An Online Policy Conundrum: Structure versus Freedom

The current issue of the Online Journal of Distance Education Administration has a timely and important paper concerning institutional policies about online course structure. “An Analysis of Organizational Approaches to Online Course Structures explores the sometimes conflicting territory of faculty control over their courses versus the need of institutions for standardizing courses in terms of structure and content. This long-standing turf battle is now being played out in the online arena concerning the critical issue of course development.

Authors Lee, Winslow and Dickerson analyze institutional approaches to structuring online courses. The authors believe that such online course policies are important to new online instructors.

Unfortunately, instructors are sometimes asked to teach an online course without understanding what is expected, or what administrators, peers, or students consider to be ‘good’ or the ‘norm’ in terms of course structure and design. Sometimes this is because there is no norm, and other times it is because the expectations are not widely understood or communicated.”

Three Institutional Approaches . . . and CUNY

The authors divide institutional approaches to online course navigation and structure into three categories:

  1. The Fully Autonomous Approach—The instructor is the sole arbiter of how the course is structured.
  2. The Basic Guidelines Approach—The instructor follows a general list of suggested course components.
  3. The Highly Specified Approach—The instructor must adhere to an extensive series of determined components.

Which of the three approaches is taken at any institution depends on many factors including faculty governance and autonomy, history of online development, LMS platform, institutional mission, and degree of central control over institutional teaching policies. Typically, early forays into hybrid and online teaching are ad-hoc in nature.  As institutions develop their online offerings, they enter a stage where more centralized structures and approaches are needed.  However, new online policies often come into conflict with the efforts of early-adoptor faculty who may now chafe at any new impositions from central offices. How do institutions respond to this conflict? The authors clearly note the high price to pay for not changing policies as institutions evolve their online efforts into more mature phases of online growth.

The paper effectively outlines the advantages/disadvantages of each institutional approach in terms of faculty, students and the institution.  For example, a fully autonomous approach (as clearly exists at CUNY) is popular with faculty who cite the need for “academic freedom” in their courses, free from “administrative mandates,” seen by many faculty as arbitrary, capricious and ill-informed. However the authors point to the downside to this fully-autonomous, laissez-faire approach, making the points that:

  • Students will encounter very different and potentially confusing online learning experiences.
  • Instructor observations/evaluations by peers and supervisors can be unclear and even contentious based on different perspectives of what constitutes good overall course design.
  • Inexperienced online instructors may feel adrift in terms of how to design and develop their online course.
  • Quality and consistency across online at the program or institutional level could become an issue during external reviews such as accreditation visits and program audits.
  • The organization runs the risk of online programs developing reputations of being inconsistent, unorganized and/or unmanaged because of the wide array of instructor interpretations.”

These are some of the risks this paper cites for not recommending a basic online course structure.  I would add that increasingly, progressive institutions are seeing the need to brand many aspects of their communications with students and the world outside of their campuses. The “look and feel” of an institution’s online programs is an important component of these branding efforts.

Foundations and Conclusion

Despite a wide array of institutional approaches to online teaching, the authors propose ten “foundational components” to a college’s online course structure. At a minimum, they recommend specific areas for announcements, course information, instructor information, course modules, discussions, submissions (for assignments), assessments, grades, email facility and course support.

Authors Lee, Winslow and Dickerson conclude:

As online learning increasingly becomes a normalized modality, educational organizations need to consider the standardization of course structure. Faculty who teach online should understand institutional philosophies and policies before beginning the design and development of online instruction so they may avoid negative evaluations, poor student achievement, and diminished reputations . . . Standardizing the components will facilitate course navigation, promote efficient content reusability, and improve the potential for student success.

I believe that as institutions evolve, policy needs to evolve accordingly.  A consistent standard for online course structure is one of many policies for an online program. To date, although hybrid/online is in a dramatic stage of growth within CUNY, there has not been a concomitant evolution in centralized structures and policies. This article clearly points to the downside of such policy voids.


Lee, C.L., Dickerson, J., & Winslow, J. (2012). “An Analysis of Organizational Approaches to Online Course Structures,” Online Journal of Distance Education Administration, Volume XV, Number 1, March 2012. Retrieved from:

Rosenbloom, B. (2011-2012). Envisioning Online Learning. CUNY Academic Commons. Related blog posts:

Institutional Process Toward Online: Part 1

Institutional Process Toward Online: Part 2

Institutional Process Toward Online: Part 3

The Central Issue


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