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Universities and community colleges are posting job openings for a range of e-learning leadership positions, reflecting the growing popularity of online education.
The Ohio State University is looking for an executive director of extended and distance education. Hagerstown Community College posted a job listing for an associate dean of instructional technology and online education. And Arkansas State University seeks a director of distance learning. There are several more positions at other institutions, waiting to be filled.
"The field itself has just exploded, and all the universities are starting to take notice," said Witt Salley, director of online education at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Clemson recently hired Salley as its first online education director. Other universities are following suit.
Increasingly, colleges and universities are creating strategic online learning initiatives that line up with their college mission, said Jean Runyon, dean of learning advancement and the Virtual Campus at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. They're hiring online learning leaders largely because of a national focus on three things: access to high quality curriculum, student success and completion of degrees and certificates.
The access piece is particularly important for working students who need flexibility to complete degrees and certificates online, Runyon said.
"Distance education used to be about the distance, and now it's really about the education," Runyon said.
Along with these three reasons, a fourth reason for the rise of e-learning job positions is the economy.
Working students are searching for the most economical way to earn a degree, said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning and director of the Center for Online Learning Research and Service at University of Illinois Springfield Online. Universities and community colleges are trying to accommodate them by offering classes that make fiscal sense for their institutions.
The economy — and the development of communication forum technology — is making a compelling case that some institutions should offer courses online, Schroeder said.
But because online learning is a fast-moving field, the leaders that institutions hire will need to envision which technology and economic models will work.
"Visioning is the No. 1 challenge in this field, and it's because the factors are changing rapidly," Schroeder said.
Other challenges include helping more learners succeed and providing high-quality curricula, access and support services, Runyon said.
Another central challenge involves changing the culture of an institution so that online learning becomes integrated into the mainstream, Salley said. Because online learning directors create initiatives that involve different groups, these positions require a more "distributed" leadership style and a leader who's comfortable with frequent change and unknown factors.
Although online learning constantly changes, one thing is certain, Salley said.
"We are very quickly moving away from completely classroom-based learning," Salley said. "Very soon, all learning is at least going to be blended."
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