III Leading the Change

Leadership in a New Era of Higher Distance Education

A. Sangrà and M. F Cleveland-Innes


Over the past three decades, many changes are seen to be shifting the social, economic, political, and cultural conditions of our society. In the beginning, according to Castells (1996), we can say that we live in a new society because it has transformed in many ways. We have been and are still experiencing:

■ Economic globalization

■ Education and training as the foundation to manage change

■ The democratization of the access to information and knowledge

■ The delocalization of knowledge and the approaching of distances

■ The growth of accumulated knowledge

■ New operators in the training market

■ An ever more competitive labor market

■ The advent of a digital media culture.

More recently, we should also add that the kingdom of data has strongly shaken the way we understand our world, in general and education in particular (Selwyn, 2015; Williamson, 2017). The datafication of higher education is shaping the way we make it evolve and this highly impacts the interpretation of the educational outcomes.

This complex system of emergent, dynamic, and opposing stagnant forces have created a kaleidoscopic social context within which higher education now must create, present, and maintain itself. Changes in technology, economics, global connections, and social awareness are imposing on all societal institutions, including higher education. The requirement for systematic, strategic effort to deconstruct and reconstruct higher education has never been more important.

Traditional methods of operating in higher education date back to the monastic schools of the seventh century AD and early European schools of the thirteenth century. The time lapse alone provides an impetus to assess and revitalize systems of higher education still employing these methods. Education philosopher John Dewey (1933) suggested the so-called “transmission method” of education, where content is shared in ways that allow it to be absorbed as presented, is not an appropriate education model in democratic and open societies. However, the academy’s resistance to change is well documented; nothing less than systematic development processes under intense pressure to transform will do (McGuinness, 2005). “Critics of higher education lament that technology has changed, the economy has changed, families have changed, religious values have changed, race relations have changed .... (yet) colleges and universities have remained relatively unchanged” (Keller, 2008, p. 4). Existing organizational realities must give way to new structures and new pedagogical models as current socioeconomic trends, technology, and new roles for faculty and students become part of higher education.

Specific processes must be implemented in the deconstruction and restructuring of an organization wishing to realize all types of change. First, challenges in the current situation that make current ways of operating difficult or impossible must be illuminated. These challenges point to social and economic pressures imposing upon higher education, and can point the way to new directions or organizational redesign to meet these challenges. Secondly, leadership must be in keeping with the culture of the organization, as it currently exists, but requires action to create structures, procedures, and technology to overcome challenges and move institutions in new directions. This view of “leadership in context” must consider leadership during change and innovation, leadership in collaborative partnerships, leadership in networked environments, and leadership for a new era of teaching and learning. Third, this leadership practice must support continuous strategic planning. This chapter outlines the challenges in the current situation in higher education, the leadership issues and requirements for a new era in higher education, and the strategic planning that will support this process of transformation.

A situation assessment

Every time change happens, or is close to happening, we are invaded with insecurity due to the uncertainty it generates. But often change also brings about new opportunities — opportunities for progress, for a general improvement in society, and particularly in the everyday life of the citizens. Changes in the society affect approaches to innovation and leadership in organizations and among individuals.

The convergence of the ever-continuous scientific discoveries in telecommunications and technology allows for important changes in information production, storage, and access. This initiated what was called the third revolution, the post-industrial revolution or the information society. Today we could already speak about the coming of the fourth revolution. The fourth revolution is that which combines hardware, software, and biolog}': robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, the Internet ofThings, etc. (Schwab, 2015).

The transformation process produced by the changes outlined above has had an enormous influence on several dimensions of society itself. As a result, political institutions, such as ministries of education, that represent the will of the people, now demand that higher education institutions (HEI) play an active role in the construction and the consolidation of the information society. These institutions are being forced to undergo a process of restructuring that will enable them to face new challenges and, possibly, offer a new service with new perspectives. Previously, HEI have been slow to respond to societal changes. As a result, institutional leadership has generally not met the transformational challenge required in a knowledge society (Keller, 2008).

Yet in the beginning of the 2000s, there was enough evidence that the HEI needed to transform in order to improve services and lead to innovation (Hanna, 2000; Bates, 2000; Neave,2001; Bricall,2000).These authors agree on the following factors:

■ The limited public funding

■ The increasing costs of higher education

■ The growing demand of educational services for an increasingly diverse type of student

■ The increasing role of the information and communication technologies (ICT)

■ The emerging view of teaching and learning as an investment for the future

■ All leading to the need for new organizational models.

These factors coalesce onto the broader challenges related to economic issues, changing demographics, emerging technology, and new models of teaching and learning.

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