Creativity and education: can they coincide?

I recently listened to a talk given by Dave Snowden through the MOOC course, Dave is a well spoken man with passion and conviction about cognitive processes. My understanding of the theory he follows is that humans react to cause and effect situations through simplistic, complicated, complex or chaotic thinking drawing on environmental cues, cultural nuances and/or past experiences while always dealing with uncertainty. And he states we react and think differently depending on our predisposition and past experience where our “styles of creativity produce different patterns of behaviour.” I can’t attempt to summarize his work unless I read it more thoroughly.

During his presentation he implied that formal education stifles creativity and innovative thought – one reason he did not pursue a PhD. Having studied the higher education field and spending most of my adult life pursuing formal degrees I have to agree with him somewhat, and I’ll address that in a minute. However, I become cautious when statements are made that negate a particular system to propose another. In my graduate studies we were taught to balance all ideas to build our argument. Detesting something is more an emotional response than an intellectual one. In that way, formal education did provide me with a balanced outlook among other skills.

My sense of Dave’s point about creativity was that freely exploring ideas, visions, and perhaps passionate thoughts would most likely need to take place outside of academia. I think he is right based on my personal experience. In my formal education, I was quite aware of the hoops I had to jump through (requirements, restrictions, supervisory advice and committee approval, and even journal submissions) when developing my work, whether a paper, exam, or dissertation. All through my studies I tried to keep a part of myself and thinking that was mine, though difficult at times. I remember my doctoral supervisor advising me to keep the exploration of ‘risky’ theses for a time when my degree was complete and to see the formal program as a place to learn the methods of deep study and critical thinking. This made sense and I appreciated the advice.

Today, I read and explore as I wish and develop my own thoughts; however, there is a trade-off  – applying it to sensible things, like paid work. Again, I’ve learned to balance my idealism with pragmatism to apply fresh concepts to client’s educational needs. And sometimes clients want their educational products developed into more conventional forms, which I do.

A recent post about informal learning, called the Accidental Learner, nicely supports Dave’s perspective and reflects how we learn outside the formal setting.

Here is how I develop innovative thinking and creativity:


Volunteering at UoPeople

Recently, I became enamoured with the efforts (and concept) of the University of the People, and volunteered my time to help manage, develop, or teach online (I also have a business background). I was impressed with those already involved, but more so I was impressed with the generousity of the founder Shai Reshef. The university greatly supports emerging notions of OER, online learning, and philanthropy.  Business Week provides a good review of the school.

However, I was not the only one who had the urge to pitch in. I received the following kindly worded email when I applied to help. I hope I can get involved in some way at a future time.

 Dear Volunteer,

 Thank you for your interest in contributing your valuable time to the mission of University of the People

We will process your information and attempt to match your interests and experience to our current volunteer opportunities.

While we would like to respond to each of you individually, the amazing outpouring of offers to help with respect to our modest staff currently makes this impossible.

If we have not yet responded to you about volunteering for a specific activity, please do not be discouraged or feel that you have not been heard. We are listening and as we expand, our activities will certainly be able to benefit from all of your potential contributions.

Again – thank you for your amazing support – and please stay with us. Together we can all reach our shared goal to make higher education available to all.

If you have not yet done so, please forward your CV to assist us in matching you to our volunteer activities.

 The Staff of University of the People



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 Distance Education in Canada

Rocci Luppincini, in his book Trends in Educational Technology and Distance Education in Canada, explores the history and trends of online learning in Canada’s higher education sector.

The University of Calgary has a support centre for faculty called, the Teaching and Learning Centre. This centre provides faculty development, consulting, and mentoring to those who teach. Also, the University has a centre, called the Information Commons, which provides services for the scholarly use of information and technology use.

One of the institutions in Canada that offers online programs and courses is Athabasca University.  Unique to Athabasca is the Learning Accreditation Centre that assess transfer credits, prior learning assessment and accrediting workplace programs. They also helped gain accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) that recognizes their Master of Distance Education (MDE) program. Also stemming from the university is a faculty and graduate student research centre, named the Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research (CIDER) designed to address a multitude of issues such as teaching and learning applications, finance, access, and other factors affecting DE. To support the research initiative, the CIDER centre also publishes a far reaching e-journal called the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL).  

Acadia University is a laptop university with distance programs which is driven by the Acadia Advantage initiative and the Acadia Institute for Teaching and Technology. They ensure all students have a notebook computer and up-to-date technological expertise. Considering their technological enriched environment they needed to invest significantly in faculty development and support. Thus, this centre helps faculty use technology to effectively improve student learning, reaching into the individual academic units. Services include helping with the design of online courses, and by using virtual learning templates. They offer on-site and off-site training.

Memorial University has collaborated with the University College of Cape Brenton (UCCB) to offer joint Master of Education in Information Technology program. They have a cross-university steering committee that oversees program decision making. Also, the Department of Education for Newfoundland and Labrador created the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) to provide access to educational opportunities for distance learners in that province. Memorial University is affiliate with this centre and educational technology faculty members provide expertise.

