Leading Change in Digital Learning Environments

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Table 1_Change in Digital Learning Environments

Organizations are changing rapidly thanks to today’s technological advancements.  Leaders of educational organizations must keep pace to ensure their students are prepared for the future.  While each change and organization is unique, leaders must remain mindful of existing change literature and consider it as they guide their organizations through change processes.

“Change in Digital Learning Environments” (Table 1) highlights the results of two organizations that recently underwent changes to their digital learning environments (DLEs).  Organization A is a technical college that implemented a change from paper to online tests.  An interviewed employee expressed frustration with the process and felt that the change had been ill-prepared and unsuccessful (M. Chevtava, personal communication, February 20, 2020).  Organization B is an employment support centre.  They recently underwent a major change to join with a provincial government organization.  This involved significant changes, including shifting some of their training services from face-to-face to online.  Despite the substantial changes, an interviewed employee felt that the process was successful; she felt the organization’s leaders had been transparent, thorough, and supportive which helped make the transition more stress-free and efficient (A. Winj, personal communication, February 20, 2020).

“Change in Digital Learning Environments” (Table 1) relates the two organizations’ change processes to an eight-step change model.  The model is largely adapted from Biech’s (2007) CHANGE model (Figure 3-2).  Steps one, three and four identify why an organization needs to change, what the change is, and how the organization will implement it.  Knowing why changes are happening encourages members to commit to the change and work towards its success.  For members unfamiliar with digital learning tools or technologies, knowing what and how things will change is especially important as they may require additional training and support.  A successful leader ensures that all members, regardless of their knowledge and comfort levels in DLEs, feel committed to the change process and confident in its success.

The second step (Table 1) reflects Weiner’s (2009) theory of organizational readiness for change.  Once there is an identified need for change, it is imperative for leaders to ensure the organization is ready for that change.  This includes the organization’s members sharing a commitment to the change and a belief that they are collectively capable of achieving it (Weiner, 2009).  Technology changes quickly and an organization that is unprepared for change in a DLE is unlikely to stay competitive.  Students want and need learning environments that provide them with current skills and experiences.  An organization that is ill-prepared to provide that is unlikely to succeed.

Steps five through seven (Table 1) are also based on Biech’s CHANGE model.  These fit well in a DLE as digital leaders often formalize a design change, then implement and institutionalize it.  This may include introducing a pilot version of a design on a small scale to train lead instructors and generate initial feedback.  After fully implementing the change (step six), it is then absorbed into the institution (step seven).

Evans and Schaefer’s (2001) emphasis to “honor and respect the effort people have committed” (Planning for Closure, para. 3) influenced the addition of step eight (Table 1).  The employee of Organization B stated that her organization’s leaders regularly acknowledged the extra time and effort members invested.  They provided free lunches during busy days of the change process.  Part of the evaluation included gifts, expressions of thanks, and celebrations of their successes (A. Winj, personal communication, February 20, 2020).  These actions illustrate the leaders’ respect for members’ contributions.  The employee of Organization A stated that her leaders provided no evaluation or debrief beyond a brief statement of thanks, leaving members feeling unappreciated (M. Chevtava, personal communication, February 20, 2020).  “The underlying cause [of failed change initiatives] is a clash of values between the organization and the approach to and type of change it has adopted” (Burnes & Jackson, 2011, p. 135).  To increase chances of success, Organization A should incorporate all steps of the change model, and better align the values of its decision-makers with those of other members.

Effective organizational leadership is vital at each step of the change process.  For successful change in DLEs, leaders have additional concerns such as members’ knowledge and comfort levels with technology, online safety, and how to best take advantage of DLEs’ affordances.  Leaders who also consider the uniqueness of their organization and the upcoming change while applying change theories and models appropriately put their organization in the best possible position to meet change processes with maximum success.


Biech, E. (2007). Models for change. In Thriving through change: A leader’s practical guide to change mastery. Alexandria, VA: Association for Talent Development.

Burnes, B., & Jackson, P. (2011). Success and failure in organizational change: An exploration of the role of values. Journal of Change Management, 11(2), 133-162.

Evans, J., & Schaefer, C. (2001). Task X: Continuous learning and improvement. In Ten Tasks of Change: Demystifying changing organization. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

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

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