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What's It Like to Work for an Online Campus?

If you've thought about moving to the online adjunct of your institution, or one of the big-name virtuals, here's what you'll need to consider.

What's It Like to Work for an Online Campus?THE UNIVERSITY OF PHOENIX makes little secret of the fact that it offers higher IT salaries than most state institutions. According to Joe Mildenhall, CIO of Phoenix parent company Apollo Group, there's also the potential for staffers to earn stock options as they move into management ranks. Then too, because the IT organization supports about 330,000 students worldwide, the hardware and software in use tend to be high-quality and cutting-edge. "We invest heavily in our technology because we have to for our scale and for what we're maintaining from a reliability and security standpoint," says Mildenhall.

And Karen Tan, the tech support and operations manager for UMassOnline, points out her favorite advantage of working for the online side of her school: "You're not fighting with students for a place to park."

Sure, there are plusses to the "virtual" side of IT ops in higher ed. Yet negatives exist, too.

Phoenix: Deep Expertise on a Large Scale

When Mildenhall meets with CIOs from other schools, "They talk about the resident populations of their students; the challenges providing bandwidth and dealing with downloads, filtering, and more. We don't really have that," he says, pointing to Phoenix's core challenge: supporting hundreds of thousands of students. "The amount of design and attention to supporting scale is something most colleges don't have to worry about. We don't have many off-the-shelf options; we've had to build a lot of our own stuff."

In fact, that scale requires an IT organization of about 1,300, including a call center with a staff of 400 to support students and faculty; 200 to 250 desktop support staffers to support the 17,000 employees; an infrastructure group to manage the operations of servers, storage, and the networks; plus three software application groups-- one focused on back-office systems, another creating customer and outward-facing applications, and a third for developing inhouse apps to support staff. With the exception of desktop support to provide help in 170-plus physical locations, IT operations are centralized in the Phoenix, AZ, area.

While the sheer size of the IT organization provides opportunity for promotion from within, Mildenhall admits that some employees feel boxed in. "There's a world of difference between an infrastructure where 50 people interact with servers, versus a shop where three people do," he says. Yet, "An advantage is that people are able to develop deep expertise that they may not be able to if they're generalists; expertise in intrusion detection technology, virtualization, or database administration, for instance."

On the flip side, some people see that as limiting, he concedes. "One person is racking up hardware, another is doing the base system install, and another is doing the application install on that particular server."

Still, for individuals accustomed to working in a public institution environment where there's "one of everything," Phoenix can mandate a certain level of uniformity; it maintains a menu of features that any individual college may opt to use or not. "We have a lot more central control. There isn't ‘This department wants to do it this way with these tools, and that department wants to do it that way with another set of tools,'" explains Mildenhall.

Interestingly, he hasn't witnessed many IT professionals moving to traditional universities from the for-profit space. "State institutions can't compete salary-wise," he observes, adding. "People are in those [traditional] jobs for reasons other than pay."

The biggest U of Phoenix hiring challenge right now, says Mildenhall, is on the software engineering side: finding people who can do Java and web-based programming for high-volume, high-availability websites. Where the skills exist internally, the company promotes from within. Phoenix also hires through federal visa and green card programs.

Working on the digital side of higher ed is high-profile. The value of the services being offered by the UMassOnline IT organization has placed it in a leadership role.

UMassOnline: Virtual Touch and Patience

The nine-person IT staff of which Karen Tan is part (and which hosts all of the online platforms for the five-campus UMass system as well as for nearly a dozen state and local community colleges) is stationed off-campus in Shrewsbury, where University Information Technology Systems also is housed.

Tan came out of the UMass-Lowell campus's continuing/ distance ed department, where she was moving Lowell's online courses over to the UMassOnline platform, which launched in 2001. Gone are the days of working out of an old, drafty university building, she notes. The current environment has a "more corporate look and feel." Her skills have evolved too. Because UMassOnline has students all over the world (33,900 at last count), the 17,000 annual support requests are handled via e-mail, phone, and online chat 365 days a year, 24/7.

Tan recalls her previous (9 to 5) job required serving walkin students or faculty who were having trouble connecting to an online course or couldn't upload a file. "They could bring their laptops and get immediate gratification," she says, and she admits she misses those aspects of the job. "[Working for the online campus] means less face-to-face interaction. I have to rely on technology to reach out to those I work with."

In her job today, "You need to be very patient to walk users through troubleshooting over the phone or via e-mail, versus taking laptops from them and resolving the problems yourself," Tan explains. For that reason, when she's interviewing a new job candidate, she asks, "How do you deal with the most unruly customers?" Fortunately, Tan understands the virtual experience from both sides of the chat window, since she received her BS in IT through UMassOnline.

Today, Tan's team uses an external service provider, ConnectedLearning Network, to provide first-tier support. Her group handles escalation and acts as liaison when problems come up with the Blackboard Vista LMS.

Should You Go Virtual?

The entrepreneurial spirit that infuses the digital side of the house at virtual institutions won't appeal to everybody. Even though it's state-overseen like any state school, UMass- Online delivers financial reports that read like shareholder filings from Silicon Valley companies. Yet, the potential compensation gains, technology challenges, and perks may present an alluring alternative for IT professionals accustomed to staid academic environments, serious IT budget constraints, and endless workaround solutions.

And there's an additional consideration: Working on the digital side of higher ed is high-profile. The value of the services being offered by the UMassOnline IT organization, for instance, has placed it in a leadership role, giving it "the opportunity to work with a variety of departments and divisions within the system, other local colleges and, of course, the higher education industry at large," says UMassOnline spokesperson Jennifer Brady. What's more, double-digit growth of the online programs has led to increased hiring and bumped-up promotion of existing staff, meaning greater opportunities for those inside the organization, or looking to enter from outside. Plus, says Brady, "Our tech team is constantly evaluating new tools and technologies to implement within our offering. That provides opportunities for [IT staffers] to have a deeper understanding of new technologies and keep up with or ahead of advancements."

The end result: Work that constantly challenges the IT staff. Tan says she has grown in a way that is "much different than my position at the Lowell campus ever would have allowed."

Is a move to the virtual side one you should consider? Maybe it's time to look at the possibilities.

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