DE Leadership

Michael Beaudoin (2007) in his chapter ‘Institutional Leadership’, in Michael Moore’s Handbook of Distance Education, explores the discussion on leadership in distance education in higher education. He sees leadership as different from management and includes “a set of attitudes and behaviors which create conditions for innovative change, which enable individuals and organizations to share a vision and move in its direction, and which contribute to the operationalization of ideas that advance distance education initiatives” (p.391). He furthers a leader can be one in a major role, such as a university president, or one whose influence impacts an organization such as a scholar.

The literature on educational leadership for distance education offers little theoretical frameworks but plenty of guidelines and strategies for implementing such types of programs. Much of the literature, in the US and Europe, is case studies and reports on specific institutions and projects, limiting the generalizability, and not many refer to impact on leadership. However, theoretical constructs for leadership is needed. Some text offer chapters on policies, administration, management and leadership such as Handbook of Distance Education and Hanna and Latchem’s (2001) Leadership and Management in Open and Flexible Learning. Thus, Beaudoin suggests current distance education leaders and practitioners with institutional and personal experience to offer their reflection and contribute their insights into leadership of DE. Developing a theoretical approach to distance education will help up and coming leaders and practitioners who in turn will add new leadership styles, strategies and theoretical perspectives.

Furthermore, change is happening. For instance, “every new technological innovation applied to education at a distance changes things. These changes may be in the intellectual, social, political, economic, or ecological domain, and the effective leader cannot afford to be ignorant of the advantages and also the possible disadvantages of what such technology creates” (p.401).  As well, many changes are affecting higher education, the academic workplace, and the old argument that teaching and learning in traditional style is suffice is too simplistic to address changes.  Educational and institutional leaders need to ask questions that will impact the future of institutions such as faulty hired, the learning environment, infrastructures, and new competitors. Current administrative and instructional infrastructures won’t necessary disappear but will be altered and used differently. For instance, there is a shift from campus-centric to distributed-education model, if not blurring together. What is more, students want learning resources and credentials thus relying and needing the latter model which is supported by distance education technologies. All the while, the costs and usefulness of campus operations become a tension.

As the field of distance education evolved, programs were compared to classroom-based instruction. Later, the impact of teaching and learning from a distance through a variety of media became a focus of inquiry. As well, external forces helped gradually change educational structures calling for strategic decisions. As Beaudoin states, “few institutional leaders today would not acknowledge that technological innovation is perhaps the single most compelling factor driving them toward new organizational arrangements and, for many, it represents the most significant change since their institution was established” (p.393).

These changes will call for leadership styles and institutional structures less seen in educational management and institutions. One such style is entrepreneurism that divides labour, markets programs, and controls quality as some key actions. Some distance education institutions or divisions have chosen an industrial, entrepreneurial model such as the British Open University. However, as stated by James Hall (1998) most institutions to date have been working with separate and distinct distance education programs yet through networks organizations, in which programs and participants are merging, there is a need to develop alliances and networks, such as with for-profit entities or creating mega-universities. As well, donning a global view, expanding markets, offering distance education exclusively online, and treating virtual entities as freestanding and asynchronous are newer strategic approaches for distance education.  However, “bold and creative leadership is required to manage as well as evaluate these emerging new structures, driven by large measure by networking technology” (p.393).

One style that might be timely is transformative leadership in order to work within a current system and structure and to promote and encourage the implementation of distance education. This is necessary in a traditional institution with entrenched practices but who are faced with worldwide markets and emerging competitors. One of the biggest challenges will be to overcome the stubborn resistance of organizations to change. More so, “transformational leaders in education must be capable in helping stakeholders (e.g., administrators, faculty, students, and trustees), and recognizing that there are obvious benefits in doing business in new ways, and that they can no longer afford the luxury of adopting new ways of teaching and learning in incremental fashion to which academics are so accustomed and comfortable in doing” (p.399). Thus, instead of working within the compounds of their own programs, distance education leaders must find their way into the academic mainstream and to the decision makers. They must not become isolated advocates and protectors of their programs but be valued strategic partners in the institution, and “facilitate the articulation, development, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by a wider academic community” (p.400).

They can demonstrate how distance education offerings placed in a central role in institutions can help with being competitive and survive the new global marketplace. More so, leaving the development of distance education to individuals, such as faculty members who design their courses, little would be done to create a system-wide adoption that is comprehensive and cost-effective. Yet, if enough individuals implement distance education there will become a critical mass of participant, thus creating attention for support and commitment by the institution. Yet, Beaudoin warns “premature, administratively driven initiatives will only generate further faculty resistance and impede any prospects for longer-term change” (p.400). As well, outsourcing specialized functions of distance education can create skepticism and further impede an institutional shift towards distance education adoption.

However, questions remain of what are the best roles and practices for distance education leaders. Are those from previous generations of DE relevant? For instance, those in distance education now are faced with many tasks such as (p.401):

  • Needs assessment
  • Market analysis
  • Strategic planning
  • Fitting technology to needs
  • Operationalizing ideas
  • Resource mobilization
  • Introducing online infrastructure
  • Policy formation
  • Training and support for faculty
  • Collaborating with partners
  • Program evaluation and accreditation
  • Mentoring the next generation of leaders


Less critical are the roles of advocate, reformer and technician with more need for leaders to be a conceptualizer, implementor and evaluator as well as an educator. Yet, some leaders remain preoccupied with advocating and bridging the gap in institutions that no longer exists, and should engage in broader discussions and strategic planning for the future of the institutions. There needs to be a shift from micro issues, such as technology and teaching and learning effectiveness, to macro focuses on the impact of technology on a wider scale.

  • Herman Najoli March 10, 2009, 12:33 am

    Well said. I think there needs to be an indepth review of our theories of practice (Argyris and Schon, 1975). What amazes me is how the field that’s responsible for the dissemination of knowledge is sometimes too slow in embracing new knowledge.

  • edmusings March 11, 2009, 2:32 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Herman. And I agree. There seems to be a few contradictions in academia, such as effective teaching, etc. However, it makes me ponder why we/they are so deliberate. Are potential practices and theories that fleeting and skeptical? Have there been models implementated that weren’t effective? I think there were, such as curriculum reforms in the past. I am starting to see both sides.


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