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New Dissertation Research: Distance Education Administrators Starting Online Programs in Higher Education: A Case Study of the Tasks, Processes, and Challenges of Change to E-Learning

If you think the title is long, you should read the entire dissertation! Seriously, I’m proud to release my dissertation and original research to the world in this format. I use the umbrella term “administrator” to include faculty and staff on any level of responsibility in Universities. However, much of this dissertation is really about leadership, both formal and informal, and the infrastructure that supports successful launching of online programs. Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to coordinate on anything related. I’m busy, but open to new research ideas, presentations, etc. jasonpauljohnston (at sign) uky.edu



While total enrollment for Title IV universities in the United States has declined 4 percent from 2013-2018, overall online course enrollment has rapidly increased by 22 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). Not long ago, distance education had limited diffusion in universities and was considered a tertiary, experimental “add-on” to education (Burnette, 2015). Now, online learning is becoming a transformative power striking profound influence and change on all aspects of higher education (Otte & Benke, 2006). Beaudoin (2015) claims this may be the most crucial change impacting education since the printing press. This study explores the tasks, processes, and challenges for distance education administrators (DEAs) developing online programs at public universities.

This online enrollment growth is managed and sometimes attributed to DEAs responsible for the timely and quality delivery of online courses and programs. DEAs do this by directing tasks and orchestrating people from every level of the organization (Otte & Benke, 2006). DEAs may hold established titles like dean or vice-president, or newer titles like chief learning officer, vice-provost of online education, or director of distance education (Nworie et al., 2012; Shaw et al., 2018). Despite this rapid growth in online public universities and an increase in administrators managing this growth, there is a paucity of literature exploring the experiences of DEAs developing online programs.

In this study, I used explanatory case study methodology (Yin, 2018) to answer the research questions and provide rich descriptions of the process of change in developing new online programs at a public university. Data were collected from semi-structured interviews with seven administrators responsible for starting different online programs at a single university site. A conceptual change model was created to help guide the inquiry and create a priori themes for analysis. Four progressive change process themes were established in the data: infrastructure, initiate, implement, and institute. A variety of associated tasks with each theme were explored. Additionally, current and future challenges for DEAs were investigated.

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