my study on online learning

Dr. Tony Bates was kind enough to share a brief of my doctoral study about the needs of online graduate learners and the implications for educational leaders in traditional universities.


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.

Leadership for positive change in HE

Shelleyann Scott and Kathryn Dixon (2008 ) in their edited book, The Globalized University: Trends and Challenges in Teaching and Learning, offer educational leaders a discussion about the changes information and communicate technology is bringing to their institutions.

Chapter 7, by Charles Webber: Universities in Canada face tensions with academic freedom as new forms of teaching and learning evolve and also with increased privatization and marketization of postsecondary institutions. And in order to make more money, institutions rely on international student fees, commercialization of intellectual property and outsource campus services. As well, “most western nations have at least one or more universities that specialize in distance teaching and learning … [and] are perceived by the public and most university faculty members as credible instititons” (p.196).

Changes in the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary are a good example of some positive changes through leadership. Their graduate division (GDER) has the largest graduate student populations in Education. The strengths of the division are integrated campus and distance programs, skilled faculty in many specializations, strong student perceptions of GDER, student demand for programs, high-quality library resources, generate revenue, increased student access, flexible workloads, flexible programs, and research and professional development centres. Weaknesses are reliance on central technical centres, lack of supervision for course-based students, delayed website upgrades, insufficient student recruitment, reduction in GDER budget, and varying supervision loads. Threats are supervision workloads without teaching releases, loss of balance between teaching and research, funding for doctoral students lowest at university, need for new staff to manage non-traditional programming, staff and budgets, and increasing competition from other universities delivering programs nationally and internationally. A leadership strategy that has been successful in the GDER is a balanced portfolio that focuses on “society’s needs for high quality research and on teaching that informs professional practice … [and] includes strategic alliance with national and international organizations , partnerships that forge strong research and teaching networks … [that also] attract strong students from local, national and international settings” (p. 198). This approach serves many and alleviates political interventions.

Continual cuts to the campus-based programs have been aided by the cost-recovery graduate programs offered online. Thus, through online graduate programs it generates operating revenues. As well, the cost-recovery distance programs have increased student access to higher education as budget cuts affect the number of students admitted to campus-based programs. As well, faculty salaries paid from central institutional sources decreased affecting the ability to admit, teach and supervise campus students. This was offset by distance cost recovery programs such as the Master of Education and Doctor of Education. Applying for government funding to support new initiatives, such as with the ACCESS grant, increased student access; however, such funding allowed less flexibility to administration due to the grant’s focus on specific programs and rigid parameters. As well, staff were hired over the past decade to provide significant support to students in administrative, technology and library units. Staff in the GDER administration office covered a range of responsibilities from budgeting to marketing. They focus on program coordination, scholarship and program advising, continuing professional development opportunities, and other administrative duties.

A Post-Degree Continuous Learning framework allows students to complete coursework at three levels that eventually leads to the completion of a Master degree, much of which are delivered online. Also, a strong support infrastructure for students has helped student retention. These include such as library and technical support staff that helps students to use online databases and software systems. For faculty there are “an evergreen computer system for faculty members, software information seminars for faculty members and students, and instructional design support from the campus Teaching and Learning Centre” (p.176).

Faculty members teaching in the programs use innovative teaching practices. Quality teaching and a variety of course selection provide students with quality programs. Course evaluations accessible by students provide valuable input to improve teaching and scheduling of course and workloads. Students sit as representatives in all governance committees at the university and faculty. A number of professional centers in gifted education, educational leadership and higher education provide continuing professional development, local, national and international networks, and institutional partners to students and faculty. Research efforts are shared by faculty and students in initiatives such as annual online and campus research institutes, and an online peer-reviewed journal for leadership in learning. However, not all faculty members embrace distance learning approaches as revealed in the uneven growth in some programs.

