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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Distributed Leadership in the E-Learning Organization


Distributed leadership is often referred to as democratic leadership, which gives an indication of the profoundly non-hierarchical nature of power and authority structures in communities of practice or sub-group task forces that are called upon to realize organizational missions and outcomes. It is a powerful organizational strategy, and one that makes excellent use of the resources - human, physical, and financial - of an organization. Because of its usefulness, and overview and discussion are provided below.

Characteristics of Individuals Within an Organization with Distributed Leadership:

Individuals perceive themselves as stakeholders: Because of this perception, all individual team members are willing and able to assume leadership positions, when needed.

The organizational mission can be achieved in stages: The tasks needed to achieve the mission can be broken down into component parts and distributed to the teams best able to achieve the tasks.

Distributed roles and tasks: They take place in different time zones, places, and under widely divergent conditions.

Leaders have expert (rather than title) authority: Leadership shifts according to need; the leader role generally resides with the person who has expert authority for the designated task.

Vision is a unifying force: A clearly articulated vision which is equally shared among all members exerts incredible cohesive force. It is what allows progress to be made without diverging or going off course.

Collaborative teams formed for specific purposes: The teams have fluid membership, which changes according to the task, the roles, and the requisite talent.

Communities of practice emerge: Although collaborative activities tend to disband, the communities of practice maintain their affiliation long after the task, and often connect with each other in order to brainstorm about future needs and potential collaborative configurations.

I'm a leader now!  meeowww!

Aspects of Distributed Leadership (after Woods, 2004) as applied to the e-learning organization

Analytical concepts: The notion of a vision, mission, and desired outcomes constitute an analytical foundation.

Emergent and dispersed: This contrasts with leadership by a single individuals; distributed leadership is characterized by the constant appearance and/or emergence of leaders, which are not necessarily in a single location, but instead, are dispersed in time and geographical space.

Inclusive, based on contingent status: Participation by team members hinges on organizational need and the importance of the vision, mission, and outcomes. Teams and communities of practice are open and inclusive, rather than rigid.

Formally neutral: The individuals are task-oriented, and political or ideological agendas are considered unnecessary and counter-productive.

Instrumental autonomy: Team members are less constrained by existing teams than in an organization in which leadership stays in one location. They are able to act with autonomy when their actions are perceived to help bring the organization to the realization of its goals.

Functional toward human capacities: Leadership shifts according to specific, finite, task-oriented needs. Individuals may assume leadership for the time that their specific skills, talents, or other attributes are needed, and then may abnegate leadership when that moment of need is over.

Although writers on educational leadership tend to propose competing terms for distributed leadership, and alternatively refer to it as dispersed, collaborative, democratic, or shared leadership, all tend to agree that it is the prevailing model in an environment that is employed in organizations that have numerous tasks to accomplish, and a wide variety of skills and resources.

The e-learning organization benefits from a distributed model because it allows collaboration, creative problem-solving, and innovative product design and resources management in an environment that is characterized by rapid technological change, and swiftly emerging learner demands.

Useful References

Barth, R. S. (2001) Learning by Heart, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Burns, J. M. (1978) Leadership, New York: Harper & Row.

Castells, M. (1996) The Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell.

Court, M. (2003) Towards democratic leadership. Co-principal initiatives. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 6(2), 161-183.

Fullan, M. (2001) Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gronn, P. (2003) Leadership: who needs it? School Leadership and Management, 23(3), 267-290.

Gronn, P. and Rawlings-Sanaei, F. (2003) Recruiting principals in a climate of disengagement. Australian Journal of Education, 47 (2), 172-184.

Hargreaves, D.H. (1999) The knowledge-creating school, British Journal Education Studies, 47 (2), 122-144.

Kets de Vries, M. (1999) High-Performance Teams, Lessons from the Pygmies. Organizational Dynamics, 27 (3), 66-77.

Leithwood, K & Jantzi D. (1990) Transformational leadership: how principal can help reform school cultures, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 1(4), 249-280.

O'Neill, B. (2002) Distributive Leadership: Meaning Practice (Milton Keynes: The Open University).

Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization, New York: Doubleday.

Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R., and Diamond, J.B. (2001) Investigating School Leadership Practice: A Distributive Perspective. Educational Researcher, April 2001, pp. 23-28.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woods, P.A. (2004) Democratic leadership: drawing distinctions with distributed leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, March 2004, 7(1), 3-26.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Vision and Leadership in the E-Learning Organization


What are defining characteristics of vision in an e-learning organization? With all the talk about vision and mission, are people really taking the time to speculate on what that might look like?

While individuals understand the role of vision in an organization, the importance of vision is even more pronounced in an e-learning organization, where communities of practice include team members who are often separated by time and place, but united by technology.

Characteristics of vision in an e-learning organization can include the following:

Future-based: It is flexible, and attainable in the near future, with long-range goals also in place. It is not too rigid a vision, a dn it accommodates individual differences, locations, technology, and cultures.

Open-ended: A vision open enough for individuals to see themselves in the picture. The desired outcomes involve behaviors that the individual finds appealing and potentially enriching.

Connected: A connection is established between the individual and the leaders who articulates the vision. The result is deep identification with the concept, which leads to an understanding of self, society, and community.

Engaged Affect: It has the capacity to inspire, inflame, and to result in ongoing commitment and persistence in spite of discouraging events.

Tolerance for Frustration: The vision encourages delayed gratification, and provides a mechanism for overcoming frustration.

Collective: The vision encourages individuals to release their individual goals and objectives and to substitute a collective one, where the good of the whole is valued over individual gain.

Creative contribution: The vision inspires one to contribute one's individual, unique talent within a team, and to modify one's skills to adapt oneself to meet the needs of the group, and to achieve the collective goals.

Distributed teams / Virtual collaboration: Individuals see how they fit within the vision, and they contribute their part by means of virtual collaboration in a highly distributed environment.

Articulated in multiple delivery modes: The vision can be articulated and realized by means of multiple modalities, including text, streaming media, audio, graphics, movies.

Collective contributions: Resources -- time, talent, funds, equipment, ideas -- are contributed "any time / any place."

Leaders and Vision in the E-Learning Organization

E-Learning Queen Being Queenly - sketch by susan smith nash

James McGregor Burns, whose classic works on leadership closely examine the characteristics of the world's great leaders has, after decades of study, concluded that all great leaders have in common a few defining characteristics.

The first, the power to inspire, motivate, and transform, is based on the ability to develop a vision for oneself and one's fellow human beings.

The second, a firm inner commitment to a personal vision, involves the willingness to listen, observe, absorb the anxieties of the times and to be willing to rise to all challenges.

The desire to learn is also the desire for positive transformation, and the ability to transcend the self-limiting attitudes and circumstances that one faces when one least wants or expects it.

James McGregor Burns maintains that leadership involves inspiring and motivating individuals, and thereby persuading them to want to become followers and leaders simultaneously. Vision is the unifying force.

Bernard Bass finds that charismatic leadership inspire and motivate through the force of personality, and that their ability to communicate a vision encourages projection and affiliation.

Manfred Kets de Vries suggests that charismatic leaders convince followers to give up their narcissistic needs and to project them onto the leader. Thus, they are able to make others responsible for their destiny, in the hopes of active transformation where the leader is the instrument, the change agent. Thus, the charismatic leader allows the followers to see the realization of their hopes and dreams.

The desire to learn, the hunger for knowledge needed to implement a vision -- these are the characteristics that define the transformational leader. Leaders in the e-learning organization, with a profound dedication and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and lifelong learning, must understand that in order to innovate, adapt, and survive, they must exhibit the qualities of great leaders. This involves being able to grasp, define, and articulate the vision in a way that motivates team members in the community of practice to work together.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Best Practices Gaps, Part 2


This article addresses gaps that emerge between best practices and benchmarks, and the actual conditions and results of distance and flexible learning in institutions of higher learning. This part focuses on problems that emerge in the production of courses, curriculum and instruction, and in the area of faculty support, training, and mentoring.

