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Definition Update: Chief Online Learning Officer (COLO)

By Julie Uranis, Senior Vice President of Online and Strategic Initiatives, UPCEA

From its earliest days in 1915, UPCEA members have led the charge in making postsecondary education available to distant learners. From the correspondence movement to today, distance learning, now online learning, has been led by practitioners that sit at the intersection of curriculum, technology, and pedagogy.

Postsecondary online practitioners have disparate portfolios, unique titles, and varied job descriptions. Even at the highest echelons of online leadership, senior leaders struggle to identify their peers simply by titles alone. UPCEA has abandoned the idea of aligning titles across the postsecondary ecosystem. Regardless of title, many senior online leaders share the same characteristics, ones UPCEA articulated in our original definition of Chief Online Learning Officers (2017):, 

A Chief Online Learning Officer (COLO) is the decision-maker for an online enterprise (whether at the unit, college, or institutional level). COLOs are accountable to the online enterprise and make the decisions to advance the strategy, leadership, and vision of postsecondary online education. At the operational level, a COLO makes the critical path decisions for an online enterprise (e.g. technology, outsourcing strategic enrollment management vs. building internal teams, etc.). UPCEA recognizes there is diversity in such roles and decisions. COLOs are sometimes professional or continuing education deans with online in their portfolio, while others are solely focused on online learning.

Fast forward to 2023, where the role of COLOs has gained greater prominence at most institutions, and their portfolios have expanded to more than ‘online degrees and courses’. Most individuals identifying as COLOs have had the most harrowing three years of their personal lives and careers. It is at this point that the Council for Chief Online Learning Officers (C-COLO) leadership team decided to review the definition of a COLO to reflect the current context in which most COLOs exist. 

Caught somewhere between a Chief Information/Technology Officer (CIO or CTO) leading an institution’s IT enterprise and a Chief Academic Technology Officer (CATO), many COLOs have uniquely different and distinct portfolios. As Tom Cavanagh, Vice Provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida and the Chair of the C-COLO leadership team, shared, “I work closely with our institution’s CIO and I couldn’t do what I do without collaborating with him, but our work is distinctly different. From an orientation standpoint, his work is technology-focused and supports the academic and research mission of the university. I would characterize my work as academically-focused but mediated via technology.” Tom emphasized that while he relies heavily on his relationship with his CIO, CIOs and CATOs do not do the same work. For this reason the 2022-2023 C-COLO leadership team recently engaged in revising the definition of a COLO:

A Chief Online Learning Officer (COLO) is the primary leader for an online, digital, or other technology-enhanced postsecondary enterprise and can have responsibilities inclusive of, but not limited to, digital and hybrid learning, instructional design, student experience, and faculty development (whether at the unit, college, or institutional level). They influence and/or make critical path decisions in strategic collaboration with other institutional leaders (e.g. outsourcing operational aspects vs. building internal teams, etc.). 

COLOs advocate for and with stakeholders to advance the strategy, leadership, and vision of postsecondary online education in keeping with an institution’s mission and values. COLOs often bring business acumen and an entrepreneurial approach, and serve as conveners for innovation within higher education institutions. UPCEA recognizes there is diversity in the title of such roles, depending on institutional type, culture, and maturity of the online enterprise.

If you are an UPCEA member and a COLO, you can confirm your access to UPCEA’s COLO-only community by logging into UPCEA’s member portal and reviewing your committees (looking for Chief Online Learning Officers). Being designated as a COLO grants you access to the UPCEA CORe Council for Chief Online Learning Officers community comprised of your peers and the opportunity to attend invite-online events designed by and for COLOs. If you are unsure if you are your institution’s designated COLO, feel free to reach out to [email protected] for more information.

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