Does Structure Matter??
By Bettyjo Bouchey, Ed.D.
Does structure matter?
In a word: yes, and it matters A LOT.
The structure of an online unit within a college or university sure does matter. It matters so much that everyone I talk to that works in, or around, online is actively thinking through what the right structure is, what it should look like, and what the benefits are and consequences of how things are structured. Online units seem to come in all shapes and forms. If we draw from organizational development theory we see online units with different levels of centralization, formalization, work specialization, chain of command, and span of control. If we try to classify one online unit according to these organizational characteristics, we find it a complex mix of “maybe it is this, but maybe it is that too. Oh, wait, it might be this instead”.
More specifically, if we talk about our online units within the context of centralization, we might say that the student onboarding functions of our online units are centralized (e.g., there is one marketing department that performs this service for the whole university, regardless of program or whether it is campus-based or online); but if we ask about academic functions, we might find that online is completely decentralized and managed by individual department chairs within colleges—and so on, and so on.
With so many possible ways to classify university functions that serve online students, it is difficult to answer burning questions of efficacy. The good news is that the implications of organizational development characteristics such as centralization, formalization, work specialization, chain of command, and span of control have been heavily researched and well-documented. The tough news is that the complexity of how online units are situated on a college campus does not allow us to draw directly from these theories to help us make informed and strategic decisions on structure. Because it continues to be: “maybe it is this, but maybe it is that too. Oh, wait, it might be this instead”.
So, what is the answer? I have no idea, but I want to find out. Let’s jump into the deep end, sift through all the complexities, and develop a taxonomy of online units to draw implications from institutions that have these types of structures in place. Let’s pull together all our intellectual capital and figure this out so we can design the best possible online units – I know we can do it. Email me if you want to swim these waters with us (firstname.lastname@example.org).