Distance Education Leadership: An Essential Role for the New Century

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

The proliferation of instructional technology in the past decade, particularly in higher education settings, is having a profound impact on how teaching and learning now occurs, and is transforming the means by which institutions reach and support an emerging worldwide market across time and distance. Yet, relatively little attention has been given to the dimension of distance education leadership. What has been the contribution of past leaders in establishing this field? Is there a unique role for current and aspiring leaders to play in this arena? Has research and experience provided useful data to guide "best practices? What constitutes effective leadership for distance education in the new century? These issues and questions are addressed in this assessment of distance education leadership.

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A new role for the professoriate in the new century has been recognized and encouraged, especially as technology-assisted instruction has proliferated and changed the means by which faculty and students interact, as well as the manner in which educational entities must now do business to meet the demands of a digitized society. The literature describing the rapid evolution of distance education delivery systems over the past twenty years, particularly in higher education venues, has frequently categorized this phenomenon in three stages, from correspondence education, to technology-assisted education and, more recently, networked education. Although all three remain, with variants on each of these models, one theme which is consistent is that we are witnessing dramatic changes in how instruction is designed and delivered across time and space. As this dynamic becomes more frequent and more pervasive, faculty have been admonished to be more receptive and adaptive to opportunities for playing exciting new roles in the distance education arena.

But it seems we have not yet paid adequate attention to new roles required of leaders within those institutions. Schools and colleges in this new era need leaders who have reflected on their experiences and internalized understandings about their own capacity to lead. This should apply no less to those in leadership roles in distance education within those institutions. Certainly, considerable attention has been given in recent years to various aspects of leadership in higher education, and the corpus of material in this domain is now quite substantial. We have benefited from useful inquiry and insight into, for example, how higher education leaders might adopt practices from their counterparts in business and industry; how administrators and faculty might work more collaboratively in what often seems to be an increasingly acrimonious environment; and we have finally recognized the important contributions of women academic leaders.

Yet, a conspicuous lacuna remains: leadership as it applies to the fastest growing phenomenon in higher education- the proliferation of instructional technology, most notably evidenced in online courses that allow teaching and learning to occur over time and space. The intended purpose here is to better understand the role and impact of distance education leadership in higher education settings; offer insights and suggestions for "Best Practices" to those involved in, or aspiring to leadership roles; and generate increased interest in the study and practice of distance education leadership.

For our purposes, leadership in distance education, as distinct from managerial functions in a variety of settings, is defined as a set of attitudes and behaviors that create conditions for innovative change, that enable individuals and organizations to share a vision and move in its direction, and that contribute to the management and operationalization of ideas. It is possible to play a leadership role without necessarily being an expert in the field. A university president or elected public official (e. …