Continuing Education Association Made Online Leadership a Priority - Picture shows green mountain of rock and grass leading to a peak in the center

[Author’s Note: This article was written just before the pandemic. I worried that my celebration of community in the streets of New Orleans would seem wildly out of step with our current moment, like a bitter sweet time capsule from another era. And yet, re-reading it today, I am more convinced than ever of the human need for community in whatever forms we find it. Think of the scene from the Quarter as a metaphor for that need. I suspect that reports of the death of professional conferences are greatly exaggerated. We’ll be back, and when we are, I bet we’ll look back at today’s moment as a time capsule in its own right.]

There was a moment during UPCEA’s recent Summit for Online Leadership + Roundtable (or SOLA+R) when eight years of investment in growing online leadership converged in a spectacular way. The event itself was special, earning the highest evaluations of any major conference in the association’s modern history. But the moment that I reference took place in the streets of New Orleans, where attendees participated in a “Second Line” parade through the French Quarter. A police motorcycle escort cleared the intersections as tourists left bars and restaurants to capture the procession on film.

For many, this was the moment when it all crystalized: SOLA+R has solidified its place as the “can’t miss” event where online leaders come for community, for sharing, and for challenging one another to think creatively about our critical role in the future of higher education. A constant refrain heard throughout the conference was “I found my people.” Indeed.

So why did the world’s leading professional and continuing education association make online leadership a top priority? That one is simple: because our members invented it. Over the past two decades, deans of continuing education built online learning programs to serve their students—students whose busy lives or distance from campus made traditional programs inaccessible. In other words, continuing education and online learning are inextricably linked by a DNA that is entrepreneurial, innovative, and relentlessly focused on learners who used to be at the margins but are now vital to the sustainability of most campuses.

Now some might ask, “Isn’t online becoming just another delivery modality?” Superficially, yes. But in reality, no; it is far more than that. It is a new profession with its own standards, its own complicated challenges and opportunities, and its own professional community. In short, online has moved from its incubation in continuing education to a major new field in its own right.

Some institutions see value in leveraging the entrepreneurial, business prowess of continuing education to manage the campus online enterprise; others have created new online units that run parallel to continuing education efforts. Irrespective of the organizational model, UPCEA must serve the entire continuum of the field we call PCO (professional, continuing, and online education). In the past eight years we have done precisely that.

UPCEA’s vision for online leadership began with a convening of national leaders in Chicago in 2012. That first gathering, the Summit on the Future of Online Learning, confirmed what we already suspected. While there were a handful of excellent organizations and conferences dedicated to online teaching, learning, and technology, there was a profound need to address online leadership and administration, or what we sometimes call “the sophisticated business of online education.”

Leadership and strategy, so critical to the future not just of online learning but of higher education itself, is the connecting thread for several UPCEA initiatives designed to advance the field and its growing profession:

  • We created a signature event, the Summit for Online Leadership, which has since morphed into SOLA+R.
  • We launched three professional networks to address the needs of various levels of administration: the Online Leadership Roundtable for chief online learning officers; the Online Administration Network for mid- and mid-senior administrators; and the eDesign Collaborative (eDC) for instructional designers.
  • We built the first quality framework for enterprise-wide online operations. The Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership are the industry standard, and were endorsed by respected higher education organizations such as the American Council for Education, EDUCAUSE, NACUBO, NASPA, Quality Matters, the Association for Governing Boards, and others.
  • And we reached out to our colleagues at OLC, WCET, and QM to form the National Council for Online Education, a joint initiative focused on advocacy.

As we stand on the threshold of a new decade that holds even greater promise for online innovation, it is difficult not to feel excitement for what the future holds. As Rovy Brannon, UPCEA’s incoming president, quipped on Twitter during SOLA+R: “New experience: 200 university learning continuing ed folx on parade in the French Quarter, with a police escort, and people pouring out of bars to cheer us on – they must be excited about digital credentials.”


Robert J. Hansen was named Chief Executive Officer of the University Professional & Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) in September 2010. He previously served as Associate Provost for University Outreach at the University of Southern Maine. Prior to that position, he spent six years at Saint Xavier University of Chicago as Assistant to the President & Secretary of the Corporation, and then as founding Executive Director of Orland Park Campus & Off-Campus Programs. Hansen also previously served as an education policy aide in the administration of former Illinois governor, Jim Edgar.