Combined Arms Consulting

The online world (part 1) - Leadership and its role

Online leadership

Published: 04 Mar 2024

27 min read

The online world (part 1) - Leadership and its role

As in all things, culture starts from the top. This is ever so important with the explosion of the online teaching space that COVID-19 has brought on. This alignment of the traditional face-to-face model with the new online space is essential not only to ensure that the online experiment is a success but in many ways more importantly that the two arms of the educational institutions are aligned, in deeds as in intent.

The propositions outlined in the discussion although focusing on the tertiary space as applicable in any corporation that is experiencing a hybrid model on in-office and at-home working models.

Leadership in this transition is essential as the culture, the level of engagement, and empathy all emanate from the top, and if the leadership does not get it will have a deleterious trickledown effect, impacting the students or workforce.

The tertiary discussion

This discussion is based on 12 years of direct experience in the tertiary sector, the last 4 years teaching online at ACU and RMIT. My observations are also influenced as a result of many years in other industries and as such I have a foundation upon which to build a comparison.

Thus, what I intend to cover in this blog embraces several threads within the university's strategic mission [as I see it] and how that understanding can impact the quality of online teaching.

The mission

The question I will pose to the reader is, how would you define the mission of a university, when you consider this question look at it through the eyes of a student, not necessarily through the constructs of research and industry engagement, which also form part of the university’s raison d'être as these functions are not considered within the framework of this narrative.

Is it to get an education, meet people, or perhaps get a degree? I would argue that these are all valid missions but are they truly reflective of what the university stands for in the context of a twenty+-year-old, and more to the point are these the core imbedded motivations for their educational journey in the first place?

Michael Porter, the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School in his work on competitive advantage and corporate strategy articulated that strategy is not so much what you do but what you stand for, and why you are doing it, especially from the perspective of your core constituent. [discussed in a previous blog]

Applying this principle to the university sector the question should be asked what are the fundamental reasons that motivate students to go to university in the first place, and how can the sector facilitate those outcomes?

This reframing is ever more important as institutions struggle with the new online environment.

I would argue it is not just to get a degree, get an education, or wear funny robes, although they are rather cool in the right setting – especially for mature-aged students. I would argue that the reason the vast majority go to a tertiary institution is to build a bridge.

No, there are not engineering students, building a bridge is a metaphor, put simply it means that are creating a pathway for their next stage of life; however, they define that next stage.

This strategic definition is important as it should guide the behaviours and approaches that institutions should take to fulfill their core strategic objective, and this hypothesis is the foundational base upon which this narrative is based.

Getting this right from a student’s perspective is essential as many of the threads that go into building that metaphorical bridge are more challenging in the online space, for example creating that social interaction and collegiate culture so important in team building and ideation.

Unless these threads are noted by the leadership cadre, they might be overlooked in adapting to a new environment.

What I am arguing is not the downgrading of the importance of the other two critical missions of a university, that of pure research and industry / governmental engagement, rather it is a recalibration of the relative importance of the third arm of the university’s mission, and that is student outcomes and welfare.

On the assumption that the core motivational driver of the student is to build that metaphorical life bridge then institutions [and leaders] must realize it is not just about imparting knowledge and, hopefully, critical thinking, but universities must embrace emotional and collegial skills sets that are so important in navigating the world in which we live in.

I am sure many institutions might see themselves achieving this – but is that the case many times this is not my experience.

The left hand must know what the right hand is doing.

All too often responses by the senior cadre will be based on collated reports and associated interpretations as they progress up the food chain. Many of the senior leadership groups may have started out in front of the class, but I 12 years and in several universities, I have never seen any senior individuals visit my classroom. Sydney Myer practiced a management theory MBWA – Management by walking around – as a result he knew firsthand what was going on. I have yet to experience that model in either the face-to-face or more importantly the online realm.

This may be normal in most large organizations, especially ones that have many moving parts and that are siloed between departments. Traditional thinking would support this approach and I am not suggesting that this approach has no place in the management of university departments. But my experience outlines suggest that there, in many cases, little importance placed by senior leadership on the nuances and processes of effective teaching over and above perfunctory reports and statistics.

Where the mission of the university is built on the three pillars of, research, industry engagement, and student outcomes, and where student outcomes do not have the same gravitas as the first two, [despite the rhetoric] the bias focus either consciously or subconsciously will place greater emphasis on the first two.

This is reinforced by the fact that progress up the corporate level for senior leadership, student outcomes though important are not the keystone of advancement.

I have experienced that advancement priorities are focused on first-tier publications rather than overall student outcomes.