Quality Courses, Curriculum, and Instruction

The learning organization has an academic and instructional plan, which has been developed, reviewed, and approved by teams consisting of teaching faculty, subject matter experts, and governing / executive faculty members. Instructional strategies adhere to generally accepted principles of online and distance instruction, and rest upon a solid foundation of theory, practice, and experiential/research knowledge.

Possible Gaps.

---Cookie cutter courses. Developing courses quickly, efficiently, and at the lowest possible cost becomes the most important issue, rather than providing the flexibility required in order to produce a course that is not just a bundle of information, but a true learning experience.

---Unwittingly producing training, not higher education. Problem-solving, analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking skills are cornerstones of higher education, and the various stated outcomes that one finds in college-level courses display these skills. However, it is easy for colleges to fall into the trap of producing an e-learning experience that requires little or no actual synthesis of information, and which does not make connections from one discipline to another. Further, courses often fail to provide scaffolding for more future courses.

---Flexible delivery modes should stress multiplicity of modes. It is tempting to succumb to an "all or nothing" approach and to offer courses in only one delivery mode. However, learners need flexibility in order to accommodate their lifestyles and the reality of work, travel, access, and schedules. Thus, institutions must be able and willing to offer not only face-to-face instruction, online, and hybrid, but also variations that include CD-ROM and PDA (or pocket PC) for mobile computing. Content should not be confined to the visual, but should also incorporate downloadable audio, such as mp3 files (podcasts).

---Lack of a plan, or coordinated instructional strategy. Because many institutions find themselves playing "catch up," they are often scrambling to deliver what students say they want (or at least what they wanted six months before). In a "catch-up" situation, institutions lose their ability to plan effectively, and find themselves correcting mistakes made because of moving too fast, and without a coherent, well-mapped out and coordinated plan.

---Jumping on the latest delivery mode bandwagon, even when not appropriate. Institutions waste time, money, delivery efficacy, and faculty competency when they jump onto a trend without doing a thorough needs assessment, SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), or a clear analysis of their capabilities and capacity. As a result, institutions have found themselves trying to produce and deliver streaming media classroom lectures, synchronous chat and whiteboard lectures, interactive video game-based simulations, even when neither they nor their students have the bandwidth, computing power, or access to really be able to do it. This does not even begin to touch the problems of instruction in that sort of environment, with such high-power needs, and such a steep learning curve for instructors.

---At-risk students left behind. The online environment can be a sink-or-swim world where only the hardiest and most adept learners stay afloat. It is important to accommodate all learning styles, and to understand the real environment and conditions of learning of at-risk students. This is not simply a matter of making things ADA compliant. It means creating instructional strategies and activities that build community and camaraderie, do not require "extreme" technical skills, and which give individuals multiple ways to do the same task.

---Failure to conduct objective periodic program reviews. The successful launch of an online program is usually accompanies by a huge sigh of relief, coupled with a state of near catatonia (or post-traumatic shock syndrome) over the next several months, even years, as faculty, staff, and information system support seek to recover from the shock of close encounter with "disruptive technology." However, this fails to take into consideration that the nature of disruptive technology is to change the way that people think about tasks, and how they approach it, now that the technology has changed. In order to be successful, it is imperative that one continue to look at one's goals, vision, mission, and desired outcomes and to determine how those have been affected by the technology and the delivery approach.

Faculty Support, Capacity, Training, Mentoring, Compensation

Faculty members teach and develop courses in areas where they have demonstrated
expertise, experience, and/or leadership. When asked to instruct courses, faculty are provided support, training, and guidance in a proactive manner. Compensation is fair, and intellectual property issues are settled in a manner that is mutually agreeable.

Possible Gaps.

---Failure to provide timely and appropriate mentoring and training. Not only do institutions fail to provide mentoring and training, they also fail to require instructors to undergo the training. In failing to do so, they do the instructors a disservice, particularly in a world that is increasingly dominated by a class of distance professors who have taken the time and effort to equip themselves with the latest equipment and skills to be effective online / multi-modality instructors.

