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Need a Thought Leader?

By Yvonne Phelps, Heather Welzant / May 2018

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The increase in number of students opting for online courses, evidence of increased demand for online courses, noted benefits, and worldwide appeal of online learning has not eliminated the critics. "Fifteen years ago the question of higher education quality assurance was one only a small number of insiders concerned themselves with" [1]. However, the current state of quality assurance in higher education is a major topic not only in the U.S., but also around the world.

The ever-changing global landscape of higher education is disrupting and further tangling traditional practices of academic quality assurance. According to Mary Beth Marklein of University World News, "Quality assurance and accreditation professionals are having to adapt to a new world" with all kinds of disruptions [2]. Specifically, disruption due to technological advances, the political climate, and the regulatory world we live in. Such disruptions have shifted the focus of quality assurance from being input focused (e.g., number of teachers with advanced degrees) to becoming more outcome focused.

Today's higher education leaders must not only be up to speed on the current quality assurance debate, but they also need to be thought leaders in the disciple of quality assurance. This means they must be skilled situational leaders who know how and when to be transformative in the area of quality assurance. They can optimize risk to take advantage of new and evolving opportunities by thinking outside of the box. Quality assurance thought leaders have a clear vision, set high standards, reach attainable results, and evaluate to improve. This article will explore characteristics of thought leadership needed to drive high-quality design and delivery of online/hybrid programs of the future.

Thought Leaders for the Future

There are many definitions of the term "thought leader," ranging from an expansive interpretation encompassing strategic implementation and sculpting corporate culture to the streamlined definition of a forward thinker in a specific field. Russell Yardley, in his LinkedIn guide to thought leadership, states "thought leadership means positioning yourself as the go-to person on a particular subject. It's about leveraging expertise into opportunities" [3]. Two famous historical figures framed the concept of thought leader perfectly. John F. Kennedy commented, "The greater our knowledge increases the more our ignorance unfolds." Ancient wisdom from Socrates echoes this as well: "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." For us, the dissertation process exemplified this same construct; it meant being humble and knowing there was so much to learn lighted the fire that drove continuous research and the quest for discovery.

The field of education has changed dramatically over the past few decades; the evolution is evident in all facets including educational technology, student services, curriculum development, content delivery, course and delivery structure, and all aspects of program and student evaluation. A thought leader in the field of education must have strong practical experience to build an informed foundation; however, even more important is their approach to the changing environment. A humble and hungry problem solver is the ideal thought leader in the field of education. A significant aspect of an educational thought leader is to envision and problem solve into the future. Problem identification is the first step towards the creation of tangible achievements to further the field of education for both students and institutions. Continuously scanning and interpreting the external environment from both a higher education vantage point and also a broader general perspective helps to pinpoint challenges, trends, and opportunities for solution-based thought leadership.

Gibbons-Klein offers a PLEASE strategy (personal, less, engaging, answer, sync, and exciting) to improve the quality of thought leadership [4]. Concepts need to be personal; clear and concise; engaging to hold attention; answers a significant question; in sync with needs, trends, and style; and exciting enough to hold attention.

Key Traits and Characteristics of Thought Leaders

Effective thought leaders have many common strengths and traits. While every industry, leader, and situation is different, the underlying premise is the top professionals in any field are technically competent and effective in their specific discipline. Becoming a followed thought leader, one who is relied upon for futuristic strategic thinking, can be a valuable differentiator. In "Three Key Qualities of Successful Thought Leaders," Russ Alan Prince identifies drive, expertise, and presence as key qualities [5].

Drive is witnessed by the presence of passion and purpose, which supports the time and energy needed to become a leader in a specific field. Thought leaders who set high standards, develop a clear vision, reach attainable results and evaluate results, and upgrade their knowledge base and skill set are simply using common sense, right? Why then do we not experience these traits more when applying quality assurance to higher education? Technical expertise and professional presence are foundational aspects to the profile and reputation of the thought leader.

In addition, the ability to embrace failure, persevere, and emerge triumphant is a valued skill. Thomas Edison's teachers said he was "too stupid to learn anything." He was fired from his first two jobs for being "non-productive." As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps."