The tertiary sector must emphasize creating workshops, discussions, and strategy meetings that place the student at the apex and understand that the model for online and face-to-face delivery must be accounted for. I have experienced few if any such workshops and in more than one case I created my own only to be told by the course coordinator not to let anyone know as the response would not be positive. I also experienced such pushback when I taught in Singapore when I requested to travel early so, I could prepare the local educators for an innovative pedagogy io created. I ended up going but I paid my way.

So how do we reposition the prioritization of practical student support outcomes?


The first stepping stone that needs to be crossed is that of recruiting the right facilitators for the online space and the nature of acknowledgment of excellence and career advancement.

Here I will explore the recruitment and advancement pathways that facilitators have to navigate to first and foremost obtain tenure, and secondly ensure they have a credible advancement pathway to achieve their potential.

In every application that I have seen seeking tenure, there is always a section about one’s teaching and mentoring experiences.

These are essential qualities and attributes that any institution should ensure are part of the armory that any new staff member should possess. But the question is: what the emphasis on those attributes are, and to what extent are they critical in the hiring and advancement process? Additionally, what is their experience and comfort level in the online world?

The first hurdle one must overcome is filling out the application form, normal enough, I guess. However, the red flags tend to start to appear at the first reading.

Questions about background both educational and experience and other critical touchpoints are canvassed as well as generic questions about your teaching experiences are explored. So far so good.

The real crunch comes with detailed inquiries on what papers you have written and what research you intend to undertake.

There is no doubt these are important questions, and there is nothing wrong with this line of questioning, however, the point I am raising here is the emphasis placed upon research papers and first-tier publications and does that focus place at a disadvantaged candidate whose core skills are in the fields of effective teaching and engaging communication.

This is not to say that the great researcher cannot also be a great communicator, nor am I saying that universities do not need world-class researchers undoubtedly, they do, but if the relative emphasis placed on these skills outweighs effective teaching and communication skills, the result will be a downgrading of the teaching skillset, challenging enough in the face-to-face world devastating in the online space.

This skewed focus is further exacerbated by the fact that in all likelihood the evaluating committee will generally be presided over by professors or associate professors whose career path had been determined by papers and not always by teaching outcomes. I know that this is an assumption, but this assumption is validated by numerous experiences and observations that I have had.

I know of numerous cases where academics have been employed based on their exemplary publishing record only to be confronted with a lecture theatre or a tutorial room full of fresh face students waiting to be informed only to be confronted with a facilitator whose presentation style to put it colloquially, would put a glass eye to sleep.

I reiterate that writing papers does not preclude you from being an effective communicator, but if what determines your employment, and especially your advancement pathway, despite the rhetoric, are publications, why develop your communication/teaching repertoire?

This teaching disconnect is further exacerbated in the online space for two key reasons, the first being that teaching in this space is very different to the face-to-face classroom. appreciating the camera and understanding the different dynamics that go into making an effective online communicator requires a different set of skills and personal attributes. Considering that many of the decision-makers have progressed through the traditional tertiary model being aware of these nuances and having experiences within them is at best qualified.

the second point is that many if not all the facilitators who teach in the online space are sessionals, they are not tenured staff. The tertiary institutions prefer this model as it has enormous financial and legal benefits protecting the institution should any problems arise. I can honestly say I have experienced this directly in my time at RMIT where the university hides behind a structural veil to avoid responsibilities.

This sessional model means that the facilitators are “private contractors” and there is no effective process and protocols to determine if they are suited to the online teaching format, again I know this through personal experience with ACU and RMIT

The irony is that considering that the vast majority of the university’s revenues come from the student cohort and the online space is a new segment an understanding and emphasis on “soft skills” should be a priority.

So, I guess the question is why is there not a greater emphasis on effective teaching noting that in terms of purely a business model keeping your “customers” happy would be a prerequisite for long-term success.

I will postulate two possible reasons, the first being that the Australian tertiary sector had never had it so good pre-COVID. European students, African students, North and South American students, and Asian students, especially Chinese students, were flocking to our shores in droves.

Australia has a lot going for it over and above our world-class educational institutions. Our way of life, multicultural society, the weather, the beaches, and the fact that we are a friendly and safe country have been enormous pull factors that are attracting this enormous cash cow. And boy did the university sector love it.

If it ain’t broke why fix it, complacency is a bitch and can bite you in the bum if you are under its spell.

As far as those domestic students, they would never be able to make up the revenue shortfall. The massive revenue stream emanating from overseas in a very real sense underpinned domestic students.

