With the sustained prominence of online education, the need for a Chief Online Learning Officer (COLO) as part of an institution’s senior leadership team became evident during our research. Our interviews with current online leaders and analyses of recent literature underscore the need for professionals who possess keen vision about the trends and cultures that define the educational demands of our modern era. Such professional dexterity has increasingly positioned leaders in online learning to serve beyond middle management, offering an institution-wide strategic vision as part of senior administration.

The COLO fills a role in senior leadership not served by more conventional members of that team. Mike Abbiatti, Vice President of Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and Executive Director of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology, reasons that

[this person] should interface [with] the CIO [and] the Provost’s office as the one who understands the data, who understands the ways the technologies are important to the students at all levels and important to the faculty at all levels and the researchers at all levels (2015).

He also suggests that the person in this role should “be involved with the CFO in setting budget priorities for the institution.” The role defined by these statements is a strategic one in which a COLO’s visionary interventions complement the work of the more operational CIO and CFO counterparts.

Abbiatti envisions a COLO as “the one that the President/Chancellor turns to.” Echoing this thought, Ray Schroeder, Associate Vice Chancellor of Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield and Director of the UPCEA Center for Online Leadership, shared that the position could “comfortably report to the President/Chancellor” (2015). Because such a reporting structure may be novel for many institutions, Abbiatti calls for a general “acceptance in the C-Suite” and further recommends that “acceptance by the leadership team . . .  is critical.” The person in this role must be “enabled and empowered campus-wide so the people understand exactly who this person is and what he or she is doing.” Successful implementation of a COLO position thus depends on adaptability and support from the head of an institution. Senior leadership bears responsibility for communicating how an organization’s overall mission and strategic plan embrace a C-suite-level investment in areas associated with online learning.

A clear shift past distance education and toward online and digital modalities is evident in recent recruiting advertisements for online learning leaders. In George Mason University’s recent search for a Vice Provost for Digital Innovation and Learning, the Provost noted,

In the past we had a position, which is a director for distance education, [but] that is a much narrower defined position. [This new position is] really about looking at the whole digital media and learning environment as a whole and how do we incorporate that into our mainstream educational process (Kolenko, 2015).

Instead of parsing distance education as a unique pursuit with distinct audiences and outcomes, this provost recognizes that such concepts as student access, online delivery, and digital engagement are integral parts of any modern classroom­—where online access and digital technology augment the educational landscape in general.

Accordingly, leaders at institutions of many sizes and types have embraced an understanding of how leadership in online learning may garner and secure influence throughout an institution. The position description for the Dean of Online Education at Belhaven University, a private institution in Mississippi, includes a statement that this leader will “serve on the President’s Cabinet and be part of the academic leadership team.” The University of South Carolina’s Palmetto College, the online and satellite-campus arm of the state’s flagship university, recently searched for “the newly created position of Vice Chancellor for E-Learning,” which would “report directly to the Chancellor of Palmetto College and work as part of the Chancellor’s leadership team.” In both cases, online leadership maintains university-level influence.

Further embracing the position’s capacity to bridge conversations across disciplines and pedagogies, the University of Illinois Springfield instituted an Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning, who “intermediate[s] between the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs & Provost (VCAA) and the College Deans . . . [and] works collaboratively with members of the senior administrative team to foster and maintain excellence in online and blended learning.” Not bound to a single discipline in particular but to effective learning practices in general, a carefully cultivated COLO skillset is necessarily relevant to any institution’s academic mission.


The Development of Effective COLOs

Individuals who serve as leaders in online learning unsurprisingly come from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds. Many who work in this burgeoning field exhibit a shared passion for pedagogical, educational, and technological innovation. Under this point of commonality, however, there is little direction as to how hopeful leaders climb that ladder. Settling on a singularly understood role like that of COLO could do much to demystify the competencies and steps needed to satisfy the need for online leadership in higher education.

Joshua Kim opens his article, “Not a Future CIO,” with the question, “What is your career path into a strategic leadership role in higher education technology if you don’t want to become a CIO?” Kim concludes, “This question challenges a growing number of professionals working at the intersection between education and technology.” Indeed, considering others’ recommendations that online leaders work with and in addition to an institution’s CIO, it is difficult to identify an appropriate, preexisting job for which budding leaders might groom themselves. As Kim concedes, “Outside of a CIO role it is not immediately obvious what career destinations lead to the same sort of institutional and professional influence.”

While Kim acknowledges that a variety of networking and professional development opportunities exist for aspiring CIOs, the field lacks “communities of practice and professional development opportunities for emerging institutional leaders in technology-connected positions” (2015). Certainly, such opportunities may become fully realized only once their content and outcomes work toward a common end goal­—one outside of the CIO pedigree. A lasting conception of COLO may form only among field-wide agreement about the position’s necessary competencies. We are not the first online learning leaders and researchers to comprehend this need.


