Leadership in Distance Education

The recent increase in distance learners has also led to more articles and documents being written about the leadership of distance education. The International Center for Distance Learning (ICDL) Distance Education Library and the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) alone contain hundreds of such documents. Most of these documents, however, examine distance education policy, institution management, student support systems and student administration relevant to the first three generations of distance education delivery models [correspondence, multimedia and tele-learning]. Surprisingly, little appears to have been written about the academic leadership associated with distance education. I share the opinion that leadership in distance learning needs to be further examined. I also think that leadership in distance learning is very important.

Beaudoin (2002), in his essay – “Distance education leadership: An essential role for a new century,” argues for the research and examination of the specific type of leadership needed in distance education leadership. Beaudoin (2002) states, “a reasonable amount of attention has been given to the planning and administration of distance education for quite some time (138).” Beaudoin (2002) goes on, however, to state that this might be considered adequate enough without discussing the more esoteric domain of leadership (138).

Lee (2001) agrees, stating, although the organizational behavior theorists and researchers have investigated perceived organizational support in many different organizational environments, higher education institutions have rarely been examined. Yet, no studies have investigated the perceptions of faculty with regard to instructional support, and whether their perceived organizational support has a relationship to faculty motivation, commitment, and satisfaction in relation to distance technology (p. 154).

According to Beaudoin (2002), “leadership is not widely recognized as distance education has been based both on traditional education leadership and business/industry leadership.” Pahal (1999) agrees with Beaudoin (2002), stating, “IT leadership requires many of the characteristics common to all leaders, but also requires special abilities and insights into technology’s impact.” The lack of specific distance education leadership might be due, as Beaduoin states, to the fact that some do not see distance education as different from traditional education in terms of leadership (138). Beaudoin (2002) disagrees with these “some,” as he states on page 135, as traditional and distance education institutions converge, leaders who have been dealing with discreet programs identified with their institutions where proprietary lines between programs and students are merging, and participants shift among multiple formal and informal learning venues. It all argues that bold and creative leadership is required to manage as well as evaluate these emerging new structures, driven in large measure by networking technology.

Pahal also notes the vagueness of what a leader is; “some people see the leader as a motivator, while others define a leader as one having extraordinary vision and decision-making power.”

Beaudoin (2002) points out some specific characteristics that a distance education leader needs (p. 132), (1) create conditions for innovative change, (2) enable individuals and organizations to share a vision and move in its direction, and (3) contribute to the management and operationalization of ideas. While these traits are implicit in transformational leadership, the method of applying and utilizing them is unique for the distance education leader. Leaders do not appear overnight. An effective leader will be able to foster change and be able to move large numbers of staff in the same positive direction. Leaders in traditional academia and online academia share equal responsibility.

However, the distance education leader also needs, according to Beaudoin (2002), to be a situational leader, one who can diagnose the organization at a specific moment and determine the readiness of the organization or its stakeholders for change (p. 140). Pahal (1999) agrees, stating, “The IT leader must be a self-achiever and should be motivated to become a proactive leader and role model. Changes in technology often produce a ‘chaos situation’ where change management in the use of instructional technology in teaching and learning becomes increasingly important. The IT leader must be ready to embrace that change.” Human factors require as much or more planning than technical design to enlist user acceptance and create a sustained use of the application.

The introduction of distance learning by an influential person prior to use is important for adoption and successful implementation. By being aware of change, and open to change, the leader in distance education is more likely to (1) recognize a need for change at any given moment, (2) acknowledge the probable reactions of the constituents towards change, and (3) react appropriately to the responses to the proposed changes.

Additionally, a leader in distance education needs to use systemic leadership. According to Lee, “Leadership also involves creating steppingstones that bridge from a desired future to the current gridlock typical of many American schools. In evolving from its present state to a distant objective, an educational institution must progress stage by stage. Each step of evolution requires a critical mass of resources and must create a stable, desirable situation.”

In summary, the question of what a distance education leader are, the characteristics of such, the requirements of such, and the actions of an effective distance education leader still have not been adequately defined by the current research. There is still a long way to go before an adequate definition of these aspects of an effective distance education leader will be reached. It is hoped, through this case assignment, to bring the insights of various researchers together into one place to help future distance education leaders to best fulfill the still unstated requirements of their positions.


Beaudoin, M. (1999). The Instructor’s Changing Role in Distance Education. The
American Journal of Distance Education 4(2) p. 131-144.

Lee, J. (2001). Instructional support for distance education and faculty,
motivation, commitment , satisfaction. British Journal of Educational Technology
32 (2), 153-160

Pahal, D. (1999, Summer). Effective leadership – An IT perspective. Online Journal of
Distance Learning Administration II (II)

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