Graduate students come from a variety of work roles such as teachers, principals, consultants, corporate trainers, postsecondary leaders, and instructional designers. The cost-recovery graduate programs do not have a residency requirement thus making the program more accessible and decrease the cost for graduate students by remaining in their communities, jobs and with their families. A survey conducted in 2006 asked current online and campus-based graduate students and alumni about their satisfaction with the programs. Most responded positively to various aspects of the program such as support, resources, instructors, program, supervision and student experience. The few areas that needed addressing, though more than 80% were satisfied, were the learning opportunities, interaction among students, and quality of supervision. However, distance learners felt more satisfied with student interaction and access to learning opportunities. Students in course-based Master programs were less satisfied with their supervision than thesis-based students. Alumni felt their programs enhanced their professional expertise and led to career advancement, but more so with campus-based students. Those online felt more satisfaction with their supervision than campus students and were more apt to recommend the program to a friend or colleague.

Trends in universities worldwide

Shelleyann Scott and Kathryn Dixon (2008 ) in their edited book, The Globalized University: Trends and Challenges in Teaching and Learning, offers educational leadership a discussion about the changes information and communicate technology is bringing to their institutions. In many ways higher education institutions are under pressure and there are concerns for its sustainability. Also, there are questions about its post-industrial look as technology-based economies unfold. However, Scott and Dixon claim, “With vision and leadership, today’s universities can use technology more effectively in order to serve post-industrial societies” (p.7). If visionary change is not implemented, and traditions are maintained, they fear educational services and products delivered by the private sector that can address the learning needs of rapidly changing societies.

One concern is the exposure and scrutiny of educational material and educators in the transparent online world as well as the pedagogical and technological capacity of university teachers. On the other hand, instructors are resisting the management of their work from close monitoring and auditing causing them to feel less trusted. As well, increasing pressures to perform in higher education has negatively affected the collegiality within academic cultures.

In Canada, universities are typically underfunded placing the burden on students to pay higher fees, which have doubled in the past decade, forcing students to borrow from the private sector. There are concerns if they will continue to attract high quality students with high fees.

Chapter 2: The quality of teaching and learning and the student experience is becoming more important in higher education as student enrolment increases bringing diverse learners deemed as customers. Other contributing factors are global competition, reduced government funding and increased accountability. For instance, Australia’s federal government has established a national wide quality assurance framework that guides universities in producing and delivering quality services and products. These might include providing teaching and learning strategies, professional development, probation and promotion practices, teaching evaluation and student assessment.

With increased accountability and shared cost of education, students are viewed as customers and wanting more choice and their needs meet. They want the whole educational experience such as well designed courses, qualified and committed staff and instructors, responsive student support systems and a learning experience that engages and retains them.

The academic staff has multiple roles such as maintaining currency and expertise in their subject areas, using emerging technologies well, innovatively design and deliver courses, advise and mentor students, engage in professional development, research and lead teaching and learning on many levels, and manage courses with timely materials and support for students. Students are shown to want education that has “a design that uses an appropriate variety of interactive, practice-oriented and problem-based methods … capable, committed, accessible and responsive staff… efficient and responsive administrative, information technology, library and student support systems … [and] relevant, consistent and integrated assessment of university standard” imbedded in teaching and learning designs (p.26). However, few universities in the UK have developed, communicated to staff, provided professional development or evaluated teaching and learning strategies. More so, aligning strategies to university policies and providing staff incentives to achieve goals need to be addressed as well. However, there are varied views about using teaching strategies with academic staff concerned about poor implementation, unrealistic strategies, erosion of their autonomy, lack of local contexts and the bureaucratization of teaching.

Support of teaching and learning is best at the midrange level (the Central model) to be connected and integrated with the macro level (institution) and the micro level (individual). Though difficult to establish it connects central and local unit in academic development. However, some academic staff seclude themselves from development initiatives and rely on their “small, internally informed, and often unchanging knowledge base” while rejecting research-based practices (p.31).

Also, there is little evidence that LMS improve learning and teaching. As well, online service systems such as PeopleSoft have proven costly and complex though useful. It requires online support and effort to use.

