We are in the midst of perhaps the most tumultuous period in the history of American higher education. With runaway student debt, draconian cuts in public funding, slow escape from the deepest recession in eighty years, the rise of for-profit institutions living off public funds and naïve consumers, and growing concern that universities reinforce social inequities rather than fuel the American Dream, many vocal critics in government and media are challenging the very integrity of America’s academic institutions. Rather than reaffirming their social mission, universities appear to be distracted with chasing rankings, building palatial facilities, failing to police their athletics and fraternities, and engaging in an arms race for expensive faculty while exploiting adjunct faculty and bloating their administrative ranks.

One of few areas of agreement among the many pundits and prophets – both inside and outside the academy – is that online education is somehow part of the panacea for much of what ails higher learning.

But this wasn’t always the case. Watching the unbinding of online education over this past decade is a fascinating lesson in how a new phenomenon emerges and gains respectability in an otherwise staid and skeptical industry. We are now witnessing the establishment and solidification of a variety of professions that constitute the management of online education. The peripheral, pre-professional era, though, seems a distant memory. From different directions, and with varying motives, pockets of innovation erupted on the sidelines and in the shadows of higher education – either undetected or detested by the academic establishment. And now from those pioneering efforts of this first generation – whose status evolved from pariah to mainstream – new roles, standards, and expectations are emerging as a critical component of the future of their institutions.

Three precursors led this often lonely drive to online pedagogy. The first and perhaps most heroic academic pioneers were in public institutions, most notably in community colleges. They were fueled by their access mission to provide flexible, creative, alternative means for their students to complete their degrees. Individual faculty, often on their own with little recognition or support, built stand-alone online courses. They were driven by sensitivity for the complicated lifestyles of their current, local, nontraditional students. The often uncoordinated efforts of a vast number of faculty across this spectrum accounted for more than half of the nation’s online enrollments.

The second and even more entrepreneurial movement occurred in the nascent for-profit sector. New degree-granting institutions – fueled by the flow of venture capital – capitalized on the power of the Internet to recruit and educate a nationwide audience of adult learners. These educational start-ups exploited lax regulatory oversight and the endless availability of federally sponsored student loans. Unlike the publics, these for-profits went instantly national to target new audiences. Their quest was to develop scalable, fully online programs, with ever increasing volume to satisfy their investors.

The for-profits compensated for the unresponsiveness of traditional universities to a growing demand for flexible means for adults to obtain their degrees. To their credit, they filled a void most of us ignored. They peaked at about a ten percent share of the nation’s student market and about a third of all online enrollments.

The third arena for online innovation occurred at several research universities (and a smattering of smaller, private nonprofits) that experimented with fully online degree programs, primarily at the professional master’s level, to address specific needs and opportunities at their institutions. This small segment of the early adopters established quality standards and legitimacy that helped reassure internal naysayers and external stakeholders that online learning could occur responsibly. Their mantra was to do no harm. By investing in sophisticated distance learning for a subset of their institution’s programs, these schools could respect, reflect, and even extend the brand of their institutions. They often partnered with emerging white-labeled, for-profit online enablers – also unsung heroes in this early phase of distance learning.

Without much, if any, conversation or collaboration among these early dabblers in online education at local publics, national for-profits, and elite institutions, the ground was set for preparing higher education for digital learning. In fact, these three sectors were likely suspicious of one another – and anxious to establish as much distance as possible to avoid any hint that they were conspiring in a common cause.

Each of these sectors contributed essential components towards the future of online education. The publics stressed accommodating the lifestyles of adult learners, the for-profits the potentially mammoth economies of scale and revenue of fully online programs, and the elite nonprofits that distance learning could be educationally effective without jeopardizing their institution’s reputation. Idealism, business savvy, and sophisticated, experimental pedagogy all combined to set the stage for a national group-hug around the notion that instructional technology could be the answer for many problems besetting American higher learning. The turning point was MOOC mania. Though overshadowing the earlier pioneers of digital learning, MOOCs brought symbolic legitimacy, visibility, and urgency to online learning.

