As I transition back to being “just” a tenured faculty member, I spend much of my time thinking about how I want to spend my time come Fall. While this transition is not of my own choosing, I have come to see it as an opportunity to get back to my roots and values as a scholar and an educator. I now know what courses I’ll be teaching in the Fall, and I look forward to getting back to teaching graduate-level courses which I haven’t done in over 4 years. The last four years as a university administrator and leader of faculty development and online learning initiatives have given me some new perspectives on teaching and learning and equipped me with some new tools and ideas to incorporate into my teaching.

I have also come to see this transition as an opportunity to reinvent myself as a scholar. My tenure portfolio was built around scholarship focused on, broadly, educational technology at the K-12 level. I was one of a small group of scholars housed in a department of educational leadership who studied and wrote about educational technology. My scholarly work lived at the intersection of technology, leadership, and policy all with a focus on equity. Staying that course would be the easy road, and the group of like-minded, like-focused educational leadership professors hasn’t gotten any larger; there’s enormous need for more research around leadership and policy around educational technology within the K-12 system.

However, having spent the past 4 years in a leadership position largely focused on distance education, I find myself really wanting to focus my scholarly pursuits on distance education in higher education. As a scholar, I have long struggled with the expectation of having a sufficiently narrow research agenda. That works against my natural intellectual curiosity. That said, I also understand the need to be efficient with the limited time we have for research, and I value expertise which is a natural result of sustained, focused scholarly activity around a bounded area within a discipline. In fact, I think I understand this better now than I did even 5 years ago as a faculty member.

This is also a good time for me to focus on distance education in higher education because my department, Educational Leadership, is expanding our offerings and adding programs in higher education administration. Most immediately, we are adding a higher education-focused cohort to our Ed.D. program, and there are plans to develop a masters program in higher education administration. We are in the final stages of hiring two faculty members focused on higher education.

“Distance education in higher education” is still a broad area and I’ll need to really find my pigeonhole. As a starting point, I have applied for research leave for the Spring ’18 semester and internal funding to engage in a research project that I can’t say much about right now. I am still waiting to find out if my leave application is approved and/or if I won the competition for internal research funds. Those decisions will largely shape how I go about my scholarly pursuits over the next 12-18 months.

Furthermore, I want to get back to my roots in the politics of education and as an educational policy analyst. From my perspective, the vast majority of the research on distance education in higher education is focused on issues around teaching and learning. This is critically important, of course. Additionally, there’s a lot of research trying to get at “effectiveness” of distance education. I understand why that’s being done, but it’s not of particular interest to me right now. Where I think there’s a real gap is in good critical policy analysis around distance education in higher education. According to Diem et al. (2014):

Critical theories facilitate the exploration of policy roots and processes; how policies presented as reality are often political rhetoric; how knowledge, power, and resources are distributed inequitably; how educational programs and policies, regardless of intent, reproduce stratified social relations; how schools institutionalize those with whom they come into contact; and how individuals react (e.g. resistance or acquiescence) to such social and institutional forces.

What might critical policy analysis around distance education in higher education look like? In an article today in Inside Higher Ed, Christopher Haynes writes,

“Online education aspires to more than the predatory neo-liberal nightmare its harshest critics make it out to be. While there are many questions yet to be answered, online education is promising, effective, and vital to the health of contemporary college and universities.”

That strikes me as an ideal prompt for critical policy analysis. If Haynes is correct, how to explain the following language from other recent Inside Higher Ed articles? In an article about class sizes in online courses, we get the following statement:

“These are business decisions,” said Stephen C. Head, chancellor of Lone Star College, meaning that if an online class doesn’t have enough students to earn the institution money, it won’t be offered. After that hurdle is cleared, colleges have to consider whether the academic needs of the student are met, Head said. 

Then, in an article about a nationwide survey about the online education market, we see this:

“One of our basic premises is that online education is a business, and it is establishing itself at the majority of two- and four-year institutions,” Legon said. “As it joins the mainstream, one would want to ask how this fits into the organizational structure of these institutions, the budgeting, agenda, priorities for investments and development, and how it affects the role that faculty and staff play — just a variety of issues that come together to make online learning a viable, long-term aspect of higher education.”

How do we reconcile Haynes’ claim about neoliberalism and the language of the stakeholders above? And that is language just from the last couple of days just from one publication. We need some good critical policy analysis here.

I am fortunate in that Dr. Katherine Mansfield is a departmental colleague at VCU. She has done a bunch of really great work around critical policy analysis in education and I have an opportunity to learn and hopefully work with her. I look to Kat, my other colleagues, and you all, both of my readers, to help me as I begin nesting in my pigeonhole.