The Shared Characteristics of COLOs

Consensus does not yet exist about an ideal academic and professional background for a COLO. For Abbiatti, “The most important competency that the COLO has to have is communication skills across the institution.” In addition to complementing a quality that the University of Illinois Springfield sought in its COLO pursuit, the ability to communicate across the institution falls within the first category of the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership: “Advocacy and Leadership within the University.” Elaborating on his point, Abbiatti claims, “Communication is the key competency and then the ability to put the pieces together.” This latter consideration about working and thinking holistically matches another category of the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership: Advocacy and Engagement of Internal Stakeholders for a Shared Mission.

Other online learning leaders and scholars have confirmed the importance of institution-wide communications skills (Nworie, 2012; Jodene, 2008; Lustik, 2009). Accurately forecasting the role we advocate for COLOs in “Distance Education Leadership for the New Century,” M. Beaudoin (2003) argues,

Distance educators should no longer see themselves as protectors and survivors of isolated programs for which they have labored mightily, but rather as valued strategic partners who can enable the larger institution, often long seen as the enemy, to catch up with them and emulate their practices and successes.

Beaudoin’s distance education leaders act as strategic peacekeepers, bridging the storied rift between faculty and administration. In kind, Schroeder charges the COLO to maintain the “ability to orchestrate institutional change.” Surely, such change cannot occur without establishing the levels of trust and understanding that Beaudoin describes. And so experience in advocating and communicating across an institution’s groups and interests seems an apparent competency for COLOs.

Robert Hansen, UPCEA’s CEO, stresses the importance of an entrepreneurial skillset (2015). Hansen urges, “It is imperative that the COLO have an entrepreneurial mandate and skillset if online learning is to reach its full strategic potential.” Consistent with Hansen’s thoughts, UPCEA cites this particular skillset as an excellent practice of online learning leaders. The entrepreneurial mindset “demands a pivot away from conventional programming structures and thinking and an embrace of creativity, risk, and nonconformity” (UPCEA, 2015). Any good capitalist knows that innovative practice and delivery are means of attracting buy-in through market differentiation. In kind, Hansen labels this trait as a “business mindset” that may need to be developed in those who come from faculty or instructional design backgrounds.

The pairing of an entrepreneurial, business mindset with successful online learning leaders has existed for some time. Online programs typically require an understanding of product marketing, business functions, and creative problem solving in operations (Portugal, 2006; Reimers-Hild & King, 2009). Considering the increasingly competitive and complex higher education environment of today, identifying and developing competency in business and entrepreneurship only becomes more valuable behavior in our field. As Schroeder discerns, “Higher education is undergoing a massive transformation.” He describes its “unbundling” into alternative products: “Most notably, there are the nano-, micro-, and mini-degree programs we see rolling out from Udacity, Coursera, EdX, and the nascent University Learning Store by some of the leading universities in the United States” These on-demand learning opportunities have transformed online and distance education into a dynamic, competitive environment—one that Schroeder observes has been flooded by “facile non-university providers” and one that we suggest demands creative business acumen to navigate.

A third and final major competency is one that has colored our discussion from early on: online learning leaders should exhibit enthusiastic awareness of the ways in which education and technology empower one another. Abbiatti describes this competency as “true passion for technology enhanced education.  Not for just technology but technology enhanced education.  The how is not the issue here.  [This leadership position] does not answer the how.” Concerned more with strategizing than operationalizing technology-enhanced education, a COLO “can’t devolve into talking about individual technologies at all. [This leader] must talk about capabilities; technologies empower and enable capability.” These capabilities, Abbiatti suggests, focus foremost on improving learning outcomes where technology is unnecessary. Under the right strategy, technology use becomes a seamless means of accessing valuable educational content. And so, in terms of academic technology, Abbiatti recommends that a COLO “has got to know enough about that milieu to be able to advise the senior staff” about when and what, not how, to adopt.

Unlike a CIO, a COLO is not focused exclusively on technology but on why certain technologies are necessary by way of noticing the broader impact on teaching and learning. The UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership further recognize this competency: “Recognizing that technology creates both opportunities and anxieties, leaders must provide an environment that is current, dependable, and rich in the creative use of tools to enhance learning, interaction, and program integrity.” Fundamentally, a COLO focuses less on the procurement and processes of technology and more on the alignment and adoption of technologies to the institution’s mission and strategic plan (Beaudoin, 2003; Marcus, 2004; Mereba, 2003). For online leadership, education defines the technology first.


Promoting beyond COLO

Our discussion here has held a clear agenda: to incite a characterization for online leaders that is as aspirational as possible, given current trends and expectations in our field. The COLO role has emerged as a senior leadership position in which a person’s proficiencies in interpersonal communication, entrepreneurial practice, and academic technology stand to affect the institution at large. These competencies address practical concerns that exist at many of our institutions: political divisions between faculty and administration, waning financial support from outside the university, bloated and redundant technology investments, and so on. As more institutions recruit leaders who are capable of addressing these issues head on, the prominence of a skillset developed at the intersection of education and technology will surely grow among the senior leadership of institutions. But what opportunities might exist beyond a successful tenure as COLO?