---Failure to review faculty credentials and evidence of growth. In part, this is a legacy of a tenure system that allows professors, once tenured, to become complacent, or to "retire on the job." It is also a case of expediency. It is not easy to find professors who are early adopters, or who keep themselves up-to-date with technology. They can be good facilitators, but are they staying current in their subject matter? Or, are they continuing to inform themselves of best practices and effective methods to achieve desired learning outcomes? Further, if an institution requires evidence of growth, they have an obligation to support it materially, philosophically, and psychologically.

---When flexibility becomes rigidity. This is a paradox that it, unfortunately, not uncommon. Institutions that start out being flexible by offering students the opportunity to take online courses, may, in fact, become rigid as they invest in learning management systems, templated courses, and a "one way only" instructional design / subject matter expert model for developing courses, and then require the professor to teach in one certain way, to accommodate the technology rather than learner needs.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Best Practices Gaps, Part I


Best practices and online learning benchmarks are good, but limited. They fail to identify the places where institutions are likely to fall short, and they do not provide the kind of information that one needs when all systems fail, and students, faculty, support staff, and administrators are at their wits' ends because demand has outstripped capacity, and the only way to meet commitments is to go desperately into the red (fiscally speaking), and to ignore learner outcomes, although they are now mandated by the State in which the institution makes its home. This article explores gaps. This is Part I.

Committed Institution

Overview. The learning organization must prioritize distance and flexible learning, and in doing so, must demonstrate support that is realistic, appropriate, timely, and expandable for the future.

Possible Gaps.

---Program "force-fit" to institutional mission.

In their eagerness to offer online courses and programs, institutions may force-fit the program to the institution's vision and mission. The vision and mission of a university may be grounded in face-to-face interactions, and the philosophy that underlies the instructional strategy may require an environment that the faculty and staff understand only in terms of face-to-face instruction, or in traditional bricks and mortar arrangement. This becomes problematic because it creates a culture gap within the institution.

Although there may not be open resistance, the institution could find itself confronting underground backlash, and troubled with factions, divisive camps, and a breakdown of the vision itself. In this case, the institution must remember that it is reshaping the vision, and for it to be effective, all stakeholders must have buy-in. In other words, they need to have a role in shaping it, and mapping it to their own lives and agenda.

---Revenue generation perceived as more important than the education experience provided.
Although there are few people who believe this any more, the early days of online education were typified by the academic equivalent of get-rich schemes. Later, it became clear that the initial investment of online courses can be steep, and it requires ongoing maintenance and operating expenses, as well as what can be quite steep costs for instruction and student services. When expectations are not met, there is a tendency to try to retrench and cut costs. What results is a focus on costs rather than quality. Further, it becomes tempting to outsource services and to obtain open-source content that has not be reviewed or adapted to one's own instructional and institutional goals.

Learner-Friendly Environment

Students, faculty, and other users find the services provided by the learning organization easy to use, accessible, and thorough. The learning organization provides online services such as registration, records, bursar, and library access. Technology utilized is up-to-date and appropriate for the user's actual environments and work patterns.

Possible Gaps.

---Ambiguous needs assessments. A successful online or hybrid program requires clear and realistic alignment with learner needs. In order to accomplish this objective and to attune courses and delivery with learner needs in the present (and not the past), it is important to utilize multiple methods of collecting data to gain understanding of the needs of the students. Current needs are important, as are what are projected to be important needs in the future. Focus groups, online surveys, random surveys, and interviews are effective methods and should be done on a regular basis.

---Always a half-a-beat behind the technology curve. It is false economy to have outdated technology, or to think that investing in online infrastructure is a one-time expenditure. Some of the most common ways that institutions find themselves behind the technology curve are:

-Insufficient bandwidth, and no plan to do "edge computing" to "load-share" surges in volume.

-Old, unworkable home pages and portals, with outdated java applets, javascript, etc.

-Old websites using out-of-date plugins (old versions of flash or shockwave, etc.)

-Failure to update software, holding on to old versions of learning management systems.

-Failure to hire adequate numbers of appropriately trained staff, support staff, and faculty.

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