Leadership in Online Higher Education: Strategies and Skillsets That Have Led to the Adoption and Growth of Online Learning

Degree Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education



First Advisor

Ric Dressen

Second Advisor

Steve O'Connor

Third Advisor

Kimberly Craig


Online learning in the United States has grown significantly in the past twenty years but has not been adopted evenly by institutional types. As online learning promises improved access to higher education, one would consider the adoption of the medium to be universally distributed throughout the higher education landscape. I contend that this uneven adoption is partly due to differing leadership strategies of those overseeing online learning at these institutions. This dissertation examines the leadership skills and strategies relied upon by higher education leaders at small to medium-sized private higher education institutions and provides recommendations for leaders seeking to grow online learning at their institution.

The literature examined for this dissertation found a gap between leadership skills and strategies and precisely how they would relate to those who oversee online learning at private higher education institutions. In viewing online learning as a disruptive innovation, I examined leadership scholars such as Joiner and Josephs, Bolman and Deal, and Northouse to understand the various skills, traits, and strategies that are associated with leadership. I then focused on leadership in education through the scholarship of Smith and Wolverton, and Buller. These scholars noted the intricacies of leadership in a shared governance model. Finally, in examining the works of Frederickson and Burnette, I saw the challenges facing online learning leaders in higher education and the space this dissertation could look to contribute to in so far as the lack of scholarship around leadership strategies for online learning leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic was also addressed in this research to learn how these leaders view the online learning landscape changing as higher education emerges from emergency remote learning scenarios.

This research has found that leaders interviewed generally no longer viewed online learning as the disruptor it maybe once was years ago. These leaders have developed skills and strategies for engaging different groups of individuals across the campus to move online learning efforts forward and plan to lean on these same strategies even as the pandemic subsides; the change from the pandemic is that groups they engage on campus, such as operational staff and faculty, now have an understanding of what remote or online learning entails compared with prior to the pandemic. Further findings are recommendations are detailed at the end of this dissertation on steps that institutions can take if they seek to grow their online learning operation; these recommendations are based on findings from ten in-depth, semi-structured interviews with higher education leaders conducted remotely during the winter of 2022.

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