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How to Create a Digital Presence
A Review of Digital Leadership in Higher Education by Josie Ahlquist

By Ellen Wagner / May 2023

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Digital Leadership in Higher Education: Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World (Stylus Publishing, 2020) gives higher educational professionals a unique perspective for using social media tools as a means of engaging more meaningfully in one’s professional digital life. As the author, Dr. Josie Ahlquist, put it in the first sentence of the preface, “This is the first of its kind book that intentionally situates social media for higher educational professionals”. She uses social media as the vehicle for showing people how to become a digital leader “influencer.”

Dr. Ahlquist is a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, and educator, who cares deeply about empowering individuals, executives, organizations, and institutions to lead online—with purpose, passion, and authenticity. She believes social media platforms offer tremendous opportunities for human-centered communication and values-based online strategies. According to her website, she has trained thousands of students, education professionals, and executives on how to view technology through a lens that prioritizes empathy and empowerment, resulting in stronger companies, communities, schools, and leadership. 

For this book, she has based much of the narrative on three key research studies with which she was involved in recent years. Along with her 12 years of experience as a student services professional, several year’s experience as a podcaster—"Josie and the Podcast"—and increasingly, working as a digital leadership consultant, she brings both anecdotes and evidence to support her assertions related to the value of what she refers to as “Digital Leadership.” She has used all of these experiences, including her interviews for her podcast series, to develop many of the stories she features in Digital Leadership in Higher Education to make her points.  

She believes in the power of digital communities; she believes in the power of the authentic self. In these regards, therefore, she both presents and promotes an approach toward social media presence that typifies and exemplifies the social media “influencer” approach toward having an impact on the opinions and behaviors of others. She talks at some length about the importance of establishing one’s “brand” and uses profiles and examples of individuals who are using social media in their work with students, colleagues, and communities. 

The book is divided into three major sections. The first section, consisting of the first three chapters, establishes the basic premise for her assertion that purpose-driven digital leadership in contemporary higher educational settings will bring significant personal richness to the fabric of one’s professional life. Readers are introduced to the most common (in 2020) interactive digital platforms and some of the people who are using social media in meaningful ways to engage with their stakeholders. We are reminded of several specific public platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Tik Tok, and Twitch) and reminded of techniques including blogs, streams, and threads for using these various media in practice,

She briefly notes the current state of social media in contemporary education “continues to be inconsistent.” She talks about checking the pulse of higher educational social media, and gently chides the higher educational community’s relative measured response to what she calls “digital life.”  She provides forms and exercises to consider ways to bring more digital forward living and thinking into one’s daily practices.

From her perspective, social media are foundational tools for enabling purpose-driven digital leadership. She has developed a construct of “heartware” as a metaphorical, internal operating system as a whole person in the digital age. It’s composed of your: 

  • Core values
  • Life mission (purpose and legacy)
  • Leadership capacity and enactment (potential versus action)

Ahlquist’s construct of “heartware” is a fundamental component of her approach toward becoming a digital leader and provides a rationale for, as she puts it, plugging digital skills into one’s professional practice as a regular part of life, (the focus of Chapter 3). She believes her book demonstrates that the real ROI of social media comes from relationships that are enabled as a result of social media. Perhaps more to the point, Dr. Ahlquist notes the key and critical purpose of a digital leader is to use their influence in all settings, from the “boardroom to the classroom to the keyboard and back again.” She references Charlene Li’s assertion that technologies have forced us to move from a focus on practices to people. Ahlquist see social media as the catalyst for Digital Leadership.

Part Two, covering chapters 4–7, talks about establishing a purpose driven digital leadership practice. It takes a deep dive into her notion of “heartware” as the “why” driving one’s online leadership.  It follows with the importance of establishing a digital mindset on life, leadership, and legacy, and offers a values-based strategy for social media. The strategy she offers is that digital leaders need to have a clear yet flexible strategy that aligns their purpose, their values, and their personality, as well as institutional objectives. 

Chapters 8 through 11 make up Part Three: Digital Leadership in Practice. She describes using social media as “online amplifiers” of one’s specific digital brand. She spends additional time going into more detail about how to leverage certain kinds of social media tools to create community and to build personal relationships within the community. She also uses the materials from prior chapters to enrich some of her many examples.

There are a number of learning exercises, charts, prompts, and references to help readers stop and reflect on their own practices as they are learning about her views on how social media really represents an essential array of story-telling tools that are incredibly useful when wanting to promote a particular point of view.

From Ahlquist’s perspective, social media is the means to the end of achieving digital leadership. More to the point, purposeful social media use is the manifestation of meaningful digital leadership in education. In the beginning of the book, Ahlquist tells readers she would be asking them to “do hard things” and to think differently about developing these social media skills as a manifestation of one’s digital leadership development. I have been finding myself wondering if she is making this harder than it needs to be. Not everyone needs to be a social media star to be an effective digital communicator or to be an effective leader in a digital environment. In educational settings, one might even suggest the move back to being an “influencer” is reminiscent of the “sage on the stage” model of teaching.

The distinction between the two positions is that with social media influence, getting the thumbs ups and the hits are the things. Social media is about attracting attention, getting broad distribution. It is aimed at promoting a perspective. Social media influencers are attributed with power to change people’s minds by virtue of their messaging and their reach. This is what motivates people to establish a reputation through one’s tweets, posts, blogs, and stories, literally mimicking the approaches used by social media influencers, but within education. In this world, the pursuit of followers and the number of “likes” on a post are as desirable as are the number of citations one earns on a particular published article.

Fundamentally, social media serves communications and promotional functions. If one understands that part of one’s responsibilities include broad communication and promotion activities, then one can see the institutional value for developing social media proficiency. At the same time, not every single digital leader wants or needs to be the “sage on a digital stage.” One might even suggest that in education, we should be ensuring the student stakeholders get the benefits of the extra information, the extra media attention, rather than being the one in the spotlight. Digital leadership doesn’t necessarily need to equate with social media proficiency, but clearly this book shows just how social media proficiency can be leveraged for leadership purposes.

The best thing about this book is that it is a very useful handbook for developing a much better appreciation for all the things that social media can enable. I would just underscore that it is possible to do a great job using social media in student success settings without feeling the need to become a “social influencer,” per se. It is possible for the person doing the blogging or tweeting to establish themselves as a trusted digital leader over time without actively engaging in personal brand development.  Alignment of purpose comes when considering whether or not the social media tools being considered for the tasks at hand are the best for addressing the communication and promotion issues that need to be addressed to achieve a particular outcome. The second point of alignment comes when evaluating the degree to which people are prepared to use the technology of choice in actual practice to achieve specific ends. 

About the Author

Ellen Wagner is the founder and managing partner of North Coast EduVisory Services, LLC, a consulting practice focused on digital transformation initiatives. She is a former tenured professor, department chair and academic affairs administrator; a senior executive in publicly traded and private commercial software companies; a former VP of Technology for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and Executive Director of their national community of institutions specializing in online learning excellence, WCET. She was interim Executive Director of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology in 2021-22. Her current areas of interest and practice emphasize learning analytics and the use of augmented reality and simulations for extending and improving efficacy in learning and development environments.

© Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2023/05-3596518 $15.00


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