Leading Change in Digital Learning

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I used to believe, when leading change in digital learning, that it was best to be efficient: decide what needs to be done, then make a plan and follow the plan.  I now see that these projects did not give sufficient time and energy to important factors such as reflection (Castelli, 2015) and organizational readiness (Weiner, 2009).  I have also learned that it is critical in organizational change to create and follow both a project management plan and a change management plan.  I have experienced organizational change where several steps in both these plans were completed hastily or ignored completely.  Many skip the first steps of change management, such as identifying why there is a need to change and why now is the time to do so, ensuring the organization is ready for change, and ensuring all leaders are consistent in understanding what the change will be, how it will occur, and how it will be shared with other members.  Too many organizations jump straight into formalizing and initiating the change (Ruth, 2020).  In addition, many organizations do not fully evaluate, debrief, and celebrate the success at the end of the change process.  I now believe these oversights are why most attempts at change fall short of the intended objectives, are cancelled, or are delivered but never used (Watt, 2014, p. 13).

How can I help lead successful change within my organization?  I now have an understanding of some key models and templates on change and project management and knowledge of how to apply these to my organization’s unique context.  I can encourage organizational readiness by helping myself and other leaders provide a unified message to other members in the organization regarding why the change is necessary, what will change, and how it will change, and encourage other members’ feedback to help everyone involved “perceive the change as needed, important, [and] worthwhile” (Weiner, 2009, Summary, para. 3).  I can also encourage and participate in the celebration of successes that occur throughout the change process to ensure members’ efforts are acknowledged and appreciated.  Even a small gesture such as thanking someone in an email or in person can go a long way to continue the organization’s engagement and readiness for future change.

Of course, reality is messy and “achieving change in a world ever more defined by complexity is difficult” (Conway, Masters, & Thorold, 2017, p. 3).  As people around the world face the unprecedented effects of COVID-19, this could not be truer.  Even the best intentions and the greatest innovations can face huge barriers to change, such as cultural norms, regulations, market readiness, competing incentives, and media response (Conway, Masters, & Thorold, 2017, p. 12).  We need to deeply understand the system being targeted – the big picture – and use that knowledge to identify the most promising opportunities to change.  We need to educate ourselves of current research, apply relevant models and processes, understand our organizations’ unique contexts and how they fit in the bigger, complex system of our society and world, and come together and communicate with our organizational members and stakeholders.  Although Megginson (1963) was referring to civilization, it also rings true for leading change in digital learning environments: “Change is the basic law of nature….  It is not the most intellectual… that survives; it is not the strongest that survives [but] the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral, and spiritual environment in which it finds itself” (as cited in Matzke, 2009, para. 2).


Castelli, P. A. (2015). Reflective leadership review: A framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217-236. DOI:10.1108/JMD-08-2015-0112

Conway, R., Masters, J., & Thorold, J. (2017). From design thinking to systems change: How to invest in innovation for social impact. Royal Society of Arts, Action and Research Centre. Retrieved from https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/rsa_from-design-thinking-to-system-change-report.pdf

Matzke, N. (2009, September 3). Survival of the Pithiest [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/09/survival-of-the-1.html

Ruth, S. (2020, February 24). Leading change in digital learning environments [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://malat-webspace.royalroads.ca/rru0119/leading-change-in-digital-learning-environments/

Watt, A. (2014). Project Management. Victoria, BC: BCcampus. Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/projectmanagement/.

Weiner, B. J. (2009). A theory of organizational readiness for change. Implementation Science, 4(67). doi: 10.1186/1748-5908-4-67


Learning Innovation Toolkit (LIT)

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Learning technologies are ever-changing.  Organizations must continually invest labour and finances to take advantage of technologies’ affordances to meet the needs of their students or clients.  Unfortunately, many projects created to implement these changes do not succeed. Deliverables are often late, over budget, missing key features, or are never used (Watt, 2014, Figure 2.1).  We designed the Learning Innovation Toolkit (LIT) to help implement new learning technologies within an organization more effectively and efficiently. 

Click here to check out our toolkit along with a video to get you started.

Christina, Earl, Sherry & Tala

Watt, A. (2014). Project Management. Victoria, B.C.: BCcampus. Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/projectmanagement/.

Planning Management for Effective Change

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Our world is complex and ever-changing.  As a result, organizations must continually adapt, including their project managers who must remain knowledgeable of current project management research and skilled in effectively applying it to their organization and industry’s contexts.

I was recently involved in a project to shift a course’s formative testing from paper-based to online.  This was a critical change because the final exam was administered online but students did not receive online testing practice throughout the course.  The paper-based tests mirrored the test format of the final exam, but students were missing the online experience.  Changing to online formative tests would allow students to feel more comfortable completing the online final exam and their grade would be more likely to reflect their content knowledge rather than their comfort level with the technology.

Unfortunately, if there were project and change management plans, they were not communicated to the teachers who were expected to administer the online tests.  Training was rushed and IT support was minimal.  At some campuses, the available technology was insufficient to administer the online tests.

There were multiple barriers to change in this project.  The primary barrier was a lack of communication: both between management and teachers and among the teachers themselves.  Another barrier was a lack of teacher buy-in and involvement.  This reflects a lack of “organizational readiness” (Weiner, 2009).  People are often resistant to change, even positive change, partly because it requires time and energy to learn something new.  Teachers are no exception.  They are often stretched to the limits with minimal time to complete their heavy workloads.  It takes consistent and open communication from management, an important gesture of respect for others, to generate buy-in and support.

The technological insufficiencies were a significant physical barrier.  Although organizational readiness focuses on organizations’ psychological readiness for change, a change management plan that considered organizational readiness would have revealed that the teachers did not feel comfortable administering the formative online tests.  Further analysis, perhaps with the “5 Whys” (Crowe, 2015) of project management, would have revealed the need for teacher training and updated hardware to ensure teachers had the skills and comfort level for organizational readiness.

Theories and models of project and change management are certainly helpful.  However, across a broad range of organizations and industries, most projects fail completely or are challenged as that they are late, over-budget, and/or missing some required functions or features (Watt, 2014, Figure 2.1).  Do projects fail because management models are not used, as appears to be the case in my example?  Or do projects fail because the models are applied incorrectly or insufficiently?  Or do project managers attempt to use them but they do not transfer to today’s fast-paced, uncertain, complex world?  I believe all three cases exist.  The world is increasingly complex, and organizations are continually adjusting to change as technologies advance, and people and societies’ needs and wants change.  Project managers must understand both current research and their organization and industry’s unique context.  Most importantly, they must be skilled at effectively integrating that knowledge for their projects to have the greatest chance of success.


Crowe, A. (2015, January 22). Using the 5 whys in project management [Blog post]. Liquid Planner. Retrieved from https://www.liquidplanner.com/blog/using-5-whys-project-management/

Conway, R., Masters, J., & Thorold, J. (2017). From design thinking to systems change: How to invest in innovation for social impact [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/rsa_from-design-thinking-to-system-change-report.pdf

Watt, A. (2014). Project management. Victoria, BC: BCcampus. Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/projectmanagement/

Weiner, B.J. (2009). A theory of organizational readiness for change. Implementation Science, 4(67). doi: 10.1186/1748-5908-4-67