and a founding member of the Collegiate Online Research Leaders 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.