Investing in Online Learning: An HR lens

What job ads tell us about how higher education institutions are thinking about in online learning in US higher education

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A little while back, Neil Mosley (our partner in podcasting) wrote an interesting post about the growth in senior roles in online learning in UK higher education. This is an important topic when considering online learning becoming core to more and more colleges and universities and when considering the turmoil in the OPM market.

Given the context of institutions needing to invest in online education, this post will use a similar HR lens to get a sense of how schools are attempting to develop their own capabilities. In my research, I included continuing and professional education units and roles, as there is often significant overlap between these units and online learning, especially as more institutions move toward non-credit and microcredentials online.

Growth in the UK

Neil notes that over the past few years he has seen an uptick in recruitment for new roles to support online learning and identifies over 40 new roles having been created. Most of these are at the Director level with a few Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean titles thrown in. One thing he highlights is the extent to which the duties for these roles are explicitly call out the responsibility of working with an OPM. He highlights two excerpts from online learning job ads.

Assess and research the Online Programme Management (OPM) market…and procure an OPM that can and content, ensuring value for money and return on investment.


To put in place a contract with an appropriate external partner organisation to provide support to the University in meeting its requirements and expectations.

Neil goes on to describe the challenges associated with these roles for the institutions as well as the people ultimately appointed to these roles. These challenges include the newness of the positions in the UK and the relatively small pool of qualified individuals. Less directly, he alludes to other challenges, such as key decisions having already been taken, the level at which these roles are located, and whether they will have sufficient authority to make the decisions that are going to need to be made.

Growth in the US

I am also noticing an uptick in searches for people to lead online learning units in US colleges and universities. Most of these are not new roles or new online learning units, but most of the roles call out a desire to grow or expand current online offerings. The following, from position descriptions for the Missouri University of Science and Technology and Teachers College, Columbia University give some flavor to this trend.

Missouri S&T has well-established online program offerings in fields such as engineering management, industrial-organizational psychology, technical communication, engineering, and business and information systems. The university holds the potential to scale these offerings more broadly as well as developing new offerings across each of Missouri S&T’s three colleges in fields such as data science, innovation management, and artificial intelligence.


Teachers College, Columbia University (TC) seeks an innovative and collaborative Director of Online and Hybrid Learning (DOHL) to provide strategic and operational leadership to the College’s expansion of online and hybrid education. Serving as a member of the Provost’s leadership team, the DOHL will lead and coordinate efforts between the Provost’s office, institutional leaders, and other College units to plan, develop, and deliver online and hybrid programs, while also helping the College shape the overall learning experience for students.

I don’t have a count of the number of roles that are new but do have some observations based on reviewing many position announcements.

Titles and reporting lines

I am seeing some roles with Dean or Vice or Associate Provost titles, but most of the searches are for Director level positions, with quite a few Executive Director type roles scattered in. To the extent that I can divine from the position descriptions, most of these positions are in Academic Affairs or the Provost’s office, and a small minority report up through the Provost. More typically, they are reporting to a Deputy Provost or an Associate Dean.

Where the position reports is one indicator of how seriously the institution views online education, and of how likely the new hire will have sufficient scope and authority to build or grow online learning at the institution. The location of most positions in Academic Affairs or the Provost’s office is a good sign. The fact that most of them seem to be reporting to another vice provost or an associate dean is a sign to me that online learning at those institutions might not be a priority and is likely to be under-resourced.

Requiring a PhD

I see fewer positions requiring the holder to have a PhD than in the past, but roughly half of all positions still prefer a terminal degree. I have long thought that requiring a PhD was a mistake for these kinds of administrative positions, and I believe that even more so today. The online marketplace is increasingly complex and competitive, and successful leaders of online initiatives will need many different skills, few of which are signified by a PhD. These leaders will of course need to know their way around a university and be good at working with faculty, but the fact that an individual has a PhD does not mean that they will have these capabilities. It would be better to look for people with experience at a sufficiently high level in administration on a campus and with good diplomatic and communication skills rather than using a PhD as an indicator for those qualities.

Further, I have learned from spending many years on campus, having a PhD does not mean that faculty will view that person as a fellow faculty member. The online learning leaders will be seen as administrators. It would be better for institutions to look for the skills you need rather than assuming relationships with faculty will be smooth if you hire someone with a doctorate. The number of people qualified and able to successfully lead online units is limited. By requiring a PhD, universities are further limiting their choice of good people.

Unlike the UK examples, I did not seen a large number mentions of an OPM in the position descriptions, although there were a few.

Serve as primary liaison with the external online program manager (OPM) to facilitate day-to day operations including the Learning Management System (LMS), information technology (IT), student success, marketing, admissions, and experiential/placement.

Skills required

I am surprised, however, by some of the other things that the position descriptions don’t mention. The job descriptions are relatively light on knowledge of the online space and tend to emphasize broader organization and management skills. An argument can be made for this type of approach by looking at the University of Florida and its choice of someone from outside of higher education to lead their online unit in 2015, and that school has seen success. But I would argue that Evie Cummings is an outlier. It would be great if there were more people with her kinds of skill, but in general terms, I think people leading online units are going to need some knowledge and experience in the space if they are to grow.

I am struck also by the lack of emphasis on understanding the marketing of higher education. Most of these programs will of course hire staff to manage marketing and/or work with an external agency, but successful leaders of online units are going to need to understand that space to be able to engage productively with their staff or agencies. You see little of that emphasis in job requirements or qualifications.

Salaries and a worrying trend

There are additional troubling signs around salary. Neil argues that it is difficult to draw conclusions about salary as not only are they not always publicized but

salaries are obviously reflective of the size, standing, and location of institutions, as well as other factors such as where this role is located within the structure of institutions and the scale & scope of online learning operations both now and projected into the future.

The salary data in the US is interesting, and my information comes not only from job ads but also from discussions with people who are currently in the job market. I am seeing a big spread in the offered salaries for these positions, sometimes even in the same job ad. For example, the University of California Santa Barbara is looking for a new Dean of Professional and Continuing Education - the salary given is broad, to put it mildly.

But there also seems to be a trend towards relatively low salaries, especially in newer roles. I have seen multiple cases with salaries in the $60,000 – $100,000 range, including for roles where the incumbent would be starting the online learning initiative or expected to expand it significantly. For some perspective, many of those leading online learning units at established institutions have salaries in the $180K- $250K range (with some noteworthy outliers). Admittedly, these positions oversee substantial numbers of staff and significant budgets. But the task of growing a program in the current competitive market is a large and tough one, and getting a capable person in the role will likely require more than $60K-$100K.

To me, the lower salaries sometimes offered are a troubling sign and reflective of what I so often find in conversations with higher education institutions. Many in senior leadership roles (i.e., Provost and President or Chancellor but also Deans) are unwilling to face the reality of how much it will cost and how long it will take to build an online learning presence.

Parting thoughts

It is good to see increasing investments from colleges and universities in developing internal capabilities around online learning, but higher education would do well to not handicap these efforts with myopic definitions of responsibilities and salaries offered.  To many institutions have unreasonable expectations of how much investment it is going to take to expand online offerings and how long it is going to take, issues I plan to address further in future posts.

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