Online learning has “gone from a wild frontier to a more established professional [undertaking],” says Jay Halfond of Boston University, Senior Fellow of the UPCEA Center for Online Leadership and Strategy and Chair of the National Task Force on the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership. As the field of online education has matured, the need has arisen for standards and benchmarks that challenge university leaders to hold themselves accountable to practices that demonstrate commitment to online education and its place in the university.

“We need organizational structures that express this commitment,” says Halfond. This is the impetus behind the creation of the recent report, “UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership,” a discussion of practices in seven key areas that help online education programs to “become a full-fledged citizen of the university,” Halfond says. 

The standards suggested are stringent and challenging; even experienced leaders with mature programs are likely to find some places for improvement. “The goal was not to make people feel very good about themselves,” Halfond says with a laugh. “We wrote it as much for [online program administrators’] bosses as for them,” he adds, explaining that the report gives a structure to the way online education endeavors may be assessed.

The time is right for such a set of standards, Halfond says. “We are at a key moment of going from liquid to solid, so to speak.” As programs are maturing, it is natural that they are developing strengths in some areas and finding other areas for improvement. For example, Halfond finds that many online program administrators demonstrate a comfort with use of technology, professionalism, and relationships with faculty, but they often struggle with developing a system of advocacy and leadership that makes them a truly equal part of the university community.

Halfond also notes that online education in general has problems with student support. “We’re not able to support a student studying in Massachusetts who lives in California,” he says, noting the lack of student ability to access services like the bursar, financial aid, or student support.

Part of this problem arises from the fact that, as online education matures, it overlaps with the needs of the traditional, on-campus student. Many programs are well-tailored to the on-campus student who takes a single online course from her dorm room, journeying across campus to meet with the professor during office hours or to use the library. But none of this is possible for the student who is truly at a distance.

“The relationship with the university is not just transactional,” Halfond says. “You don’t need [special online] services for students taking one class in a dorm room.” Instead, he recommends that universities work on behalf of their most challenging student population, such as the student several time zones away, and all students studying online will benefit. “Office hours have become obsolete,” he says.

In fact, it is possible for online education to help universities forge bonds with their students that are as strong as those formed with traditional, on-campus students. “Universities have a presence beyond their physical footprint,” he explains. In many ways, the experience of the distance online student is similar to the old part time, evening student experience, in which a busy professional might arrive at campus just in time for class, leave as soon as the class is over, and spend more time dealing with the demands of daily life than with the experience of being a student.

Online education can go much beyond this experience to help the student truly form a bond with the institution. “It can be quite a liberating experience way beyond what you get in night school,” Halfond says. “You can have a cross-cultural program by being nationwide,” he adds by way of example. This might turn out to be far more important to forging a lasting bond with the student than any idealized portrayal of attendance at campus football games and long walks across the quad. “They’ll follow the football team anyway,” Halfond says.

As the Hallmarks of Excellence document evolves, Halfond expects it to become a self-assessment tool that may help institutions prepare for consulting visits or accreditation. Eventually, it is likely to become the basis for a national benchmarking study.

Overall, Halfond hopes that institutions will take the Hallmarks of Excellence document as inspiration to work for improvement. “This effort takes attention, resources, and passion,” he says. “The best of us will fall short.” Even so, he encourages institutions, “don’t limit yourself or your aspirations.”

 Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is the managing editor of Academic Leader and the chair of the 2017 Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the owner of Hilltop Communications (

Reprinted from “Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership,” Distance Education Report, 19.19 (2016): 1,2. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.