Reflections on a Decade of Teaching Leadership Online

Facilitating leadership development programs online is hard. The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the way we work and forced leadership trainers, consultants, executive coaches, and educators, like me, to a remote teaching and learning environment. I begin my career as a leadership educator in 2008 while working full-time and completing my Ph.D. at the University of South Florida. I share this background info with you because, as luck would have it, one of the perks of being a full-time employee at the university was the opportunity to engage in professional development courses in instructional technology. These courses included layers of multi-hour training on Blackboard (our Learning Management System or “LMS” at the time), Adobe Captivate, and online course design. In 2011, I finally had the opportunity to apply this knowledge to an online course (all of my teaching assignments up to this point had been in person). While I found the engagement in the online environment varied in many ways from the in-person leadership classroom I had fallen in love with, there were curricular and pedagogical design strategies that I could implement and still facilitate an active and engaging learning experience.

A year later in 2012, I joined the Leadership and Organizational Studies faculty at the University of Southern Maine. I knew when I sought out the position that I would be teaching at least one class each term online. Too, I entered conversations with our Center for Technology Enhanced learning early on regarding web-based synchronous learning that would include “smart classrooms” on our Lewiston and later our Portland campuses that had moveable–albeit with a remote at the time–classroom webcams and allow for some of the students in our graduate programs to attend class in-person while others could participate in the same class meetings via web-conference. While the concept was a hit with graduate students all over New England and abroad, our platform at the time, AdobeConnect, was far from perfect. We spent more time in those first few semesters piloting this delivery model addressing technical challenges than teaching. Unfortunately, while we advocated regularly for on-site tech support and many instructors opted out of the pilot program.

I continued to persevere, experimenting with different technologies, and pairing the clunky Adobe video conferencing software with the Google suite of live, interactive text-based applications (i.e., Docs and Slides). When our university system acquired a Zoom license in 2016, I was ecstatic–no more tech issues–and could now focus exclusively on teaching my web-synchronous courses.

Since 2014, I have taught leadership via web video conferencing. And, I have been using Zoom for this purpose since 2016. I didn’t realize until a few months ago that I was what Malcolm Gladwell called an outlier. I was the Bill Gates of online leadership education who, much unlike my peers at other institutions had not only been teaching fully online asynchronous (no class meetings) courses but had also been teaching with Zoom or platforms just like it for nearly a decade. This suite of experiences granted me the privilege to host a free webinar for the International Leadership Association titled “Leadership Education Online?!?! Strategies and Tips to Ease the Transition” in March. I learned from the association that this was the most well-attended webinar in their history. Relatedly, in the following weeks, co-host Lauren Bullock and I released Navigating Change in Teaching and Programming in Leadership Education and Navigating Leadership Education During COVID-19, which have been our most downloaded episodes of our Leadership Educator Podcast.

My reflections on teaching leadership in a COVID World echo my mentor Scott Allen’s article, “Leading Virtually: Same What, Different How,” that is, through my lens as a leadership educator, I focus more on how rather than what we teach. I’ve spent my academic career developing resources for leadership development professionals to increase their capacity to facilitate leadership programs.  With some luck, in 2016, I published a groundbreaking article on teaching leadership online.  In 2018, I co-edited a PAUSE for Pedagogy series on technology-enhanced learning for the International Leadership Association. And, just a few weeks ago, my second co-authored book, Transforming Learning: Instructional and Assessment Strategies for Leadership Education, includes a technology-enhanced learning activity in each chapter. Serendipitously, I have become a leading expert in online leadership development and education. And, I feel strongly that we, as leadership educators, have a responsibility as well as an opportunity to evolve our experiential and engaging pedagogy–varied forms of online dialogue, role-play, simulation, games, reflection, peer feedback, and perhaps most important, group work–for the future of leadership development programs in higher education.

Reflections on a Decade of Teaching Leadership Online