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Emerging Leadership Roles in Distance Education: Current State of Affairs and Forecasting Future Trends

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Emerging Leadership Roles in Distance Education: Current State of Affairs and Forecasting Future Trends
by Lisa Marie Portugal
Summer 2006, Academic Leadership, the Online Journal


This paper discusses the enormous impact distance learning has had on traditional higher education and leadership roles within those constructs. The writer will address and discuss critical issues relating to leadership in higher education with a distance learning focus, current and future distance education modalities, and future leadership trends. This paper will focus on transformational leadership qualities that are necessary for current and future successful distance education programs. Finally, the writer will provide considerable information for institutions of higher learning as well as those individuals associated with the advancement of online learning modalities.

Globalization has affected many areas of society and will continue to shape the future of education and content delivery indefinitely. The impact of globalization has led to exceedingly higher enrollments for many universities and colleges. It has become increasingly apparent that individuals need to constantly learn new skills in order to remain employed and competitive in a knowledge and digital economy. Those individuals who cannot or will not learn new skills will be left behind. Leaders in distance learning must constantly be aware of how to adjust, evaluate, and assess the validity of programs, content, and emerging technologies to remain competitive and viable in this new society. Educational leaders will benefit from collaboration with business and industry leaders and vise versa. Beaudoin (2002) states that education has benefited from insight and inquiry but might adopt practices from business and industry. In addition, faculty and administrators should work collaboratively in the practice and theory of online delivery methods (¶ 4). With the increasing changes happening throughout the world, higher education leaders need to be aware of these mutable circumstances and influence their colleges and universities to be able to adapt and transform accordingly. Higher education will need to service more individuals and educate them based on the skills necessary for employment and success.

Innovation, vision, contribution, flexibility, adaptability to change, and lifelong learning agendas are necessary attributes of an emerging leader in distance learning environments. The traditional sage on the stage notion of teaching no longer applies to online learning and the facilitator concept is taking precedent over former methods of content delivery. Online learners have become the new consumers in higher education and are demanding leaders and facilitators that model the new globalized societies and business environments in which they live and work. Beaudoin (2002) outlines several questions that emerging leaders should be addressing so that their institutions remain competitive such as:

How many faculty will we be needed in ten years? Will the notion of classrooms survive? Is the present structure of the institution appropriate? Will teachers and students need to meet on campus anymore? Can the organization's decision makers respond to new competitors? (¶ 6).

The pervasiveness of concepts such as transition versus traditional, largely defines the new online environments leaders will be managing. Distance education can adopt similar practices that incorporate the transitional nature of business such as adapting to new technologies quickly, having flexibility, and upgrading one’s skills and abilities in relationship to newly developed innovative strategies. Traditionally, higher education institutions have been known to move rather slowly when addressing new issues, technologies, policies, agendas, etc. While this has been the case on many college and university campuses, distance education agendas cannot be influenced by slow moving administrators if leaders wish their online programs to remain competitive, relevant, and viable. According to Beaudoin (2002), the research and literature on leadership in distance education is limited, and rather focuses on developing and addressing strategies for distance learning processes (¶ 22). Those facilitators who have transitioned into online teaching capacities are well positioned to play instrumental roles as emerging leaders. The advancement of technology, business, and the onset of globalization are the driving forces that are compelling traditional education institutions to move towards distance pedagogical models. Emerging leaders in distance education should position themselves as contributing researchers to the field, and thus, add to the lack of literature available.