Leadership Attributes Bringing Distance Learning Programs to Scale

Article excerpt

As our nation demands system- wide improvement in education, distance learning leaders of sec- ondary and postsecondary schools are being challenged to offer reforms and to implement them more widely, deeply, and rapidly than ever before. Is there a differ- ent leadership skill set needed to bring dis- tance learning programs to scale? Research suggests that leadership in the realm of educational technology is significantly dif- ferent in various ways from leadership in general (Kearsley & Lynch, 1994). The con- tention is that many educational technology efforts fail due to the lack of good leadership at all levels of the school system. This suggests that technology leaders must develop skills specifically aimed at conceiving technical solutions to identified educational problems and then building theoretical, political, and financial support structures to ensure the success of the solution. This implies a need to identify the appropriate skills underlying technology leadership such that they can be incorporated into training programs for teachers and school administrators to ensure the success and scalability of distance learning reform efforts.

Elmore (1996) proposes that the "failure to scale up educational interventions was not so much a failure of a theory of how to reproduce success but the absence of a practical theory that takes account of the institutional complexities that operate on changes of practice" (p. 21). Maxcy (2000) describes the increased presence of technology as a sensitive area of cultural change where "little reference is harbored within [these] educational leadership reform agendas for dealing with it" (p. 142). He reports that educational institutions have been blinded to the increased use of computers and the Internet, encouraging neither professors of educational leadership nor student leaders-to-be to learn how to both understand and use new technologies. This suggests that educational reform leaders have stepped into the twenty-first century viewing technology as invisible, even though the place of computing and information technology has become a defining feature of our culture and its leadership since the 1990s and into the new millennium.

How can distance learning educational reforms develop into sustained practices within institutions blind to the use of technology? The optimism for distance learning as an educational reform model stems from the increased use of distance learning activities that are in large part due to the popularity of the Internet. The very nature of distance learning offers us the ability to test the current school model which many argue is obsolete and insufficient to meet current and future demands (Dede, 1994; Moore & Kearsley, 1996; Roblyer, 2006). Some current research contends that as a model it had reached the upper limit of its potential effectiveness and efficiency many years ago. Whereas distance learning programs are seen as potential positive additions to the traditional classroom experience, they are thwarted as catalysts for systemic change because they are revolutionary and represent a fundamentally different delivery system that breaks the monopoly of the classroom and forces us to examine habits of teaching and learning that for too long have gone unchallenged.

As we witness the explosive growth of distance learning programs throughout the United States and as we watch these programs expand their reach globally, we need to determine:

* their ability to change basic pedagogical principles;

* their viability for longevity;

* their ability for replication;

* their acceptance in the mainstream educational arena;

* their impact for improving practice in education;

* their effectiveness in terms of student learning; and

* the required leadership skill set to bring them to scale.

Scalability of distance learning initiatives involves a more challenging set of circumstances for leaders than do other types of reforms. …