A number of support systems could be student leaders assisting with learning and study skill development, a fellowship program for faculty to have the time to learn and develop online learning skills, awards and funds to support teaching excellence and high standards, and continuing professional development to move to learner-centred teaching, handle diverse cohorts, to use innovative technology, and research in teaching and learning. However, evidence shows that such initiatives might not be improving teaching and learning and professional development, though effective, might not be retained by staff. Yet, it was found that sharing ideas across and within disciplines raises awareness of issues and needs.

Added to this are proactive leadership, teaching and learning advice, PD and perceptions that initiatives and innovation are valued. Barriers to innovate included poor technical infrastructures, high workloads, lack of supportive leadership, policies and values about teaching. However, leaders who can implement a clear vision while being sensitive to the institutional climate and readiness for change were found to be effective. It also required allocating appropriate human, financial, and infrastructure resources, and faculty PD, rewards and recognition. Leaders must also appreciate and recognize faculty’s beliefs and values about teaching and learning, which range from transmission of knowledge to constructivism. This could be influenced by their discipline, such as soft disciplines tend to use a scholarly approach to their teaching. As well, institutions tend to reward research than teaching as fueled by the culture and reward structures.

Canadian Perspective on DE

Bill Muirhead (2005) in his paper, A Canadian Perspective on the Uncertain Future of Distance Education, stated the, “delivery of education will change in the face of the growing digital lifestyle of most students in … advanced economies” (p.240). He thinks there is a hesitation for institutions to provide distance education because of the psychological and temporal distance to students rather than the physical.

OECD Recommendations for HE

The OECD (2008 ), in their report, Be More Purposeful in Guiding Tertiary Education, ask that governments provide funding  strategies to optimize the contribution of higher education to society and the economy by cost-sharing with students due to the private benefits of education, while at the same time providing student support such as grants and loans so they work less. They also recommended governments help with the quality assurance of higher education.

They state worldwide student enrollment is growing annually by 5.1% with increases seen in more mature students, who have dissimilar socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity and previous education.

The also see academic leadership changing and making decisions like those in management or entrepreneurs. There are new demands on leaders, such as the need by the marketplace for quality teaching and learning. Furthermore, policy making should allow for bottom-up initiatives, sharing long term visions, the views of different stakeholders, and incremental versus comprehensive overhauls. As well, though academics should have the freedom to develop courses, they also must their freedom within the institution’s goals and obligation to society.

Another important aspect to inform policy are evaluation of performance of staff and deliver professional development and training to accommodate potential gaps and to keep pace with demands. They also suggest implementing performance contracts and related funding along with monitoring systems.

Defining online leaders

Eddy and VanDerLinden (2006) studied the self reported description of leaders in higher education, more specifically 2 year colleges. In their articles “Emerging Definition of Leadership in Higher Education” published in the Community College Review (vol. 34, issue 1), they discuss the various types of leadership in post secondary. Changes in leadership have been changing considering the decline in resources, changing student demographics and teaching practices, and the influence of technology and the information age.

They state “the literature suggests that alternative leadership styles are replacing the traditionally held definitions of leadership and provide new and different (probably superior) ways to understand leadership … recognized as an activity that can ‘bubble up’ in various places within the institutions and no longer is only focused on formal leadership roles” (p. 6) .. or the “great man” role.

Variations of leadership styles are: transformational, cultural, and shared leadership, distributed, multidimensional and learning organization leadership.

Results from their survey questioning leaders on their percieved roles they determined:

  • the rank of the leader determined thier definition of leadership, such as the president, yet are limited in the amount of power and control and amount of direct change
  • presidents are less apt to describe thier leadership style using teams or empowering others
  • administrators perceive themselves as leaders most likely due to thier smaller circle of influence, and can enact change
  • distance education administrators see themselves less as leaders, in a lower rank and experience barriers, thus marginalized
  • student affairs and learning resource staff saw themselves as fulfilling the mission of the institution, with direct ties between thier leadership and the work of the college
  • colleges
  • these findings show a call for a shift to participatory leadership, but can the bureaucratic orientation of colleges allow for alternative modes of leadership