The second point that may have had an impact on the focus or lack thereof on effective facilitation is that one academic I spoke to noted that the Australian university setup is similar to that of a sausage factory, with students in and graduates out.

Where else can the student go if they want a degree, individual universities might rely on perceived status, but rarely if ever will word of mouth influence future intakes.

Each cohort is somewhat shielded from the previous, so it’s not likely that there would be a groundswell based on past teaching experiences that will influence the next group of sausages, and besides during the initial stages of marketing to prospective students, the university structures, buildings, and lecture theatres are all so impressive, a colosseum of learning that any Roman emperor would be proud of.

First, the prospective student must be able to ask those critical questions that will help inform them as to the best teaching environment for them, and generally, they just do not have to tools to frame those questions, that’s why they are going to the university in the first place.

Universities must adopt an agile thought and creative modeling process that can create an environment that will not only manage the online reality but profit from it by ensuring that the teaching and communication models are student-centric and effective, and at the same time online sensitive.

The challenge is how can this be done; the answer is by creative and targeted training.

Training for the online challenge

But before we jump into the challenge, we must first understand the nature of the challenge at hand. We need to define the question.

This is best exemplified by Einstein when asked to if he had the answer to a question in an hour and that answer to that question would decide if he would live or die, how would he spend that hour, he replied he would spend fifty-five minutes deciding if it was the right question.

In short, it is not about training per se, it is about the type of training needed overall and more specifically the nature of the training and trainer in the context of the online teaching environment.

The following personal example will address this question, based on a subject that I created “Innovation Creativity and Design” where the teaching outcome was based upon the experiential managerial experience of producing a short film.

The foundation pedagogy of this subject applied what is called a flip model of education.

A flip model is where the students prepare well in advance before the formal lectures. The content was largely driven by eclectic YouTube clips that facilitated discussion rather than directed outcomes.

An example would be a clip of Al Jolson from 1939 where he sang Swanny River in blackface. Manifestly inappropriate in 2024, by acceptable in 1939, the question then was posed as to how cultural mores had changed and the effect these changes could have on management modeling over time.

The clip itself is confronting through current eyes but why was it not so in the period when it was created? This would lead to an insightful and creative debate. These conversations also linked in very well to constructs of Woke and cancel culture incredibly important topics today. These clips were chosen to solicit lateral and creative responses. In short, the antithesis of the transaction offerings that are normally offered.

Suffice it to say this approach was not only a challenge to the students – which was the intent – but a real challenge to the teaching staff.

The solution I found was to hold a series of dedicated one-hour training sessions with the facilitator cohort to ensure that they first understood the core constructs of the course and secondly, and more importantly, how to teach this new innovative model.

We also reviewed every week the outcomes of the previous week and prepared for the following week accordingly.

The areas we covered included the essence of the subject, specifically the upcoming weeks, the nature of the clips, and how they could be embedded into the discussion, the presentation styles of each facilitator, and the associated challenges and positive outcomes they faced and achieved.

The sessions were not sermons from the mount, rather they were interactive, engaging, and empathetic where we all exchanged points of view and listened to each other, a culture that needed to be translated into the classroom.

The outcomes were that there was a continuity between the classes, not so much in style as each facilitator had their style that was embraced by their particular personalities, rather there was continuity in educational outcomes across the cohort.

This last point was critical as the assessment model was creating a film, and the learning outcome was the management “take homes” in working and planning in a team environment, and finally executing the actual making of the film.

It must be noted that this model of the train–the–trainer concept was translated overseas when I taught in Asia with similar outcomes, and it was also adapted in the online space when working with Asian academics over the semester period where I was not able to be there in person.

What was also interesting was that the institution did not support direct overseas training sessions even when I was slated to go overseas to teach the first few classes, as they saw this initiative as an expense.

As a result, in many of the travels (as I stated above) I made I covered the additional costs relating to the extra days needed to train my overseas colleagues.

In addition, I was advised not to share the domestic initiative with the administration as it might have ruffled feathers and could have created unwanted hurdles.

The outcome of these training initiatives resulted in a significant and immediate improvement in student outcomes.

In addition, this approach created a collegial culture amongst the facilitating staff that manifested itself within the class culture itself. The spillover effect cannot be underestimated.

In my time teaching in a face-to-face environment, I had never experienced such an intense training regime. Truth be told I never experienced any training models or skill enhancement structures full stop.

Paradoxically enough, the online space there was an attempt to create a training regime to enable facilitators to become better-confined communicators. However, despite the best of intentions, these attempts were at best rudimentary at best and in my view lacked that online focus and intensity needed.

