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Exploring online education: A conversation with educational leadership professor Eric Fredericksen

Eric Fredericksen sitting on the steps in front of Rush Rhees Library.
The Q&A article, initially published by Joshua Kim on January 18, 2024, is featured on Inside Higher Ed.

The way I know Eric Fredericksen is the way that many of you also might know Eric: through his longtime work as a contributing editor for the Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) Project. Others may know Eric for his research, including his influential 2017 “A National Study of Online Learning Leaders in U.S. Higher Education.” The world of online education is small, so you may know Eric from the many conference talks and online presentations that he has done. For those of you meeting Eric for the first time, I’m hoping that this Q&A gives you a sense of his work and impact on our rapidly evolving postsecondary ecosystem.

Q: Eric, you have studied the career paths and key responsibilities of academics leading online education initiatives at universities. What was your career path and what are your main responsibilities in your role as an associate vice president for online learning?

A: My career path started with teaching undergraduates in the early 1990s. In 1995, I was selected to be the director of a very new and innovative project—SUNY Learning Network—at the system office of the State University of New York. It was a multi-campus online learning program (initially referred to as an asynchronous learning network!) with generous support by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This program started with two campuses and 56 online students and grew to 53 campuses and more than 40,000 students just seven years later and earned three national awards.

After that, I enjoyed working at Cornell University with a focus on supporting teaching and learning with technology—both in and outside the classroom. My current position at the University of Rochester has two roles—one as associate vice president for online learning (in the Office of the Provost) and one as professor of educational leadership (in the Warner Graduate School of Education). I strongly believe these two roles have been complementary and have provided the critical foundation to be effective for our institution. Across those experiences I also need to note that, for 10 years, I had the privilege and pleasure of serving on the Board of Directors for the Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan), including [as] president of the Board in 2018 and 2019.

My early research studies included collaboration with great colleagues about the faculty and student experience with online learning. Back then, we were trying to assess if students liked online courses and could learn in this way and how to help support faculty with teaching online. Over the past several years, my research focus has shifted to online learning leadership and the responsibilities and perspectives of the people who are on point for this at their college or university. I combined my research with the CHLOE project back in 2017–18 to collaborate with Ron Legon from Quality Matters and Richard Garrett from Eduventures. In 2020, Bethany Simunich, also from Quality Matters, joined CHLOE. The unification of our efforts has led to several annual studies, which have become highly regarded assessments of the field. And with the announcement made in fall 2023, the CHLOE project is very excited about Educause becoming a partner going forward.

Q: Let’s shift gears to the most recently published (August 2023) CHLOE 8: Student Demand Moves Higher Ed Toward a Multi-Modal Future work. What are the essential takeaways from this research that university online leaders should communicate to deans, provosts and presidents?

A: While CHLOE 8 discusses many issues and key findings, there are a few that I would highlight:

  • Chief online learning officers (COLOs) continue to see robust growth in online enrollment. This is in stark contrast to declining in-person enrollments. It would seem that online expansion strategies may be helping to offset this change. Institutions facing pressures from on-campus reductions may want to consider broadening their online academic offerings.
  • Most institutions indicated that they are planning and allocating resources for greater emphasis for online learning or reconsidering strategic priorities to address student demand. Only a very small portion (6 percent) of institutions in CHLOE 8 reported a strict focus on in-person instruction. This finding aligns with CHLOE 7, which noted a vision from COLOs for a more likely blended student experience with only a very small number of colleges or universities with a completely on-campus program.
  • COLOs report lots of variation in models or course formats, but asynchronous online is still in the majority. Growth and evolution of the other models will be assessed in future CHLOE studies.
  • There are a few common approaches to incentives for faculty to develop and teach online courses. For development, the most cited was financial/monetary. For teaching online, the ability to work remotely was the cited by the majority of COLOs. Institutions wanting to expand online offerings may want to reflect on how they encourage faculty.
  • The vast majority of colleges and universities provide services to online students. We know that support for these students is essential to their success, but few institutions require these students to complete an orientation. More encouragement in this area may be helpful. It is good to note that COLOs report growth in online mental health services, which builds on a focus in this area cited in CHLOE 7.

Q: Your research on university online leaders reveals the diversity of career paths traveled to ascend to these roles. What advice do you have for both traditional faculty and alternative academics who have aspirations to move into online learning leadership positions?

A: A key finding of my early studies about online learning leadership captured the blend of experiences that chief online learning officers brought to their positions. This is critical, as one of the main points I want to stress is the numerous and varied responsibilities that online learning leaders need to embrace. On any given day, COLOs can be working on faculty support, student services, financial and resource management, staffing and human resource issues, technology assessment and implementation, policy development, instructional design, educational research, and overall guidance and advising to university leadership.

My encouragement to those who aspire to the COLO position is to broaden your skills and experience. The first suggestion would be to take an online course and be an online student. It is essential to understand and appreciate that experience, and what better way than to put yourself in the shoes of an online student and complete a credit-bearing course? If you have an administrative background, then you should find ways to gain teaching experience—both face-to-face and online. It is vital for COLOs to appreciate the faculty experience with designing and developing and teaching. Doing all of this directly and firsthand will serve you well.

If you are a faculty member, then it will be important to expand on your administrative skills. Serve on institutional committees that provide exposure to college or university-wide activities. Consider opportunities to grow and develop your skills that can come with serving as a department chair or roles in the dean’s office or the provost’s office. This can facilitate interaction and help develop relationships with other key colleagues at your institution and raise your visibility.

And whether you come from an academic or an administrative background, take advantage of the great events and professional development opportunities from our excellent higher education community organizations such as the Online Learning Consortium, Quality Matters and Educause. This can help build your network of peers as well as develop your knowledge about the latest issues and current trends that are vital to your institutional endeavors.

Conducting research about the faculty and student experience with online teaching and learning would be another area of focus. There are advantages to capturing and analyzing the data. One is the ability to share with faculty, who value this as an important academic activity. Another significant benefit of this feedback from faculty and students is developing that understanding about what is working and what might not be working. You can use the key findings to help improve the operations and services at your college or university. And in the spirit of continuous improvement, I would also urge you to support this kind of research as an ongoing effort.

And lastly, work on your collaboration skills. Given the culture and nature of how online academic offerings are provided and supported, it is necessary to work with many different groups on campus. And they often do not all report to the COLO. You will need to gain support from your colleagues, and what better way than to be an effective listener and friend and, together, come up with the best approach for your online initiatives?