In little more than a decade, online education had evolved from a quiet threat to all that academe stood for to a very loud voice for its future. The student market has made it clear that online courses have a firm and lasting role to play. About a quarter of America’s students are participating to some extent in online learning, half of whom are now in completely online degree programs. These enrollments are not uniformly distributed. There is a subtle but pervasive zero-sum game at work across the vast array of America’s institutions – redistributing students, particularly those beyond academe’s traditional population, towards bolder institutions at the expense of those schools unable to mobilize in their own defense. Larger institutions are sapping smaller ones; entrepreneurial schools are drawing from those paralyzed by indecision. Those not predatory will become the prey of institutions across the nation. And we haven’t yet begun to see the impact of online education on a worldwide scale.

The discussion has shifted from whether online courses can achieve comparable quality to internal battles over who gets to be in charge of this now critical engine of change. In fear of falling behind, the focus turns to how best to organize and mobilize. Structural models are emerging, plucking in-house leaders and resources from elsewhere to experiment in digital teaching. These changes are still more evolutionary than revolutionary – more cautious than daring – and reflective of age-old conflicts between administrative and faculty governance, and centralized and decentralized authority. Quiet power struggles are occurring as universities structure a means for initiating and supporting online learning. Some institutions are building new units to administer online education, others turning to their professional and continuing education deans to drive this process, while still others creating new senior academic positions to coordinate a virtual confederation of online efforts. But many are still unable to take the plunge, especially as the costs of entry and public expectations for online quality rise.

This is a golden age for adult learners, who now, for the first time, have the clout to choose their educational path and mode of delivery far beyond their region. This too is an exciting time for educators. While true distance learning will likely impact only a fraction of the nation’s student population, its ubiquitous influence on teaching and student engagement will likely be profound. And this is also a key inflection point for major associations to help direct the professionalization of this emerging domain of academic administration. Beyond the first generation of homespun leaders in distance learning, clearer credentials and job responsibilities are emerging for their successor generations.

Towards that end, and with a growing coalition of major associations across the United States, we now have the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership. In great detail, these articulate the stretch goals of an emerging leadership role – to provide advocacy for online education, the management of the technology and the services for students and faculty, the initiative and innovative spirit to take institutions forward, and the professional and ethical values to ensure the idealism and integrity of this now critical component of the academic enterprise. Implicit within these hallmarks is a growing understanding of the daunting skill set required to lead online learning in the years ahead.

These new professionals must be strong advocates who can overcome lingering skepticism and persuade faculty across campus to teach online and develop new modalities for reaching a far broader student audience. They must earn the confidence of their institution’s leadership, represent their universities in negotiating with outside entities, and construct coalitions across campus that ensure that the needs of fully online students are addressed. They must be adept at building and sustaining a protean professional operation that earns the confidence of both faculty and students. They must be cognizant of emerging trends in their profession and among their peers, yet savvy enough to know when not to chase fads. But, most importantly, they must have the fire in the belly to build an impeccable, entrepreneurial enterprise that expands and defends the reach of their institutions.

No longer a maverick on the margins, the emerging online leader will now become a mainstream force in managing the often delicate, even mundane aspects of organizational change in universities unaccustomed, and often unwelcoming, to change. Innovation is as much perspiration as inspiration. Patience, stamina, judgment, and attention to detail must accompany the passion to create something vital to higher education. In little more than a decade – mere seconds in academic time – we have witnessed unprecedented change in our nation’s universities. While not nearly as disruptive and revolutionary as some predicted, nor as quick to remedy the problems our growing army of critics point to, these changes have laid the foundation for a gradual, methodical transformation of higher education. We have reached the end of the beginning: the passing of a first generation of pioneers to another, far more integrated second generation of leaders who must now play a critical role in the future, and perhaps survival, of their institutions.


Jay A. Halfond is Professor of the Practice at Boston University, after serving as dean of BU’s Metropolitan College for twelve years. He was Senior Fellow of the Center for Online Leadership and Strategy in 2014-15 and UPCEA’s Innovation Fellow in 2013-14. He chaired the task force, led by UPCEA, that generated the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership.