Insights from the Field: Leading Online Initiatives


Dr. Lujean Baab, Senior Director, Learning Experience Design (LED), Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS), Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA

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The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) is reaching out to our global community of thought leaders, faculty, innovators, and practitioners to bring you insights from the field of online, blended, and digital learning. This week, Dr. Lujean Baab, OLC Institute SME and faculty for the Leadership in Online Learning Mastery Series, joins us to discuss leading online initiatives.

In over twenty years of involvement in online initiatives, I received many requests to provide a roadmap for establishing and managing successful online programs from a variety of institutions – large and small, two-year and four-year, private and public. The answer is always the same; your path will not look like any other I’ve encountered. Leadership for online initiatives shares some commonalities, but putting that leadership to work must be an endeavor tailored to the unique history, politics, culture, organizational structure, and circumstances of your institution.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer, but there are some common elements that we can consider to be successful leaders.

First, we all have to take in the full picture of our institutions before we can successfully lead online initiatives. We then must put that into context – both with the larger picture of online learning globally and also with the smaller, individual pictures of the needs and desired outcomes of our internal units. This is no small task and cannot be undertaken without first establishing lines of communication, relationships, and access to people and information. We must acquire the perspective needed to understand where we are going now and where we want to go with the initiative. We can then map out how to get there in our own way using lessons learned from others. While we won’t all have the same map, there are guides we will share along the way, so let’s focus on those commonalities here.  

One common consideration is the recognition that leading online initiatives is, at its core, leading change. I often tell students, colleagues, and pretty much anyone who will listen that change occurs from a sense of urgency and perceived benefit (Kotter, J. P. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.). As leaders of online initiatives, we need to understand if there is a sense of urgency for these initiatives and, if so, why? Who stands to benefit and what is that benefit? Who is impacted by the change and do they share the sense of urgency and understand the benefit? When we know this, we can identify those who should be represented in the team(s) assembled to support the initiative and inform its leader(s). Undertaking this will tell us who should be investing in this initiative and how much, what timeframe we should be considering, etc. Above all else, we need to recognize in this undertaking the need to listen to and communicate with the right people in our institution.

The second commonality is that we must identify the stakeholders, beneficiaries, and everyone potentially impacted by the initiative to establish communication that will, hopefully, lead to support for the initiative. This communication must be grounded in trust that arises from frequent contact, honest and open sharing of information, and respect for all input and concerns expressed. Trust is also built through consistency in responsiveness, demonstrated belief in the initiative, and delivery of promised resources and support (Serrat, 2017).  

In order to accomplish this, as leaders, we need to understand the full range of implications – positive and negative – including the financial impact, as well as the impact on those currently working to capacity and contributing value in the areas that must change. We must not minimize or dismiss their efforts, but recognize their current and potential value for the initiative. We must reinforce this and help those affected come to the realization that the benefits perceived by others will benefit them as well.

Finally, in order to be successful as leaders of online initiatives, we must have the authority equal to the responsibility. That is, the authority to assemble those we identify, request and release information, provide resources, and move forward with clarity and conviction under the endorsement and with the support of those in higher positions of authority and responsibility in our institutions. This can be shared authority requiring collaboration and checking our egos at the door. This authority should not be assigned, but rather earned through the application of our experience and knowledge, communication skills, problem-solving skills, and resourcefulness supported by the network of colleagues we establish from connections we make through organizations like OLC.    

This may not be a detailed map to successful leadership of online initiatives, but perhaps it can be a guide to creating your own, unique path within your institution. It can most certainly be informed by the experiences of others in their own unique institutions, which is why I value the connections made through OLC so highly and rely upon them so much. While we may be on our own journey, we are all looking to success as our destination and we don’t have to travel the route on our own. I welcome your feedback and comments on this post and look forward to meeting more travelers along the way.


Serrat, O. (2017).  Knowledge solutions.  Singapore: Springer.   

Dr. Lujean Baab

Dr. Lujean Baab serves as the Senior Director for Learning Experience Design, a unit Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies at Virginia Tech. She leads a team of instructional designers, instructional technologists, support and content development specialists, graphic and media developers, digital image repository management, digital media services, assessment and research specialists who with faculty to develop online courses, provide instructional design and course development through cohorts, faculty working groups and individual consultation.

Dr. Baab has been a faculty member and administrator for online learning programs for over 15 years. She has previously served as Director of Educational Technology for Moravian College in PA, a Director of Distance Learning for Northampton Community College in PA, and the Director of Graduate Programs in Education for DeSales University in PA. She holds an Ed.D. from Pepperdine in Educational Technology and an MA in Communications from Marywood University. She also holds a K-12 certification as Instructional Technology Specialist and was responsible for building and administering an online program in PA leading to that certification.

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