Shifting to digital delivery will require creative leaders


Higher education leaders are, in essence, multitaskers: educational diplomats who are equally proficient financiers, human resource managers and pedagogical visionaries. The last quality is particularly important with the introduction of digital technologies and the transition that they will bring to all facets of the higher education environment.

Higher education is experiencing the ripple effect of emerging models for online provision that require new pedagogy, alternative systems for academic and pastoral support and a fresh approach to the role of the tutor.

Consequently, the leader in higher education must consider the potential of these revolutionary technologies while reassuring staff that their continued involvement in the process of teaching, learning and student engagement is crucial.

Interestingly, Bill Gates recently chose Archie Brown’s The Myth of the Strong Leader as one of the top three books he read in 2016. Although Brown’s field of expertise is leadership within a political context, he demonstrates that the leaders who have the greatest impact on humanity generally are not necessarily those who fit the accepted profile of the “strong leader” but rather those who have the skills required for delegation, negotiation and collaboration.

Brown’s assertion is that the successful leader is one who recognises that he or she does not personally possess the skills and knowledge required to address every eventuality, but instead relies on the power of persuasion.

Those in a leadership role who were tasked with introducing emerging digital technologies within their institution no doubt have encountered an unholy mixture of problems from the professional to the personal, with pedagogical, pastoral and technological proficiency concerns adding to the confusion.

What measures can the aspiring leader adopt to bring higher education staff on board when they’re trying to transition towards more digital delivery?

The first course of action is to familiarise yourself with the enemy.

Opposition to online provision can be reduced to a few contentious statements:

  • that online provision is inherently inferior to attendance-based provision
  • that it is impersonal and affords little opportunity for meaningful face-to-face interaction
  • that the assessment procedures are less rigorous than attendance-based equivalents
  • that any qualification gained via online learning will be regarded as less credible by potential employers
  • that the profile of a university student will always be the same
  • that online learning is merely a trend and, like every fad, has a limited shelf life.

By quantifying likely objections and reducing these to a concise list of the key points, the successful higher education leader will be able to counter supposition with facts based on evidence.

The misconception about students is particularly important because, as we move towards the widespread adoption of online models, the balance of student profiles will shift as the increased accessibility and alternative modes of delivery attract an increasing number of non-traditional learners.

Infinitely more sinister, and consequently more difficult to deal with, are those objections that are ostensibly from a personal perspective. These frequently are the result of less apparent underlying anxieties and will require the higher education leader to decode them to ascertain the true nature of the issues involved.

For example, leaders will have encountered the question: “Are these new technologies simply being introduced to reduce costs by replacing members of staff with automated processes?”

In this instance, the effective higher education leader must quantify the impact of e-learning on the institution holistically but also on the professional and personal circumstances of staff as individual practitioners.

What is required from the leader in such circumstances is basically reassurance: an indication that online provision will generate the need for alternative pedagogy and that the additional students enrolled will receive more, not less, support.

On a more personal level, presented with the prospect of committing a lifetime of academic experience to the tender mercies of the world wide web, staff will raise questions that relate to sureness, authorship and recognition.

The higher education leader will have to tread carefully here as egos may be involved. Questions such as “Will my teaching materials be recognised as being mine, and will this affect my chances of securing tenure?” and “Are my teaching materials worthy of a global audience of my peers?” will come up. As well as staff wondering: “Are my IT skills up to the challenge of lecturing through a digital delivery system?”

The effective higher education leader is required to seek out the means to take the uncertainty that is often the result of strategy for institutional change and present it to staff as a positive opportunity to learn something new and to serve students better.

Staff who are willing to embrace opportunity and move forward with the organisation understand that this is their chance to become part of its future. Those unwilling or unable to grasp the significance of such a prospect are destined to become part of its past.

Both scenarios will challenge the higher education leader’s management skills. But that’s the nature of the job.

Author Bio: Michael Stewart is an honorary associate fellow at the University of Aberdeen Business School and founding director of the Interactive Design Institute.