Historically, COLOs have been limited by a ceiling. It seems reasonable to propose a COLO appointment as a viable pathway toward Chief Academic Officer or Chief Executive Officer, yet advancement into the higher ranks of Provost or President has seemed a tall order. Arguments against this pathway have stemmed from the perspective that the work of online learning chiefs specializes too heavily on one segment of education. As a result, some feel that COLOs are insufficiently prepared to lead an institution’s academic enterprise in full. As we discussed, however, the work of a sufficiently prepared COLO will deftly traverse disciplinary, pedagogical, and operational lines.

With several successful online learning officers at leading institutions having recently assumed the chief academic and executive offices, the acceptance of an online leader’s competencies seems confirmed. Recent announcements of promotions include the following: the Senior Director of Online Education at Indiana University’s transition to Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost, University of Missouri – Kansas City; the Associate Vice President for eLearning and Innovation at Cuyahoga Community College’s promotion to Provost and Chief Academic Officer, Inver Hills Community College; the Vice President of Corporate College Services Relations and Online Education at Ivy Tech Community College’s selection as Chancellor of St. Louis Community College; and Fort Hays State University’s new Provost’s background mostly in academic technologies, distributed learning, and faculty support. These promotions suggest that the career prospects for online leaders have grown to full chief executive potential in postsecondary education. Opportunities abound for those interested in pursuing a career in online leadership, and we have just a few shared competencies to thank for much of this progress.



Abbiatti, M. (2015, August 17). Telephone interview.

Beaudoin, M. (2003). Distance Education Leadership for the New Century. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 6(2).

Hansen, R. (2015, August 31). Email interview.

Jodene, D. (2008). Community College Online Learning Administrators: How They Make Sense of Their Journey. Colorado State University.

Kim, J. (2015, August 31). Not a future CIO. EDUCAUSE Review. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/8/not-a-future-cio

Kolenko, N. (2015). New Vice Provost to bring Mason into digital age [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://gmufourthestate.com/2015/04/22/new-vice-provost-to-bring-mason-into-digital-age/

Lustik, C. (2009). Distance education leadership: Self-perceptions of effective leadership attributes. Capella University.

Marcus, S. (2004). Leadership in Distance Education: Is It a Unique Type of Leadership – A Literature Review. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 7(1).

Mereba, T. (2003, May/June). Managing transformation: Aligning technology initiatives with institutional priorities. TechTrends 47 (3), 42-44.

Nworie, J. (2012). Applying Leadership Theories to Distance Education Leadership. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 15 (5).

Portugal, L.M. (2006). Emerging Leadership Roles in Distance Education: Current State of Affairs and Forecasting Future Trends. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 9(3).

Reimers-Hild, C., & King, J. (2009). Six Questions for Entrepreneurial Leadership and Innovation in Distance Education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 11(4).

Schroeder, R. (2015, August 16). Email interview.

UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership. (2015). UPCEA. Retrieved from www.upcea.edu/hallmarks


Josh Herron, M.A., is the instructional designer and coordinator of faculty development in the Center for Innovation and Digital Learning at Anderson University (S.C.). He earned his M.A. in English at UNC Greensboro and is currently completing his Ph.D. at Clemson University in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design. He has presented and published nationally and regionally on innovative instructional practices, pedagogical research, and interdisciplinary scholarship.

Jonathan Lashley, M.A.P.C., is director of texts and technologies for Clemson Online at Clemson University. He is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences in Clemson’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education and serves as an OER Research Fellow for the Open Education Group. 

Witt Salley, Ed.D., has been a chief online learning officer since 2005 in diverse postsecondary institutions: a comprehensive community college system, a small proprietary career college, and now a top national public research university. The founding executive director of Clemson Online, Salley currently oversees the full extended learning portfolio at Clemson University, including digital learning, continuing education, off-campus programs, summer session, and learning technologies. He also holds a graduate faculty appointment as an Associate Professor of Online Teaching and Learning at California State University, East Bay, and serves on UPCEA’s Online Management and Design Network as well as the Center for Online Leadership’s Advisory Council. Salley has received the Ralph D. Elliott Endowed Award for Outstanding Service to Off-Campus, Distance, and Continuing Education (2014); the Wagner Award for Distance Education Leadership (2015); and the Bruce N. Chaloux Award for Early Career Excellence in Online Education (2015).

Melanie Shaw, Ph.D., has over fifteen years of educational experience ranging from classroom teaching to counseling and higher education administration. She is the director of research and strategic advancement for Clemson Online at Clemson University. In addition, Melanie is dissertation faculty at Northcentral University. Melanie serves on the editorial board of Unbound. She was awarded Teacher of Honor by Kappa Delta Pi, the 2014 Wagner Award for Outstanding Instructional Support from the Distance Learning Administration Conference, and the Teaching Excellence Award at Colorado State University, Global Campus.