The challenge was I felt that the coaches, with all best intentions, did not understand the online space sufficiently, as few if any of them had experience in front of the camera, and let’s be honest appreciating camera craft is an important prerequisite in creating an online safe space for students.

Many of the training sessions I have witnessed are transactional at best, talking about the delivery of content and how best to use the technical toys embedded in the latest iteration of Zoom. The emotive and empathetic constructs critical in this environment are not given the same emphasis as the transactional pathways that the online model must traverse.

The “practical” elements are important, but exploring the ability to create an embracing, warm, and collegiate culture within the webinar has been absent without leave.

The use of humor, personality, interactive questioning, camera craft, I can go on, is often lost in translation giving way to how you reference according to a Harvard model, dealing with problem students and prompts to get people to turn their cameras on.

In addition, never once did a trainer request to be embedded in any of my classes, to gain a first-hand view of what I was doing.

I am aware from direct personal experience that when I introduced a new facilitator to my lectures which happened on several occasions, I spent the time and energy to deconstruct their performances and see where we could all improve, it was very effective, this did not happen when I was teaching online.

The trainers are committed to assisting new and inexperienced facilitators in developing their skills, that is not in question, the question I am posing to the trainers themselves have those skills in the first place.

The feedback loop.

Without that feedback, the facilitators are largely flying blind and in all likelihood destined to make the same mistakes again. My experience at RMIT was that qualitative feedback was not disseminated to the very people who needed it – the facilitators – and based upon my experiences, keeping this information “in camera” was a means by which the institution could leverage this information if there was any conflict with the facilitator.

To overcome this anomaly – I created a 360-degree feedback model by way of a round table to be held at the end of every semester so I could get direct feedback from the class. Although I suggested this initiative to RMIT it was never taken up, I guess because the additional meeting’s time was covered by me, and I was not compensated.

The amount of information I received from this initiative was invaluable, however, the fact that it did not become a standard practice I believe was a missed opportunity.

Concerning the traditional feedback that was disseminated to the facilitators – the statistical outcomes – the challenge with this data was that it was based on questions created for the face-to-face environment and that no modifications or adaptations of the questions for the online space were offered.

The online pedagogy

Aligned with the ability to effectively communicate in the online space, is the nature and construction of the pedagogy itself and how the courses are created and designed.

I was shocked, but not surprised to learn that many of the course designs that are created are based on discussion with the content creators, but limited direct engagement, if any, with the very people that absorb the content in the first case, the student.

It was indicated to me that the only student input that is considered might be based on qualitative feedback and/or the odd focus group. I cannot be certain of this, but it would not surprise me as at no stage have, I ever been asked to be involved in course delivery design, and no designer has ever asked to observe and participate in any class activities that I have undertaken to get a first-hand view of what works and what does not.

On one occasion I invited a designer into my class, and they agreed but never turned up. The same can be said for several course coordinators who also never attended any of my classes, with one exception, despite numerous invitations.

I have also raised this lack of connection between students and course designers only to find that never any student of mine, and I have taught thousands, had been approached by some students who were not even aware of what a course designer did.

It is self-evident that if you are going to create effective class formats it would be a good idea to see your work in action, speak to the beneficiaries of your work, and review accordingly.

Course design must not be purely based on an understanding of the technology and how it can be applied, but the genesis of any initiatives must be first based on what works for the student and for the facilitators. In other words, people-centric not technology focused.

In line with the disconnect between course design and the student cohort is the issue of the repetitive nature of content and syllabus creation. By that I mean the fact that in many cases the same content is delivered, maybe in different and more subtle forms, in different classes to the same students.

This duplication has been endemic within the face-to-face model ever since I have been involved in the tertiary space. The observable normative behavior has been where each academic creates their content, as a rule of thumb generally a rollover from the previous semester’s iteration, and then uploads that content to the various university platforms for the students to absorb.

On occasion, there will be some tweaking but again based upon my experiences rarely in light of the qualitative feedback given by the students, although there are exceptions depending on the course coordinator.

Remember, career progression generally is based upon papers and research outcomes so committing significant time and cognitive commitment to the teaching syllabus will be undertaken not with the same gusto as with other KPIs that the academic must fulfill.

An example of this is the repetitive nature of the content delivered.

I have never seen or been a part of any interdisciplinary or content discussion between coordinators of different courses within the same discipline to discuss what they are delivering and see where repetition can be eliminated, and synergy created. I have never been a part of distinct discussions or analyses of duplicated content in differing courses, and as such never observed any structural or strategic modeling to address this duplication.

