Leadership Comes from Everywhere, Not Just the Top


 John Vivolo, Director of Online Education at the Katz School of Science and Health of Yeshiva University, and session presenter at OLC Innovate 2020

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This is the first in a series of blog posts entitled: Leadership in Online Learning. Each post will build toward an upcoming presentation at OLC Innovate 2020 in Chicago, IL. Join me for the Present and Reflect Session entitled: Online Learning Leadership and Support: Building the Structure and Keeping It Together on Thursday, April 2, at 2:15 PM.  This is also a Best-in-Track session. For those who can’t make it in person, the session will also be live-streamed.

What is leadership?

 What do people think about when they hear the word “leadership”? Someone who tells others what to do? Someone who is coming up with all the ideas to innovate? Someone who picks the best course of action for the institution? No, that’s not leadership. An educational institution isn’t a factory producing online learning widgets. It’s a living organism that needs to adapt to the changes in the environment and needs to pull ideas from multiple sources.

For the past 25 years, online learning has been the great equalizer in education that connects people regardless of location. Over 100 million students, through academic institutions and MOOCs, have learned online (Shah, 2018). This innovation didn’t come from a single dean, president or director who sat upon their ivory throne dictating how we will support online students and faculty, nor which online degrees will grow. It happened because institutions embraced the notion that ideas come from everywhere. Leadership comes from all parts of an institution (even from the most unlikely people). We will explore this concept through this series.

Let’s take a look at the Pyramid of Online Learning Support (Vivolo, 2019):

Traditional education functions as a duality between learners and faculty. The school provides on-campus faculty with administrative support, such as: faculty salary, IT support and other traditional support systems. In an online environment, however, this structure falls apart without elements such as instructional designers (helping the faculty discover their learning design vision) and educational technologists (helping faculty navigate the muddy waters of educational technology). Even with these two elements, the structure still falls apart. It needs bracers like student and faculty support, people that provide support to the unique needs of the online learner and faculty. Finally, of course, traditional foundational support from the institution’s infrastructure (marketing, recruitment, IT, human resources, etc.) continues to play their part.

But what about leadership? Notice, it isn’t part of the pyramid. It’s the light at the top but also shines throughout the structure. That’s because leadership comes from everywhere. Each person, including student workers, provides leadership. They provide experience and ideas that influence the entire online learning program.

How do student workers provide leadership? When I was the Director of Online Learning at NYU, I encouraged student workers to review online courses and to work with faculty as they developed their courses. I treated them as equals, as leaders. I invited them to staff meetings and asked them to speak up as if were full time staff. Why? Because they are our audience. They are more connected to the learning experience than any of us who have doctorates, years of teaching experience or years as a director or senior administrator. I often ask students to review content that is in development (preferably courses they have already taken) and ask for their honest opinion, from the student’s perspective. What I get is leadership and a perspective that even the most gifted instructional designers may not have considered, including myself.

Currently, I’m working at the Katz School of Science and Health at Yeshiva University. I’m excited to be part of a culture of innovation and invention unlike anything I’ve ever seen at previous institutions. We are building leaders with unique online programs and producing students that will not just think outside the box, but will throw the box away and take the world by storm. We cultivate these student leaders and it starts with how we treat them and other staff. According to Marlene Leekang (2019, p. 48), author and educational thought leader at Baruch College (CUNY), “A successful department head cultivates a culture of ownership, celebration of success and learning from failure.” Leekang continues, “Often I was the first stop for many staff to seek advice on work or personal matters that could impact getting the job done. I did my best to understand the needs of the department as well as the individual and possible remedies so that all parties were satisfied,” (Leekang, 2019, p. 48).

If you are a dean or director, your job is not to tell other people what to do. Your job is to provide your staff, including the student workers, the tools they need to succeed. These tools include an environment that cultivates openness and leadership. No staff, nor student worker, should be waiting for you to give them permission to present an idea. They should be standing by your office excited to tell you about their ideas, and you should be opening the door for them.

Want to learn more about online learning leadership?

I invite you to pick up a copy of my recently published, best-selling book: Managing Online Learning: The Life-Cycle of Successful Programs . Also, connect with me on LinkedIn!


The next post will dig into the misconception that technology is the key to success when leading an online program. Look for the next post entitled: Support Systems Are Not Just Technological, They Are Human-Centered.

 If you want to learn more about the Pyramid of Online Learning Support join me at OLC Innovate in Chicago, IL. See you in the threads!


Leekang, M. (2019). Keeping the Machine and Culture in Sync: Creative Management of Technology-Enhanced Teams. Managing Online Learning: The Life-Cycle of Successful Programs, 44. New York, NY: Routledge.

Shah, D. (2019, March 21). By The Numbers: MOOCs in 2018 – Class Central. Retrieved from https://www.classcentral.com/report/mooc-stats-2018/.

Vivolo, J. (2019). Managing Online Learning: The Life-Cycle of Successful Programs. New York, NY: Routledge.


OLC Leadership Network Event

Join OLC’s spring leadership network event, where we bring together digital leaders from academics, non-profits, and the private sector to discuss digital education strategy across the institution. Learn more.


John Vivolo, Director of Online Education at the Katz School of Science and Health of Yeshiva University, and session presenter at OLC Innovate 2020.


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