Royal Roads University extensively uses technology in their operation and delivery of education. They were quoted as saying, “the dynamics of a well-established university were bound to slow things down but at Royal Roads using technology and leveraging through the use of technology was the only way the university would survive” (p.122).  Thus, they need willing staff to use technology in innovative ways. What is more, the have 50 students in a cohort which helps with economies of scale. However, this large size requires them to use technology in create ways to optimize the learning experience. Their students are in their late 40s, in middle of their careers and have family responsibilities. They also bring unique expectations and experiences to the program. As well, they are confident they can work online as they work in virtual environments at work.

The Tele-University of Quebec is a distance education institution inspired by the Open University of the UK. They have a community oriented philosophy where staff, instructors and students connect in a learning community that supports student learning through a network of services and support to help them achieve their objectives and manage their own learning plan . As well, they developed an interdisciplinary research centre, LICEF, that is an administrative branch of the university. This centre focuses on cognitive data processing and teaching environments. This one hundred person centre, supplied by professors from various departments, “develop methods, tools of design, and systems of training” (p.130). A division of this centre (CIRTA) researches elements of tele-learning. LICEF is recognized universally for its research on distance education. The university also exchanges course credits with other institutions such as Athabasca and UQAM (L’Université du Québec à Montréal).

UNESCO Perspective on DE

The Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO publishing (2005), in their paper Perspectives on Distance Education: Lifelong Learning & Distance Higher Education, charts the evolution and success of DE through research. Distance education can “bring increased access, support innovation in teaching and be used to organize higher education more effectively” (p.145).

Research on distance education is mostly by individuals working in the field or doctoral students, thus the reason for many studies that are low quality with a few creating high quality such as within small research groups or academic departments. As well, many research studies are single case, descriptive, qualitative and do not contribute to theory. Also, the effectiveness of distance education has been studied but caution is given on comparing it to classroom teaching due to their different contexts. However, conditions for success in DE is about students, course design and course delivery. More research is needed on the softer issues of distance education such as policy, cost-benefit analysis, instructional design and student support. Research on distance education can support innovation, practice, and inform policy. As well, educational leaders are often unaware of research before they make decisions.

The following is research that might aid DE initiatives.

Demographics: in economically advantaged countries the demographics of DE students have been stable such as they are over most 21 with 40% being 25-34. They are women, socially mobile, work and entered postsecondary with minimal qualifications. However, at UBC in Canada students required high academic qualifications to be admitted. 83% of DE students at UBC lived within one hour of the campus with 6% from outside the province. Thus, for DE students distance was about flexibility and/or open admissions, not geography.

Retention: There seems to be a higher dropout rate distance education students. There is high skepticism among campus-based faculty. Evans (1994) identified a number of reasons: finances, learning difficulties, conditions at home/study, work pressures, family sickness, and misunderstanding the time commitment.  However, at UBC the completion rate is 85%. Attrition in DE programs might be due to good course design and quality personal support.

Student Characteristics: little has been found on the particular or common characteristics associate with distance learners. However, they have found DE students are independent learners and must be supported by the instructor. Those students with experience with using technology, who have higher knowledge of the subject (such as graduate students) and are already have independent learning skills tend to be more interactive and independent in distance education.

Skills needed: Developed countries find they need to create highly productive and knowledge-based industries to compete with low cost labour in developing countries. Creating high skilled workers is now a priority for many governments.  As well, people will need skills in evolving fields such as health, technology and management, and will need to retrain 5 times in their working lifetime. Skills needed today that online learning can develop are findings and using information, independent learners, problem-solving and team work. Government sees online learning as an educational product and service to be marketed and a way to produce tech-savvy graduates.

There are 5 generations of distance education: correspondence, one-way media, two-way media, flexible learning, and a less developed intelligent flexible learning that “adds a high degree of automation and student control to asynchronous online learning and interactive multimedia” (p.138).


Flexible learning, such as online learning, is based on asynchronous learning through the Internet and is influenced by constructivist approaches to learning and teaching. This is the most common mode of delivery in North American. It gives students some control over their learning pace and timing and encourages reflection and collaboration. It is not the same as teaching in a face to face class. As well, to enable online students to construct meaning and increase their depth of understanding, and apply ideas to new context, it is very important to carefully design courses. It is also important to moderate online discussions to ensure students are, in their discussions, meeting academic standards, use conceptual frameworks, and relate to course concepts. Computer conferences lend to critical thinking and reflection and archive the discussions for later evaluation. Students also acquire the skills for learning online and collaborating with an array of people and perspectives, essential for the workplace. However, collaboration needs to be guided by the instructor by ensuring students are clear and have the resources they need including procedures to deal with conflicts.

Technology selection: Institutions use a variety of technology and methods to deliver distance education. However, regardless of the medium well designed teaching is most effective. Bates (1995, 2005) suggests a strategy ACTION to help institutions select the appropriate technology and stands for: Access, Costs, Teaching function, Interactivity, Organizational issues, Novelty and Speed). A student portal is recommended so students can access through one place self enrolment, fee payment, course registration, grades, course materials and the instructor. Tools so students can create communities of learners and their own learning materials is important, such as blogs, wikis, and online discussion forums. However, beware that synchronous technology, like Web-conferencing or Internet telephone services, require high-speed Internet services and costly technology.