This doubling-up challenge is important in the face-to-face model, it is critical in the online space as in online space time can be limited and the ability to engage in that much more challenging, so any duplication can only lead to disinterest, resulting in disengagement.

The cultural reality of this silo mentality reflects the degree of fiefdoms that exist within some university departments, demarcations that not only inhibit effective knowledge flow but can have the effect of contracting creative and innovative pedagogies.

This lack of collegiate collaboration is not a result of the new online environment, as stated it excited before, but if anything, it has only been intensified by the new online reality because of the isolative nature that COVID has forced upon us.

The irony is that the online space now can offer direct solutions to address this collaborative black hole, as Zoom and other platforms can facilitate engagement and sharing irrespective of where the participants are.

Culture comes from the top.

The role of the leaders, their connection with facilitators, and the influence they have in creating a departmental culture and by association a student-focused classroom culture cannot be underestimated.

Unfortunately, in the context of delivery models, my experience suggests that rarely are leaders directly involved.

Only recently I was asked to be involved in a workshop to develop effective approaches to empower students in the online space, the initial intent was to create creative initiatives. However, I pulled out of the workshop when undue emphasis was placed on staff time commitments and avoiding possible pushback and conflict.

Staff requirements are important but having a clean slate to address the online challenges must always take precedence in this type of workshop, with administrative and organisational considerations to be considered after the innovative ideas have been generated.

So why should the facilitator cohort care and feel committed to an innovative learning culture if problems (that are not student-centric) are emphasised rather than opportunities the new environment offers?

But it does not have to be like that.

The culture of any organisation emanates from the top, and it will be the senior leadership group that will create an environment that will nurture and facilitate creative and dynamic delivery methods be it in the face-to-face or online space, or the senior leadership will be the arbiters of atrophy, constraining and debilitating that creative spark.

This is not a top-down model but rather a collaborative one.

Sitting in glass towers, reading reports, looking at budgets, and being fed via their echo chambers will not cut it. I never experienced once in all my time in the tertiary sector a senior leader's request to be involved with or observe my classes either in the face-to-face or online iteration.

Structural leadership V’s endemic cowardice

This subheading may seem harsh, and for some challenging, but it is in many ways one of the elephants in the room that is never discussed and where if at all might only be discussed in whispers.

And that is that many institutions, and more to the point structural leaders do not have an inner locus of control, that is a core set of values that they adhere to, specifically in dealing with conflict. Especially when any action might run counter to the prevailing normative behavior.

I have witnessed numerous times “kangaroo courts” convened behind individual staff members' backs, courts that will determine the career and financial security of the very people who are the deliverers of the content.

I do not know if this Machiavellian culture manifests with senior figures within the organizational setting, but it certainly is the norm when dealing with junior staff or worse still sessionals.

I know of several individuals, up to a professor level whose mental well-being, and economic livelihood have been ruined by Chinese whispers and worse unfounded accusations.

All an individual has to do, especially so a student, accuse a staff member of acting in a way that is not part of what is currently acceptable in today’s Woke world.

I am not advocating in any way behavior and actions that are racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, or by way of physical intimidation. As a Jew whose ancestors were turned into lampshades and soap, my antenna is acutely attuned to actions and behaviors that are beyond the pale in any forum, but in today’s world perennial outrage is endemic in everything and anything. I am sure someone will no doubt be offended by this statement.

The tertiary sector must be a place where we offend, not based on race or religion but based on ideas and thoughts, remember the foundation of the Renaissance was to offend the status quo, and thank God they did, otherwise we would still be self-flatulating and waiting for salvation, while burning the odd which as we go.

Dan Crenshaw a US congressman from Texas stated, “Try hard not to offend, try harder not to be offended”, that is a great maxim, but there will be cases where genuine offenses occur, it is here where true leadership is needed.

Institutions must create conflict management protocols that are fair transparent, and blind to position. And leaders within these institutions must apply them in a judicious and timely fashion, to facilitate natural justice for all, rather than risk mitigation and fear avoidance.

This takes courage, and in my experience, I have seen few “leaders” willing to take on this burden, for fear of being judged, or worse still losing that coveted pathway to professorship.

If the structural leaders do not take up this standard, then institutions will always be at the mercy of the permanently outraged emotional hemophiliacs, snowflakes will embed a woke culture within the very institutions where this cultural model is an anathema to what they stand for, and what they have achieved in the past.

I trust that you have found this discussion of value, the next blog in this series will look at what makes an effective facilitator.