Leading Change in Digital Learning Environments

Leading Change in Digital Learning Environments
Leading Change in Digital Learning Environments (Kuipers, 2020) – Click to view full size


Change is interconnected. Systems theory asserts that “a change in any part of the system creates change throughout the system” (Biech, 2007). This cascade of cause-and-effect suggests that for an organizational change to be successful, it needs to account for many interconnected elements. My infographic identifies six elements that I believe are essential for leading change in digital learning environments (Kuipers, 2020). On its own, this infographic is not a step-by-step model for change, but highlights valuable questions for leaders to consider when planning for change.

Before looking at how to implement change, leaders need to be able to answer why: Why change, why this change, and why now? Answering these questions can help leaders to shape an informational strategy for change (Biech, 2007). In my infographic, I’ve identified readiness and relevancy as the first gears to begin turning (Kuipers, 2020). Technology evolves in a continuous hype cycle (Gartner, n.d.), and digital learning environments are no exception. For the teachers and students within these environments to support a proposed change, they need to feel it is necessary and relevant (Weiner, 2009). “Problems arise when some feel committed to implementation but others do not” (p. 2). The first step for leading change should be to assess how ready an organization is to change.

A sense of personal relevancy is also essential for members of an organization to value a change and feel committed to it. When undergoing a fundamental shift in thinking, a colleague of mine noted the impact of running professional development to share the research and evidence for that change (R. Parker, personal communication, February 21, 2020). Sharing the underlying rationale gives people time to make personal connections to the evidence and discover how it is relevant to them. Building this sense of readiness and relevancy begins turning the gears towards a shared vision for change.

Leading change requires creating a vision and empowering others to act on it. This shared vision often involves a cultural shift and change in language, forming an attitudinal strategy for change (Biech, 2007). In my infographic, vision is the largest and most interconnected gear (Kuipers, 2020), which serves to illustrate the central role it plays in several models for change (Jick & Kanter, 1992; Kotter, 1998; Lecke, 2003; as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015). In an interview, a colleague expressed how a shift in language was essential for creating a shared vision (R. Parker, personal communication, February 21, 2020). Within his context, leadership took on the roles of thought-leader and provocateur, providing opportunities for staff to encounter and grapple with new perspectives. This form of attitudinal strategy aims to “change mindsets and, as a result, change behavior” (Biech, 2007).

Along with a shared vision, members of an organization need to be empowered to act on that vision (Kotter, 1996). In a digital learning environment, this may mean facilitative empowerment such as resources and technology (Biech, 2007), but also organizational empowerment through adaptive leadership to be a change-agent among peers (Khan, 2017). With a shared vision and empowerment within an organization, change can begin to pick up momentum.

Successful change requires time and the ability to gain momentum within an organization. Where vision and empowerment can create an attitudinal strategy for change, time and momentum can facilitate it. Creating this facilitative strategy “depends on a shared responsibility and the involvement of everyone in the organization” (Biech, 2007). When implementing a disruptive change to a school’s timetable, a colleague described how they gained momentum through in-person communication, both internal with staff and external with the community (M. Brown, February 21, 2020). In his context, leadership also needed to overcome resistance, which meant ensuring staff and students had resources and support to “pace [their] lessons, assignments and expectations” based on the changed timetable. In my interviews, colleagues often referred to this momentum as “buy-in”: a shared vision may get the gears turning, but without time and support, a change is unlikely to pick up momentum within an organization.

Managing successful change requires not only a plan but also an understanding of the interconnectedness of that plan. Can leaders create a shared vision without time? Will a new platform pick up momentum if it is irrelevant? By approaching change through a systems theory perspective, leaders can consider the people, technologies, and behaviours that are affected by their change (Biech, 2007). My infographic aims to provoke thought and ask questions, the answers to which may help leaders plan for more successful changes in their digital learning environments.


Al-Haddad, S., & Kotnour, T. (2015). Integrating the organizational change literature: A model for successful change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28(2), 234–262. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-11-2013-0215

Biech, E. (2007). Models for Change. In Thriving Through Change: A Leader’s Practical Guide to Change Mastery. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.royalroads.ca/sso/skillport?context=22651

Gartner. (n.d.). Gartner Hype Cycle | Hype Cycle Research Methodology [Website]. Retrieved from https://www.gartner.com/en/research/methodologies/gartner-hype-cycle

Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or transactional leadership in current higher education: A brief comparison. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18(3), 178–183. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press. Kouzes, JM, & Posner, BZ (2002). The leadership challenge. San Francisco, CA.

Kuipers, S. (2020). Leading change in digital learning environments [Infographic]. Retrieved from https://malat-webspace.royalroads.ca/rru0128/wp-content/uploads/sites/158/2020/02/Assignment1-Visual.png

Weiner, B. J. (2009). A theory of organizational readiness for change. Implementation Science, 4(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-4-67

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