To this end, the leader who views himself or herself not as the expert, but rather as the instigator of ideas and one who stimulates the evolution of ideas, is often the true thought leader. In education, this could involve published scholarly articles, blogs, a website etc., as well as having an active presence on social media to connect with like-minded leaders. Thought leaders apply for awards to build their brand of recognition and credibility; for example, Online Learning Consortium's (OLC) Digital Learning Innovation Award.

An effective thought leader is one who challenges assumptions about leadership, looks for ways to simplify, flattens organizational hierarchies, and encourages more transparency and communication. He or she focuses on getting out of the way, so people at lower levels of the organization can make timelier decisions based on data, and the effective thought leader will also support team members when they fail. The goal is to get everyone rallying around and involved in QA. One way to accomplish this is to focus on employee engagement-understanding that diversity is not all about fairness but rather about competitive advantage-and team dynamics.

Traditional wisdom identifies generational differences as a differentiation regarding thought leadership. Arguably, it is important to understand generational differences; for example, Baby Boomers may respond better to a more authoritarian approach while Gen Xers relate more to participatory management. However, underlying the differences, reliability, credibility, and trustworthiness are the most significant traits regardless of the generation [6].

Why Thought Leadership and Quality Assurance?

True thought leaders in higher education strive for quality assurance practices that do not merely ensure minimum standards are met and force a particular design or pedagogy based upon their own pre-existing biases of what postsecondary education should resemble [1]. Rather, true thought leaders will drive quality assurance practices rooted in constant continuous improvement through self-examination of their practices and their effects on outcomes. What do we mean by outcomes? One good example is Entangled Solution's quality assurance framework with standards around five outcome-focused metric areas: (1) learning, (2) completion, (3) satisfaction, (4) placement, and (5) earnings [7]. Entangled Solutions is a strategy and innovation consultancy for higher education. They work to maximize the potential of the people and organizations to accelerate innovation and foster equity in education.

While the primary focus area for Entangled Solutions is joint university and boot camp programs, there are some key principles that are relevant for any type of higher education offering. For example, on the surface a focus on outcomes over "inputs" makes sense. In addition, having open standards where all findings are transparent also seems to make sense for all educational offerings, not just joint university and boot camps. Entangled Solutions also believes one organization should not have a monopoly on quality assurance and students' perspectives matter. As previously stated, at Entangled Solutions quality assurance means focusing on outcomes, not inputs. A true thought leader might challenge this notion and offer that quality assurance efforts should ideally focus on both with the former having precedence. More focus on outcomes keeps student success at the center. Too much focus on inputs may stifle creativity, growth, and change.

When referring to inputs, we need to define what we mean. We do not necessarily mean the number of faculty with advanced degrees, but rather one critical input is the quality of the course design. Thought leaders understand as an "input" if course design is not of high quality it could impact the outcome of student learning. Therefore, an organization like Quality Matters (QM), which is a non-profit quality assurance organization that provides a system for review and certification of quality, is still relevant. Yet, QM must-as other quality assurance organizations are doing-continue to innovate and change if it wants to stay relevant.

Another example of impactful educational thought leadership includes the Competency-Based Education Network's (C-BEN) creation and implementation of a quality framework for its Competency Based Education Programs. The quality framework has eight elements of quality ranging from "demonstrated institutional commitment" to "coherent program and curriculum design." While the elements and corresponding standards are largely input based, they are relevant and critical in the field of competency-based education. C-BEN's intent is to allow institutions to draw on these principles and standards to inform design, implementation, or scaling of high-quality programs. It should be noted, Charla Long, C-BEN's Executive Director, was recognized in the Chronical for Higher Education as a "competency champion" and one of a select few identified as an influencer of 2016.

