e-Leadership

Just over two years ago, in those halcyon days when we used to go to conferences (remember those?), I gave a keynote at the APT conference on e-leadership: “Should leadership begin with an “e”?: what kind of leadership is needed for TeL (technology enhanced learning)?” I have to be honest and confess that despite working in the area of technology enhanced learning and leadership for *ahem* around 15 years, I hadn’t really heard of e-leadership, but was introduced to the concept when discussing talking about leadership and technology enhanced learning. The concept intrigued me. How could I have missed such an important idea? Turns out, though, I am not alone. Although the idea of “e-leadership” has been around since 2000, from a paper by Avolio and others, it hasn’t really gained traction. Jill Jameson explored the use of it in relation to higher education in her paper in 2013 which provoked a few others’ considerations of the concept, summarised by Arnold and Sangrà in 2018.

A very old picture of me imaging the future of TeL

I’ve been thinking about the concept of e-leadership on and off over the past two years and trying to write something academic about why it has failed as a concept. I find this particularly striking given that the widescale use of technology enhanced learning as a response to the pandemic and the requirement for leaders across higher education to grasp the significance of the use of technology in education. However, time and energy always escapes me to attempt to frame my argument into something that is deemed worthy of publication, so instead of poring over my ill-fated, half-article, I thought I would just blog about it and maybe this would lead to something in the future. Who knows? At least it might make me feel that I have done something with my ideas that is vaguely coherent! So here goes, here is a rough exploration of e-leadership and what skills I think senior leaders in HE need to have in relation to technology. [Warning – this post ended up being MUCH longer than I had thought so you’ll need a cuppa to get to the end!]

Firstly, what is e-leadership? Avolio et al defined it in 2000 and 2014 as “a social influence process mediated by AIT [advanced information technology] to produce a change in attitudes, feelings, thinking, behavior, and/or performance with individuals, groups, and/or organizations”.  For me, what this means is that leaders, in whatever sector, need to understand how to utilise technology to engender change. A particular focus for Avolio et al was the use of technology in terms of communications and how new technologies could be effective in engaging people in widespread transformational change. By 2014, Avolio et al argued that to understand the implications of ethical technology usage were “critical imperatives for the field of leadership”. For higher education, Jameson (2013) translated this idea of e-leadership into a necessary understanding by educational leaders of “the exponentially increasing changes occurring in education as a result of educational technology advancements”. So it was less about using technology to communicate leadership vision and transformation and more about leaders engaging with the potential that technology affords in relation to enacting educational change.

I used to use this as a leadership metaphor a lot

So what happened? Avolio et al and Jameson’s arguments for e-leadership as a concept seem compelling. Yet, despite Avolio’s work being cited over 500 times, the concept has gained little traction. Arnold and Sangrà’s 2018 review of e-leadership does not really articulate why this has been the case, except to argue that the original definition is too limiting. Arnold and Sangrà claim that the strict adherence to the notion of e-leadership as referring to “social influence processes … mediated by AIT” from the original definition is problematic in relation to higher education whereby senior leaders may make decisions pertaining to AIT and technology enhanced learning yet these decisions may not be meditated by AIT. Thus, they cannot be strictly speaking as classified as examples of e-leadership. They call for a broader definition that focuses more on how technology usage can be promoted within education and look at the work of Brown et al from 2016 which explores digital education leadership. There is nuance here in the difference, as suggested by Brown et al, between “e-leadership”, which they argue is “primarily concerned with the successful implementation of technology in teaching and learning practices” (p.8) and “digital education leadership” which in contrast is about “the fostering of leaders who have the qualities to lead in a digital culture” (p.8). This focus on implementation as opposed to meditation suggested by Avolio et al’s original definition is more in line with Arnold and Sangra’s notion of e-leadership. Brown et al’s claim that “e-leadership emphasises leadership in educational technology” may not be wholly supported by the literature as it demonstrates a looser application of the concept, but their distinction is useful in distinguishing between a broader conception of educational leadership in the twenty-first century which requires an understanding of the potentials of technology and the specific leadership that is required to implement educational technologies. 

Changing terminology like a kaleidoscope

It strikes me that one of the reasons that “e-leadership” has not taken off as a concept in higher education is due the changing terminology around the use of technology in education. During my 20 years or so working in this area, we’ve moved from computer meditated education, to e-learning, to technology enhanced learning, to now digital education. Is e-leadership just another term that is no longer in vogue as the idea of “digital” takes precedence?

That said, regardless of whether or not we use the term “e-leadership”, there is something to be said for the argument and definitions behind the term which make a case for senior leaders understanding the transformative potential of technology to education in a deep and sophisticated manner. I’m not talking about senior leaders realising that we can deliver lectures online or that we can use MSTeams to enable students to join a face-to-face lecture, I’m talking about a nuanced understanding of both the power of technology to connect and transform our educational model, which both exploits and enhances the online AND physical environment. Surely, if we are to capitalise on the potential of the widespread use of technology to support and deliver education during the pandemic, now is the time? There is a real delicate and complicated balancing act for UK HE leaders particularly to respond to the desire for more on-campus experiences with learning from what we have experienced over the last eighteen months. If we are going to adapt, transform and grow our institutions and continue to deliver relevant education, we all need to develop those e-leadership skills rapidly.

Building blocks of e-leadership

Here are my initial thoughts on what that looks like….the first three are pretty closely connected….

