Becoming a Digital Learning Leader in a Community College


Dr. Tina Parscal, Associate Vice Chancellor for CCCOnline and Academic Affairs for the Colorado Community College System. Dr. Parscal is an IELOL faculty member. 

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There is a growing need for digital learning leaders in the community colleges. This blog discusses what it takes to be an effective community college leader, talents and skills discussed by participants in OLC’s cohort-based professional development program, the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning. Applications for the IELOL 2023 Program are open until April 28.

With recent waves of retirements among senior leadership at many community colleges and the “great resignation,” community colleges have a pressing need to develop future leaders.  This is particularly true for online and digital learning leaders.  There is a growing need for digital learning leaders in the community colleges.

Community colleges are astonishing and versatile institutions. With access and student success as the consistent “North Star” of their mission (AACC, 2018) they simultaneously possess an unwavering focus on meeting the needs of an evolving workforce; prepare students for transfer to four-year institutions; and deliver a wide range of program options such as career and technical education and concurrent enrollment. 

Community colleges are also expanding their online offerings to meet student demand. In 2021, Bayview Analytics surveyed community college students, faculty, and administrators. They found that 3/4 of current community college students are taking online courses and want to take more in the future. They also found that most two-year students want the option for online and hybrid courses as well as the use of technology and more digital resources in the classroom. 

A Growing Need for Digital Learning Leaders

What does it take to be an effective community college leader? The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC, 2018) identified key competencies for senior leaders. In addition to embracing opportunities for access, retention, and student success, successful community college leaders also possess knowledge of organizational cultures, governance, the use of data in decision-making, and strategic and financial planning. Interpersonally, senior community college leaders, like their four-year counterparts, must cultivate relationships and mobilize stakeholders through communication and collaboration. Finally, effective leaders also demonstrate personal traits such as emotional intelligence, authenticity, ethics, and a forward-looking orientation. 

Emerging community college leaders in digital learning departments have resources to help them develop these competencies. Dr. Shelly Kurland, Dean of Virtual Campus County College of Morris, participated in OLC’s Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning (IELOL) in 2018. According to Dr. Kurland, 

Participating in IELOL prepared me to be a more strategic and confident leader. Even more, I am humbled by all that I learned from the faculty mentors and my peers. A few of us extended the relationships started in IELOL from peers to fellow researchers and friends.

Leadership development programs such as IELOL have both structured learning opportunities and intentional, yet informal opportunities for networking and mentoring. Dr. Luke Dowden, Chief Online Learning Officer / Associate Vice Chancellor for the Alamo College District, shared how his participation in IELOL (2010) and later as a faculty member (2019-2020) shaped him as a senior leader.

Being in IELOL’s second cohort was one of the best network expanding activities I have been involved in for my own personal professional growth. Later, as an IELOL faculty member, I had the joy of expanding my network again as I got to mentor two groups of emerging leaders in the field. In that experience, my focus was less on me and sharing with others while being inspired by their talents and approaches. 

The value of developing a networked community of practice is important for all emerging leaders, and is particularly crucial for leaders from small and/or rural colleges. According to Dr. Dowden, 

For community college leaders at rural or smaller campuses, staffs can be small and one may wear many hats / serve in many roles. One needs a sounding board and a network to vet ideas. IELOL gave me that but more importantly introduced me to a community of practitioners and ways to continue expanding my network. Today, I am focusing on how I share my network as an equity practice. 

Aspiring community college leaders not only work at colleges, but many serve as part of district or system offices where the scope of what it means to be a leader can be applied across many institutions. IELOL 2021 alum, Dr. Kai Savi, Associate Dean for Sciences at the Colorado Community College System, shared her experiences with IELOL. 

The IELOL program has been significant in helping me to develop as an emerging leader in the community college system.  The IELOL focus on learning agility and entrepreneurial leadership, along with hands-on opportunities to engage in group work with my peers, provided valuable experience in planning and facilitating change management processes as our system works towards implementing a long-term strategy to advance the online landscape in our state.

If you aspire to a community college leadership position, with a system or individual institution, at a large or small college, in a rural, suburban, or urban setting, there are many avenues to allow you to develop professionally. For those of us lucky enough to serve in online and digital learning roles, programs like OLC’s IELOL is a great way to develop the leadership skills needed to be a successful community college leader.


American Association of Community Colleges (2018), AACC Competencies for Community College Leaders, Third Edition

Bayview Analytics (2021), Student, Faculty, and Administrator Perspectives on Digital Learning in the Community College


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