Leading the charge of digital learning in higher education today, as we emerge from the global pandemic with greater respect for digital learning, demands a different set of leadership knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics than in the past. Though goals have remained stable over the years and consistent across higher education institutions, with leaders’ reporting their highest-level strategic goals for online learning at their institutions were to “enhance student retention,” “promote instructional innovation,” “grow total institutional enrollments,” and “promote student engagement” (Fredericksen, 2018, p. 394). How leaders meet those goals requires new methods to carry the torch forward from the present.
The mission serves as the ultimate goal of the institution from which other goals derive, and meeting goals permeate through operations. Some operational best practices recommended are: taking a systemic approach to enhancing effectiveness via evaluation; aiming for success metrics; creating quality assurance systems; supporting and encouraging faculty involvement; building community and encouraging professional development; incorporating strategic staffing efforts; bolstering student support services; keeping abreast of institutional, local, state, and federal policies; and building capacity and infrastructure for balancing operational and strategic leadership (Miller et al., 2014; Linder et al., 2019). Linder et al., 2019 argues that innovating relies on fostering entrepreneurial mindsets both within operations and via projects. Leaders can build a research and development function, piloting innovations to cultivate a purposeful change effort, resulting in viable, new offerings that can roll into operations. Agility in maintaining operations while enabling successful innovations enables efficiency in delivering outcomes and directional changes. Agility is possible when a firm foundation of reflexive practice is rooted within principled leadership, in which plans and actions are based on one’s own as well as shared values, often resulting in strong brand identity.
Leaders today must align strategy to meet the unpredictable terrain that internal and external (or market) demand while carrying out the mission of their institutions to result in a clear direction. Leadership that develops a future-oriented, aspirational, motivational, inclusive, vision for innovation supported by action (Linder et al., 2019) must match institutional context and culture to make an impact (Miller et al, 2014).
Effective communication is key to putting this aligned and matched vision into action. Communicating across all levels of management, to help with change and resolve conflicts, explaining priorities and decisions, actively listening, communicating with tact, and relatability were ranked by leaders as the top competencies for, at least, leading instructional designers who are uniquely positioned to lead in online learning (Gardner, Chongwony, & Washington, 2018); however, leaders may spring up from the many digital learning functional areas who need superb communication skills to demonstrate effectiveness.
Not surprisingly, higher education institutions use online learning as a catalyst for organizational change efforts, including the structural changes of grouping digital learning functions of instructional design, faculty development, and training, course design and multimedia development, learning management systems, online learning policy development, and academic/educational technology under one organizational umbrella (Fredericksen, 2018). Leading transformation in higher education has required change agency to adapt higher education to the unfolding developments over time and change management to facilitate transitions in the traditionally decentralized, shared governance culture of higher education (Miller et al, 2014). To sustain a transformation via e-leadership adoption competencies, higher education leaders must effectively navigate the affordances of technology innovations in communications with all stakeholders, including teams of employees who may work remotely, as well as diffusing innovative technologies for enhancing the effectiveness of teaching and learning (Aurangzeb and Mazhar, 2019).
Ensuring sustainability and scalability goes beyond transformational leadership. Creating an adaptable vision that includes value-laden innovations and methods for scaling that vision accommodates necessary growth and efficiencies. Leaders are called upon to illuminate the way for our higher education institutions to foster and amplify naturally emerging innovations, to harness the power of ever-evolving digital technologies, and capitalize from the competitive window of opportunity that “learning anywhere, anytime” exposes among education institutions. Executing the vision requires a complimentary financial model that can be bolstered by strategic partnerships or consortiums (Linder et al., 2019). Digital learning leaders must have the wherewithal to navigate market forces while ensuring quality and effectiveness as they support the missions of their higher education institutions.
I speak from experience when I suggest that purposefully creating space for your own development in this new era of leadership will yield personal and professional rewards. Attending to your own learning goals can be achieved by participating in professional associations (Miller et al., 2014), to broaden and deepen your competencies. The internationally renowned professional association OLC offers so many ways to get involved and a plethora of resources for leaders. As 2015 alumni and 2021 faculty member of OLC’s Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) program, I have had the honor of creating a network of positive, encouraging individuals who believe in the promise of digital learning for enhancing the quality, affordability, and access of education. Everyone deserves a safe space for renewing or cultivating their own leadership, especially now.
Aurangzeb, W., & Mazhar, U. (2019). Analysis of E-leadership practices in ameliorating learning environment of higher education institutions. Pakistan Journal of Distance and Online Learning, 5(2), 1–16. Retrieved from ERIC database.
Fredericksen, E. E. (2018). A National Study of Online Learning Leaders in U.S. Community Colleges. Online Learning, 22(4), 383–405. Retrieved from ERIC database.
Gardner, J., Chongwony, L., & Washington, T. (2018). Investigating Instructional Design Management and Leadership Competencies – a Delphi Study. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 21(1), 1–22.
Linder, K. E., Huntermann, N. B., Weidemann, C. D., Riggs, S., Templeton, L. L., Bradoch, A., DuPont, J., Fisher, D., Branon, R., Baker, N. C., Wheeler, B., Hilton, J., Brooks, L., King, D., Cavanagh, T., Dowden, L., Regier, P., Scheckel, K., Adair, D., Shattuck, K., Buban, J., Morrison, C M. K., Pedersen, K. L. Heitman, A. C., Urnais, J., Moe, R. (2019). The business of innovating online: Practical tips and advice from industry leaders. (K. E. Linder, Ed.). Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Miller, G., Benke, M., Chaloux, B., Ragan, L., Schroeder, R., Smutz, W., Swan, K. (2013). Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education: Meeting the Challenges of Technology and Distance Education. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Amanda Major, EdD, CPLP, PMP specializes in organizational development, project management, and quality in the field of digital learning in higher education. With experience delivering results in a variety of learner-focused and client-oriented settings, Dr. Major currently leads and contributes to projects at University of Central Florida as an instructional designer.