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Right, Left or Both? Ambidexterity and the Distance Education Leader

Right, Left or Both? Ambidexterity and the Distance Education Leader
Distance education requires its own professional practitioners who understand its specific intricacies and demands.
Part entrepreneur, part politician, part miracle worker and part operational manager, the distance education (DE) leadership position is a complex role in a complex environment.

As technology-mediated learning continues its widespread adoption in many universities, there is growing concern about how DE can be better organized and yet maintain agility, as these two factors help improve the quality, consistency and effectiveness of teaching remotely. The question we must answer next is: What does effective leadership look like in DE units?

Many universities are choosing to integrate their support for DE in a unit staffed with a full-time director and staff members dedicated to working with faculty in the development of these programs, and in supporting these remote students. There are number of organizational models for this, and many different areas in which these DE units can be housed, including IT, academic leadership (such as the provost’s office), a particular department of the university (commonly continuing education) or independently situated. No matter where the DE unit sits in the university infrastructure, operational and strategic leadership of the unit is an issue of escalating urgency.

DE leaders have complex challenges facing them. They must take responsibility for the daily operations of their unit, sometimes at a very large scale, while managing the service delivery of an education “product” to a student base that is increasingly consumer savvy. At the same time, the DE leader must manage change, comply with evolving state and federal regulations, be agile, and foster creativity and innovation. DE is heavily technology dependent and, as such, subject to rapid change from external forces. DE leaders must constantly face stakeholders, including faculty, that show various levels of support for distance learning. They must create a compelling vision for the future, and obtain buy-in for this vision from the top level down.

As DE enters its adolescent phase, the time is now for some hard thinking about leadership. There are a number of models or approaches to leadership that might make sense, including transformational leadership and complexity leadership. However, an emerging area of leadership study that applies particularly well to DE is ambidexterity.

Ambidexterity is a concept that proposes that leaders must manage the tension between exploration of new ideas and exploitation (improvement) of existing ones.[1] Exploration activities seek new alternatives and foster innovation and creativity. Exploitation work seeks to reduce risk, improve processes and refine what already exists. Effective DE leaders must explore and exploit simultaneously. In uncertain environments, like with product development and technology, organizational ambidexterity appears to be positively associated with increased innovation, better financial performance and higher survival rates. What remains to be seen is whether the concept can work well in higher education, particularly in distance learning.

The choice of individuals selected as DE leaders is a critical decision facing higher education leaders. In the past, accepted practice has been to appoint a technology-savvy and enthusiastic faculty member to lead the DE effort, or perhaps hire an accomplished operational manager to oversee a business unit dedicated to online initiatives. We need to rethink this model and recognize that DE leadership is an evolving professional practice of its own. There are specific skills and competencies required for success, including ambidexterity. If we expect DE leaders in universities to join with others in helping to model the way for a transformative change in higher education, we need to ensure we have the right people, with the right skill sets and knowledge, leading the charge. To do that, we need to understand, more than ever, the DNA of the DE leader.

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[1] Rosing, K., Frese, M., & Bausch, A. (2011). Explaining the Heterogeneity of the Leadership-Innovation Relationship: Ambidextrous Leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(5), 956–974.

This article is the conclusion of of a two-part series by Jay Halfond and Nancy Coleman exploring how universities are responding to the implications and opportunities of distance learning, a topic they presented on at the joint UPCEA-ACE Summit for Online Leadership and Strategy. To read Halfond’s article, please click here.