Another important aspect of thought leadership in quality assurance is ensuring students play a role in the quality-assurance practices at the institution. Entangled Solutions also believes students' opinions matter especially after a period of time when reflection can occur. Other organizations, such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and International Quality Group (CIQG), echo Entangled Solutions. In her coverage of the CHEA 2017 and CIQG 2017 conferences, Marklein writes there is a "growing interest in capturing and incorporating a student perspective on the quality of their education" [2]. Student perspectives can favorably impact the practice of higher education particularly when students are provided a meaningful role within QA practices. In this instance true thought leaders must not view themselves as the experts, but rather as the instigators of ideas and ones who stimulate the evolution of ideas as related to quality through the experience and perspective of the students.

In addition, the Quality Assurance Commons is working on a number of projects related to re-visioning higher education quality assurance, one of which is engaging students in quality assurance. The Quality Assurance Commons is a demonstrated thought leader paving the way for alternative approaches of quality assurance in order to successfully respond to the changing landscape of higher education, and to serve the needs of students, employers, and the larger society.

Finally, thought leaders often look outside their industry for ideas to adapt and model in order to innovate. For instance, the U.K. and Australia have been thought leaders in quality assurance and assessment by adopting risk-based models. In Australia, they review risk indicators, such as student attrition and completion. In the U.K., they are changing the cyclical reporting process to a risk-based approach that eases the burden for institutions that repeatedly demonstrate good performance [2].


Today's higher education leaders must not only be up to speed on the current quality assurance debate, but they also need to be thought leaders in the disciple of quality assurance. We shared several examples of thought leaders currently paving the way for more innovative and effective practices in the future. The leaders in such organizations as Entangled Solutions, The Quality Commons, and C-BEN are skilled situational leaders who are transforming in the area of quality assurance. They are optimizing risk to take advantage of new and evolving opportunities by thinking outside of the box.

The characteristics and type of thought leadership needed to drive high-quality design and delivery of online/hybrid programs of the future are clear. A humble and hungry problem solver is the ideal thought leader in the field of education. Thought leaders of today view themselves as the instigator of ideas and those who stimulate the evolution of ideas, not as the experts. They must constantly scan the higher-education environment, as well as the world at large, to look for new and innovative ways to practice effective quality assurance.


[1] Brown, J., Kurzweil, M., Pritchett, W. Quality assurance in U.S. higher education: The current landscape and principles for reform. Educational Transformation Research Report. Ithaka S+R. June 8, 2017.

[2] Marklein, M. B. Changing world challenges higher education, accreditation. A Special Report on CHEA 2017 and CIQG 2017. Quality Assurance in a Disrupted World. Council for Higher Education Accreditation/CHEA International Quality Group. 2017.

[3] Yardely, R. The LinkedIn guide to thought leadership for non-executive directors. LinkedIn. June 21, 2016.

[4] Gibbons-Klein, M. Establishing yourself as a thought leader? Seven simple ideas to improve the quality of your thinking. Development and Learning in Organizations: An International Journal 31, 2, (2017) 5-7.

[5] Prince, R.A. Three key qualities of successful thought leaders. Forbes. May 31, 2015.

[6] Macaulay, S., Cook, S. Learning & development: Across the generations. Training Journal. March 21, 2017.

[7] Ravipati, S. Higher ed framework places emphasis on placement, earnings. Campus Technology. June 14, 2017.

About the Authors

Dr. Heather Welzant is the Vice President, Academic Affairs - Online at Argosy University. Welzant has more than 14 years of experience in higher education academic administration. Her areas of expertise include curriculum, assessment, program evaluation, faculty development and accreditation from multiple institutions. Welzant holds a Ph.D. in education with a specialization in training and performance improvement from Capella University. Her research interests are with faculty and student performance relevant to online teaching and learning.

Dr. Yvonne Phelps is the Vice President, Academic Affairs for Campus Services at the University of Phoenix. Phelps has been with the University since 1997 beginning as a faculty member at the Southern California campus. During her tenure, she has held various progressively responsible positions within both Academic Affairs and Campus Services. She has presented and published in academic journals and conferences on topics including organizational downsizing, foundations of assessment, and corporate ethics. Phelps is on the Board of Directors of the nonprofit organization Nex4Vets in Southern California. She earned her Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University and lives in Cave Creek, Arizona.

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