  1. Educate yourself – senior leaders need to understand how to use technology in multiple ways. This doesn’t mean that you need to be “down with the kids” making a TikTok dance (unless that is your “jam” ha ha) or streaming all your thoughts on Instagram live BUT it does mean that you need to know how this stuff works, what it can do and understand how others are using it. This works both ways – we might feel perfectly comfortable with emails as an informal method of communicating, but our students may worry for hours about how to craft and send an email. Do not be afraid to ask and listen to what your students and staff say in terms of how they are using technology.
  2. Engage with technology – so now you know what technologies everyone is using, use them yourself! As I said above, this can be appropriate for you (see TikTok dance point above), but there is nothing like trying to play a youtube video through MSTeams in a hybrid classroom setting in front of a crowd to understand the humbling impact of technology. Try and fail. That is ok. Be honest about it. A long time ago, when first working in the area of online courses, I used to say that the best way to design online learning was to have been an online learner yourself. Enroll in an online course or set up a SnapChat account with a friend just to see how it works. It might be fun and even if it is terrifying it will be an education.
  3. Experience technology – you know how to use it and you have used it, now experience what it is like for others. Shadow your staff and students. Walk around campus and see how your students are using technology. Where are they connecting with it? What are they using? Look around you in your life, how is technology impacting on your daily interactions? What does it make easier and what does it make harder? How can we use these lessons to inform our own strategy in relation to the use of digital?
  4. Empower others – as a senior leader you can create the conditions in which others can act and an environment which can be transformed by technology. Use your knowledge, gained from your own experiences of technology to create new opportunities for others. Technology enables us to connect more freely and easily with others and gain views from a variety of stakeholders quickly. Use this to inform your decisions and strategy making so that you can engage people with change and demonstrate how they are influencing the direction of your organisation. Also be really mindful of who does NOT have access. Who is disengaged by technology? Who is left out? Who might be disadvantaged? In any development informed by technology make sure that you look at the impact and address the negative implications. For technology to enable true transformation it must be inclusive and accessible to all.
  5. Imagine the future – ok this doesn’t begin with an “e” but I think I had taken that far enough and “emagine” would have been too painful! Use your experiences and new found knowledge to challenge and question the current delivery and educational experiences offered by your organisation. How could things be different? Look at what has happened to other sectors to imagine what could happen in education – our President gave the example recently of digital film and television – when we were all in Blockbuster in the 1990s who could have imagined that we could access a movie on our phone in a matter of seconds, anywhere we want to (well pretty much)? What might education look like in 5, 10, 20 or 30 years? Do we even need universities at all? And who do we need to educate and bring with us to realise a different vision?
  6. Share responsibility – as I have said elsewhere, I believe that leadership is an inclusive activity and we all have leadership potential and abilities that we exercise at different points and in different parts of our lives. E-leadership is the responsibility of us all. We all need to gain the skills to understand how technology can enable us to exercise our leadership responsibilities more appropriately and effectively. E-leadership should enable us to connect with others and unify us, rather than separate us, so let us build on that shared responsibility to support and help others engage in new opportunities.
  7. Ditch the “e” – this is slightly facetious but maybe this is why “e-leadership” has not taken off as a concept because in reality it is less about the technology but more what you are doing with it! For me, one of the most interesting areas about technology in education is how it is changing the physical campus. How it is creating opportunities to connect whilst being together, not just how it enables us to connect whilst being apart. So how can we transform the campus to breakdown the silos between being “online” and being “on campus” and instead create a truly blended learning environment which is much more than recorded lectures. In order to transform education, we need to break down the barriers that place digital in opposition to physical and see them as binary. We need to look at places of connection, blending and intersection, this is much more exciting. If we do this, hopefully we can really start to build on the learning from the pandemic, where we were forced into extremes of behaviour. We can then move the debate on from reductive arguments about university education not offering value for money because we are offering online lectures and really start to think about how technology embedded in education and can change lives and create new learning opportunities and connections. As educational leaders, this ability to imagine a future where digital is like electricity – powerful but invisible – and enable it to happen, is vital to our educational leadership responsibilities.

Perhaps whether it is “e-leadership” or just “leadership” does not actually matter. What matters is that we understand deeply and in a nuanced way the power of technology, the impact it can have – negative and positive, and combine that knowledge with our leadership skills to create change. By separating “e-leadership” out we focus on difference, rather than focusing on it as part of our core role as educational leaders.

References – the academic bit!

Arnold, D., Sangrà, A. (2013). Dawn or dusk of the 5th age of research in educational technology? A literature review on (e-)leadership for technology-enhanced learning in higher education (2013-2017). International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education 15, 24 (2018). doi.org/10.1186/s41239-018-0104-3

Avolio, B. J., Kahai, S., & Dodge, G. E. (2000). E-leadership: Implications for theory, research, and practice. The Leadership Quarterly, 11(4), 615-668. doi:10.1016/S1048-9843(00)00062-X

Avolio, B. J., Sosik, J. J., Kahai, S. S., & Baker, B. (2014). E-leadership: Re-examining transformations in leadership source and transmission. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 105-131. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2013.11.003

Brown, C., Czerniewicz, L., Huang, C.-W., & Mayisela, T. (2016). Curriculum for Digital Education Leadership: A Concept Paper. Retrieved October 30, 2017, from http://oasis.col.org/handle/11599/2442

Jameson, J. (2013). E-Leadership in higher education: The fifth “age” of educational technology research. British Journal of Educational Technology44(6), 889–915. doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12103

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