DEHub Research Projects/Charles Sturt University

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Managing institutional change through distributive leadership approaches: Engaging academics and teaching support staff in blended and flexible learning.
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Introducing the project CSU

Research Question

This research posed the question: What do the strategies and activities developed at CSU and Massey (to foster change in Blended and Flexible and Distance Education) help us to understand about learning leadership?

Changed project name

The title of the project was funded as: Managing institutional change through distributive leadership approaches: Engaging academics and teaching support staff in blended and flexible learning.

The name was was changed in November 2011 and became: Building understanding of learning leadership, innovation and institutional change in blended and flexible, open and distance education.

Name of the Final Report

The final report was called: Learning leadership in Higher Education – the big and small actions of many people.

Aims of the research

This research project was developed as an international research collaboration between Charles Sturt University (via the Flexible Learning Institute) and Massey University. In the five years prior to this research (2008-2011) both Universities had implemented a range of strategies designed to shift each institution towards a new, and dynamic "normal" that takes for granted the presence of new technologies in learning and teaching, and in people's lives. To achieve this shift required a wide range of institutional strategies, some of which focus on capacity building in the contexts of specific change strategies. The research aimed to understand "the connections between situated knowing and doing" (Zepke, 2007, p. 303) at both institutions through the development of descriptive and historical cases. Through "descriptive case studies" Yin (1981) the project partners aimed to build knowledge and understanding of the strategies each had adopted to strengthen the capacity of the respective institutions to be innovative, future-looking and "change capable" (Scott, Coates, & Anderson, 2008, p.iii) in terms of learning and teaching practices, with a specific focus on blended and flexible learning, open and distance education.

Learning Leadership

Like Universities throughout the world, Charles Sturt University (Australia) and Massey University (New Zealand) face multiple challenges, including "increased emphasis... on the quality of learning and teaching as a pathway for demonstrating excellence" (McCulla, Scott & Dinham, 2009, p.???). Responding to these challenges required a thoughtful approach to innovation. Both wanted to develop "turn around leadership" (Fullen & Scott, 2009, p.39). The partner institutions shared a view that the development of learning leaders in situ, through authentic problem solving, supported by institutional strategies, lay at the heart of meaningful change. The research sought to understand these thoughtful approaches through the development of case studies and analysis.

We know that authentic learning activities, strategic mentoring and professional development activities can provide a successful means of developing leadership capacity. This study was informed by Boud's thoughts about peer learning (1999), and McCulla et al.'s (2009) notion that "quiet conversations in small circles" provided a means whereby "teaching excellence in universities" can be promoted (p. 3). The process of enabling situated leadership through "the distribution of power through collegial sharing of knowledge, of practice, and reflection within the socio-cultural context of the university" (Lefoe, Smigiel & Parrish, 2008, p.2) also informed out thinking. In line with Scott et al.'s (2008, p.xiv) admonishment regarding the development of learning leaders, this research adopted the view that "context counts" and that agency could be built through conversations and activities that engaged staff with "the core purposes of the institution" (Fullen & Scott ibid, p.39) in ways that were meaningful to the social and disciplinary contexts within which leadership was being fostered.

Scott et al.'s (2008) work on learning leadership helped us to understand learning leadership associated with formal positions of authority. Lefoe et al.'s work (2008) placed focus on distributive leadership. Although we drew on both frameworks, this research aimed to build understanding about learning leadership that reflected positional leadership as well as leadership as activity - that is; leadership "viewed as a feature of the in which individuals and groups (regardless of their role in the organisational hierarchy) assume responsibility for some aspects" of the organisation's life (Townsend & MacBeath, 2011, p.144). In three of the cases studies (related to the Teaching Fellowship Scheme, CSU) "leadership as activity" was fostered through "distributive leadership" (Keppell, O'Dwyer, Lyon & Childs, 2010). We wanted to understand this approach in greater detail, and understand the co-existence of different approaches to fostering and doing learning leadership through the chosen case studies.

Case Study Approach

The research adopted a "descriptive case study" approach (Yin, 1981), using thick description (Merriam, 1988) developed through primary and secondary data, including historical data with a focus on "the practice of practice" (van Manen, 1999). The research was "value-laden rather than value-neutral; subjectively engaged rather than objective; hopeful rather than pessimistic" (Childs, 2001, p.49) and reflected the "insider knowledge" and involvement of the researchers in the social and institutional milieu being researched. Six of the eight case studies were largely retrospective and historic, enhanced with limited primary contemporaneous data collection. Two of the case studies (CSU Teaching Fellows) were contemporaneous. The study was appreciative rather than evaluative and the findings and theory formation were grounded in the lived experience of institutional change. The findings offer principles for fostering learning leadership and question the contemporary sectoral emphasis on whole-of-institution approaches.

In real time, the activities represented in this research as CSU case studies were implemented disparately, separately, by different people and structures, even if at times cross-over and collaboration occurred. The strategies were implemented within the same institutional frameworks and wider sector influences. Placing the CSU strategies within proximity of each other as cases, and gazing at them through a common thematic lens, provided us with an opportunity to think freshly about the different approaches being taken at the institution to foster new approaches to learning and teaching.

Criterion based purposive sampling was adopted, and the cases were chosen based on the following criteria: 1. Sample drawn across macro, meso and micro levels of the organisations 2. Strong alignment to institutional strategies and directions in blended, flexible and distance education 3. Strong insider-knowledge and pre-understanding by the research team of the case study 4. Convenience sampling: Degree of availability of existing data, published in the public domain

The following samples of learning and teaching strategies were purposefull chosen:

Macro - Annual learning and teaching conference (CSUED, CSU) Meso - Introduction of new technology – EPortfolios (CSU) and Stream (MU) Meso - Teaching Fellowship Scheme (CSU) Micro - Teaching Fellow - 2 case studies Micro - Collaborative curriculum renewal (Course Team Symposiums, CSU)

Read more about the methodology [1]


For a full list of references, see the Final Report.


What we aim to achieve

The Aim of the Research

The aim of this project is two-fold, with the collaborative design fostering quality research outcomes as well as a strong and enduring cross-institutional relationship between Charles Sturt University and Massey University. The research project seeks to build knowledge and understanding of the impact distributive leadership approaches have on transforming teaching and learning in relation to blended and flexible learning, and Distance Education at the partner institutions through stories of adaptation and change.

WATCH. Associate Professor Mark Brown (Massey University NZ) and Professor Mike Keppell (The FLI, CSU Australia) discuss the importance of the research.


News and announcements


The Flexible Learning Institute's twitter    @FLINews

This project uses Delicious for readings and resources


Discussion list feed