Online Learning Consortium Leadership Network: Advancing Outcomes Through Collaboration

olc-2In keeping with my leadership theme this week, I wanted to share some noteworthy takeaways from this week’s Online Learning Consortium (OLC) annual meeting. In an invitation-only session on Wednesday, I joined several other senior online leaders in exploring common issues and topics we face on our campuses, in our institutions and in our nation. Sessions included evaluation and implementation of learning management systems (led by Chris Bustamante, president of Rio Salado College);  faculty development and training for instructional design and faculty support (led by Norm Vaughan, professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary ); and the Higher Education Act and state regulations, including post-election perspectives on the state of higher education (led by Martha Kanter, former undersecretary of education and current visiting professor and senior fellow at NYU), followed by a summary panel facilitated by Doug Lederman of Inside Higher Ed.

Short presentations were followed by engaging facilitated small group discussions on related topics. Conversations abounded on the challenges we face and ways to meet them through best practices on our campuses and in our sector.  Questions also emerged as to the overall impact we have on higher education and agreement among many (if not all) that the questions we ask and  insights we gain (e.g., effective teaching methodology, no matter the modality of learning) through innovation in online learning have applicability to all of higher education and ways it, too, might be transformed.

Learning Management Systems (LMS) are the mechanics of online learning. While at one time the LMS was central to our conversations, it is now akin to plumbing or wiring in providing an infrastructure essential to our work, just as “the classroom” is for the traditional university.  Both environments are just that. . environments . . .they provide challenges,  constraints and the framework within which we can be very creative as educators.  More than 10 best practices were identified for effective LMS selection and implementation, including ADA compliance, the importance of strong partnerships, interoperability, and beginning with the student experience in mind.  It was emphasized that the focus needs to be on the learning experience, outcomes and student-centric solutions.  While we need LMS tools and resources, the future LMS may be more of an integration to a grade book than a platform, and some campuses are already moving in that direction thanks to learning tools interoperability integration.  In short, the LMS of today is not the learning environment of the future.

The second discussion noted that faculty engagement on- ground, online, and in hybrid modalities, is evolving. How does innovation occur on the campus, and in learning?  One research-oriented institution noted that innovation occurs thanks to graduate students who are teachers. These “graduate students” take a course designed by a faculty member, teach it, and bring innovative ideas back to the core professor for exploration and integration into the course.  The students teach the online courses in the summer and share their experiences with faculty.  Insights from this practice have excited their faculty about learning possibilities.

In regard to community college and less traditional campuses, we explored the contrasting roles of full- and part-time (or adjunct) faculty and their potentially qualitative impact on the learning experience, faculty capabilities and the transferability of online learning to the traditional classroom. Agreement exists across the board on the absolute and essential requirement for faculty to be engaged in course design and development as well as teaching, whether online, on-ground, or hybrid.  Many best practices were shared, including ideas about incentivizing faculty, variations in university and faculty business models regarding faculty roles, and the unbundling thereof.  The general agreement was that for online courses to be of quality it takes a team of faculty, instructional designers, assessment specialists and technology experts to create a rich digital learning experience.

The Higher Education Act and the related impact of the recent election were also discussed, with  general agreement that the best assessment at this time is a question mark, as it is simply too soon to tell.  In this discussion, many other questions were raised but left unanswered, recognizing that affordability, accessibility and the education of our nation are essential and ongoing topics of dialogue.

I learned much from this collaborative session and commend OLC for gathering the group of online higher education leaders for such engaging discussion on common challenges and ways we can together advance the higher education agenda in the United States.

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