Online Learning: Change Leadership

Throughout the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading about change leadership.  In addition, I interviewed two of my co-workers, identified herein as Colleague 1 (C1) and Colleague 2 (C2), to discuss their experiences with change in a higher-learning institution.  I used the knowledge gathered from my readings, conversations, and own experiences to develop this model on how to initiate and implement change in an online learning environment.

1. Understand

In an institution of higher-learning, the power to implement instructional changes is held primarily by the faculty.  It was with that idea in mind that Fredericksen (2017) argued that “the online leader must demonstrate a more collaborative approach.”  A leader would need to work with faculty to make any significant changes to instructional methods.  This idea was reinforced when, in discussion regarding Fanshawe College’s successful transition to online learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, C1 stated that “the actual change has been because of the informal leaders in our team.”   In order to facilitate an effective collaboration, a leader should begin by developing a general understanding of the existing practices.  In that way, Kouzes and Posner (2011) argued that while leaders aren’t expected to know as much as the people doing the work, they should at least take the time to learn about the practices and people involved before initiating changes.  Personally, I’ve had experiences with supervisors who have tried to initiate change immediately following their hiring and this has always resulted in resentment and failure.

2. Identify

Once a leader has a strong understanding of the current practices, it’s time to look forward.  Where in the existing practice are there opportunities for innovation?  Kouzes and Posner (2011)  observed that “leaders must know where they are going.  They must have a destination in mind” (p. 6).  This idea was articulated well by C2 when they described the setting of a goal.

There’s got to be a conversation with… the end user, where you’re like, “Okay, how do you want this to look at the end of it”, to give you an idea of design… You have to have an end point in order to, you know, work backwards, so that you’ve got a roadmap.

It’s reckless to initiate a change without a defined end goal in mind.  How will you communicate your vision to your team if you can’t define it yourself?  You’ll also be much more likely to be successful if you’ve identified a clear objective to work towards.

3. Inspire

Following the identification of the objective, a leader should look to build a sense of value for that change in the minds of their constituents.  If constituents place value on the objective, they’ll be more inclined to put in the work necessary to bring it about.  Weiner (2009) identified a variety of reasons why constituents might value a change, including perceived benefits to the institution, their students, or themselves, alignment with their values, or a solution to an existing organizational problem.  For online learning in particular, this is an important step.  Glenn Jones and Davenport (2018) recognized that “many faculty have been wary of online education, in general, and reluctant to move their courses online, specifically” (p. 68).  They went on to observe that “it is important to note that the perceptions of faculty who have never taught online courses are in complete opposition to those faculty with the most experience with online courses” (p. 69).  This suggests that a possible cure to resistance of the adoption of online learning is exposure.  C2 recounted an experience with motivating a resistant faculty member to experiment with new technology.

I actually told one of my instructors, “You need to try.  You would not accept that answer from one of your students.  Oh, I can’t do this.  This is too hard.  You wouldn’t accept that…  You have to actually sit down, play with this, and see if you can make it work.”

Following the initial buy-in from faculty, it’s essential that the leader continuously remind their team of the objectives and necessity for the change.  C1 remarked that “the leader becomes the cheerleader, and from an ongoing perspective, reminds the team why the change is necessary.”

4. Act

When it comes time to implement the change, leaders should involve as many stakeholders as is reasonably possible.  Julien et al. (2010) asserted “that people will be committed to a leader’s vision when that leader has consulted and collaborated with them” (p. 125).  C1 reinforced this understanding by stating that “imposed change is what people hate.  If they’re involved in change… they’re going to be much more susceptible to it being a success.”

The likelihood of success is further increased when leaders plan for small, incremental wins throughout the implementation.  Small, frequent wins allow leaders the opportunity to recognize progress, reward engagement, and prove project validity to skeptics (Hamel, 2002; Kotter, 1995).   Some change initiatives can last months, or even years.  It’s been my experience with longterm change initiatives, that a lack of persistence and stamina in these situations can be  detrimental to successful implementation.

5. Integrate

Finally, upon successfully implementing change, a leader should widely communicate the success to the rest of the institution.  Hamel (2002) argued that in order for a change to be truly successful, it should be adopted throughout the entire organization.  Communicating success for widespread improvement of institutional practices is critical in online learning.  As previously mentioned, most skeptics of online learning lack experience with the format.  The greater the number of success stories, the greater the  likelihood of its acceptance.


Fredericksen, E. E. (2017). A national study of online learning leaders in US higher education. Online Learning, 21(2).

Glenn Jones, P. W., & Davenport, E. K. (2018). Resistance to change: HBCUs and online learning. Thought &Action, 34(1), 59–80.,uid&db=eric&AN=EJ1191460&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Hamel, G. (2002). Leading the revolution: How to thrive in turbulent times by making innovation a way of life (Revised). Harvard Business Review Press.

Julien, M., Wright, B., & Zinni, D. M. (2010). Stories from the circle: Leadership lessons learned from aboriginal leaders. Leadership Quarterly, 21(1), 114–126.

Kotter, J. P. (1995). Leading change: Why transformational efforts fail. Harvard Business Review1, MarchAp, 1–9. and Overcoming Resistance to Change_McFarland_Betsy_File 3.pdf

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It,. In Quality Management Journal (Vol. 19, Issue 3).

Weiner, B. J. (2009). A theory of organizational readiness for change. Implementation Science, 4(67), 1–9.

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