Wednesday, September 02, 2015

 

Seeing the Matrix


I can see the matrix, and I don’t like what I see.

I’ve seen a few different ways of managing online classes, but they all (with one clear exception) lead to “matrix management,” or cross-cutting responsibilities that often create diseconomies of scale.  In other words, the org chart starts to look like a drawer full of unmatched socks, and the resulting conflicts wind up consuming far more organizational resources than they should.

As a dedicated non-fan of the matrix, I’m hoping there’s a better way.

I’ve seen the model of housing responsibility for online classes in a separate division, usually with its own dean or director.  The advantages of that model are that there’s a go-to person, it’s easier to ensure that the course offerings are consistent and coherent, and it’s obvious where to locate professional development responsibilities.  

But that model brings real issues when the person in charge of the classes isn’t responsible for the faculty who teach them.  The deans with responsibility for staffing -- who are often campus-based -- often regard online sections as parasitic on their own.  From a quality control standpoint, it’s hard to say who’s in charge.  Finally, some departments rebel on general principle when they don’t “control” their own online sections.   

I’ve also seen the model of treating online classes just like on-campus classes.  In that model, departments and deans who staff say, Tuesday morning sections also staff online sections.  

The advantages of that model are real.  Most basically, it ensures that people fluent in the subject matter are close to the staffing.  It also ensures that faculty have a single dean to report to, rather than multiple deans who may have conflicting opinions.  And it tends to reduce departmental anxiety, and therefore opposition.

But it also tends to prevent the development of a coherent online program.  Online classes often become afterthoughts, or get offered unevenly across the curriculum as some departments move quickly and others drag their feet.  Deans or departments who don’t see value in online learning can kill it through casual neglect.  

The most radical solution is simply to ignore online altogether.  But in terms of student demand and serving the needs of the community, that ship has sailed.  Like it or don’t, but online education is a fact, and an increasingly large one.

The most radical positive solution is what Southern New Hampshire University did.  It simply spun off the online unit and made it entirely separate.  The online unit has its own managers, its own faculty, its own schedule, and even its own support services.  

The “secession” approach has the considerable virtue of clarity.  Folks on either side of the division know which side they’re on, and prioritize it.  Instead of trying to get nervous departments to try something new, they simply created new departments.  No matrix there!

As much as I envy SNHU’s panache, though, I envy its resources more.  It charges far more than we do, and has much more control over its own money than we do.  Accordingly, it can take calculated risks without jeopardizing the entire enterprise.  When “acceptable losses” are quite high, you can afford to take audacious risks.  None of that is to diminish SNHU’s achievement; I’m a fan, and have been for some time.  It’s just to say that some of its methods aren’t portable to most of the community college world.

Assuming that the resources to establish an entirely separate and parallel college won’t be forthcoming, then, the other solutions lead to some pretty basic organizational dilemmas.  If the same faculty teach onsite and online, what’s the best way to structure that?

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those in administration at places at which online runs smoothly -- have you seen a better way?  Is there an elegant alternative to the matrix?

Comments:
We take the approach that we want most of our fully on-line classes to be taught by the same full-time tenured faculty that teach the f2f and hybrid classes on the same subject, so we want them to be hired to and held to the same standards as everyone else. Adjuncts who teach on line, ditto. College algebra and English composition each live in their own departments under their respective Deans, not some Dean who knows nothing about the content or pedagogy relevant to either one of them. The on-line classes live in the same department as the other types, distinquised only by additional qualifiers in the registration system.

This results in some extra overhead in the form of a consultative group that builds modules to order (if needed) and reviews things like ADA compliance and design issues that might impact the effectiveness of the presentation, but there is no requirement that everyone teaching course X use exactly the same shell handed down from on high. (That said, most faculty adopt and adapt an existing approved shell to fit their own teaching style, if one exists.) Our hope is that the additional overhead will decline to maybe one person and/or a part-time consultant once the growth period is over. However, they also support flipped and hybrid class needs, so their value goes beyond just web classes, and there will always be a need for updating course materials, just like any other class.

I should add that admin-relevant detail that the revenue/cost information remains with the host department, as does the success data. We filter all data for a given course by delivery type, which can make for interesting reading. For example, there is one class that is only taught by one person, who teaches both on-line and in person, where both versions have nearly identical success rates.

And then there are the other ones.
 
Oh, and as regards having a coherent on-line program, we have absolutely no problem finding a f-t t-t prof who wants to develop and teach general education course X on line. Not every course is on line, but there is a fair selection of the usual suspects for the usual topical areas. This is a natural consequence of an emphasis in our hiring process (over quite a few years) on looking for people with an interest in various hybrid and on-line approaches to teaching. Don't get me wrong, we don't limit ourselves to new hires that are going to teach classes fully on line, but our faculty is big enough that we have no trouble finding what is needed. And they aren't all young. There are quite a few in their 50s who have put in the professional development time to move in a direction that they find highly rewarding.
 
In my organization, online is its own division, and there's considerable resistance to it. All material for the online course must be developed by the instructor, unless they've inherited anything. This workload is not paid for (or rather, not paid extra for). However, admin regards all materials developed for the course as belonging to the course, which may well not be given to you again, so in essence you are developing materials for someone else. Oddly, experienced instructors are used for new courses and required to provide more materials than they do for F2F courses, then they never get them again — almost as if the goal to it have experienced instructors develop material that junior sessional instructors can 'just deliver'.

CCPhysicist seems to have a much better system. I'm jealous.
 
You can't see matrix. You see only virtual world and its real only in your head. You need to stop thinking like that. Someday you will see this. freelancehouse

 
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