Virtual Classrooms

Preparing future education leaders

04/01/2012  |  M. Graeme Armstrong PhD
Graduate Programs

As part of my transition into higher education during the late 90s after my careers managing at the operational level in both the military and the retail sector, I learned very quickly that as employment rates decrease, enrollments at college and universities rise. In this particular down cycle, we are in the midst of what many are describing as unprecedented surges in college enrollment. Jason Claffey, writing about national trends in the Fosters Daily Democrat in 2010, described this phenomenon and noted that at community colleges in particular enrollment has skyrocketed. In fact it has risen as unemployment reached its highest point in a quarter century — challenging times for educators indeed!

The U.S. has nearly 1,200 community colleges nationwide, which represents the fastest growing institutional segment in higher education today. The Lumina Foundation for Education — which is committed to enrolling and graduating students in and from college and to increasing the proportion of the population that holds a high-quality degree — identified that community colleges enroll 12 million students annually. That figure represents nearly 50 percent of all undergraduate enrollments across the nation. A series of discussions with university presidents, faculty and administrators from two-year partnership community colleges revealed the need for programming to prepare entry to mid-level school administrators for leadership positions, while also affording them the flexibility to take coursework at a time, place and location that supports their own career development.

Against this backdrop of sector demands, it is likely that professionals will have great interest in the availability of master’s degrees in higher education. Recent studies by the National Center for Education Statistics and also the Aslanian Group back up this notion, indicating that graduate programs in both secondary and higher education are the fastest growing graduate programs in the nation. When we consider this from a university’s strategic perspective it is understandable that the development and addition of new graduate programs delivered online can be critical to institutional success. The move towards a knowledge economy makes successful implementation of these types of programs critical so that professionals with varied academic backgrounds can prepare themselves for future leadership positions in higher education. Not only can it be seen to support a university’s strategic and human resource development plan; overall it just makes sense.

It is an interesting juxtaposition — one that situates higher education and its many forms of delivery alongside a high demand for qualified, skilled and trained employees who can take on a leadership role in a working environment that requires evermore transparency, flexibility and accountability. Recent data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate a likely increase in employment opportunities in education, training and library occupations. This is anticipated to be a 14 percent increase by 2018, primarily through retirements and new position creation. President Obama’s comments during a recent State of the Union address that “higher education can’t be a luxury — it’s an economic imperative that every family in American should be able to afford” go a long way towards reaffirming the BLS findings. Creating opportunity in higher education for Americans requires that the infrastructure is in place to support it, and that has to include careers in higher education in all its current forms.

The unprecedented numbers of students returning to school can also create a market demand for employees in the continuing education sector as adult learners enter daytime community college classes, evening and online programs in droves. We know from recent Sloan Consortium reports that distance learning is still growing at quicker and more significant rates than any other sectors of post-secondary education, with over six million students taking at least one online class annually. The ongoing challenge for administrators and staff in higher education is exacerbated because not only do they need to serve learners during the day and, at times, this same student body in the evening, but also through the virtual classroom.

It has been reported on multiple occasions in National Survey of Student Engagement findings that students like and want the flexibility that the online learning modality provides, so it is fair to assume that the virtual graduate classroom is here to stay. Students entering these types of programs usually have some experience working in higher education settings. Areas of emphasis can introduce students to best-practice skills and models in areas like finance, curriculum design, law, distance learning, and student services to plan and manage “best-value” programs that will exceed student expectations.

Being successful in the virtual classroom does take a special kind of learner: one who is not only committed to be successful, but also able to study independently with diligence and often without 24/7 academic support. Programs that exist online to serve and develop future educational leaders in the current climate need to be robust, dynamic and professionally relevant.

On top of an all-important student centric focus, for graduate students the virtual classroom should be accessible, affordable and flexible. Quality asynchronous programs also need to continue to rise above the fray and help the graduate learner to answer ongoing questions focusing on quality and accountability. This can be done through an institutional commitment that has full-time faculty teaching courses, professional academic advisors available to serve student needs, and in which the integration of e-text books and other resources align to support a quality learning environment.

This type of graduate program needs to challenge higher order thinking and promote rigorous study assignments. It requires students to demonstrate understanding with regular, relevant writing assignments and must integrate the myriad of soft skills that are often opined by business sector professionals as missing. This can include team building, group development, communication and conflict resolution.

For those teaching online graduate level courses, ongoing faculty development via classroom observations, feedback and student course evaluations are all tools that help continue to raise the bar and level of instructional quality. But it is not just instructional quality in the virtual classroom which helps to prepare future leaders.

Looking Forward

The long term projections and indicators demonstrate that we will continue to see an increase in enrollment, and even if these trends slow down we will continue to see an increased demand for employees in the higher education sector. It is critically important for university administrators to continue to find a balance between leadership of programs, accountability to stakeholders, and the ongoing development of employees with an evolved sense of personal ethics. Quality programs — like the Master of Higher Education Administration program at Upper Iowa University — must integrate educational, fiscal and political concepts into graduate level coursework along with those previously identified soft skills in a quality, robust, virtual community where students can develop their own best practice.

M. Graeme Armstrong, PhD. is Assistant Professor of Education and Coordinator of the Upper Iowa University Masters of Higher Education Administration (MHEA) program. Dr. Armstrong teaches both face-to-face and online courses in the MHEA program. He earned his bachelor’s degree in management from Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa, his master’s degree in organizational development from UIU, and a doctorate in higher education from Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. For more information, visit
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