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Teaching an Online Experience-based Leadership Course

By Anders Örtenblad / July 2009

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Is it really possible to give online courses, with no physical meetings whatsoever, in leadership, where the students' learning to a large extent is based on experiences during the course in itself?

Would it at the same time be possible to encourage critical thinking on a course like this, to create an online, experience-based, academic leadership course?

I think it is, and I have tried to develop such a course. It is my strongest belief that experiences have to be involved for good learning to happen—especially in a subject such as leadership. And many great theorists would agree with the claim that experiences are momentous when the ambition is to make learning happen (see, for example, Argyris & Schön, 1978; Kolb, 1984; Revans, 1998). It is perhaps even more important to involve experiences on university-level courses, which traditionally are quite abstract and theoretical, though perhaps not if you only learn leadership theory.

The students must get the opportunity to experience situations with their brains and hearts so that they can be committed learners, which is, according to my experiences, a good starting point for critical thinking. Through experiences, students get an opportunity to relate the theoretical knowledge to themselves and practice it. In fact, my first thought when I was asked to develop and give an online course in leadership was how I could make it an experience-based course. I wanted to use the students' experiences that they got during the course, and I did particularly struggle to find ways to use the students' real experiences, instead of involving games and the like, which seems to be a popular way to pursue online education (see, for example, Aldrich, 2004). I would say that it is in this particular regard that my course differs from other online experience-based leadership courses.

This paper gives an overview of the course and describes some key ele-ments of the course thoroughly, along with some brief experiences (both positive and negative) from running the course. The aim of this paper is to give insights into what online experience-based university courses in leadership may look like and what it may be like to give such courses, and thereby start a dialogue on the issue of experience-based online manage-ment education, especially academic courses (although some parts of the disposition probably also would be appropriate in other types of educa-tion).

The course was run by Halmstad University, in Sweden, in cooperation with the Swedish Net University, whose main aim is to widen the distance education market in Sweden.

The Swedish Net University did not by itself give any courses. All courses were run by other universities in Sweden. Administratively, the "Leader-ship" course belonged to the department of business administration. It was a basic course on 7.5 ECTS, and the students need not have previous knowledge (or university credits) in either business administration or leadership.

The course ran for 10 weeks on half-time. It was purely an online course. There were no formal course meetings, and the students were located at different places all around Sweden.

The primary aims of the course were to increase the students' propen-sities to view and analyze interpersonal settings from a leadership perspective, (to "see" leadership), and to increase their capacity to think critically about leadership issues. The course dealt with leadership issues in general, but parts of it focused on leadership in distance, or remote leadership, so that more of the students' experiences during the course could be used as a base for their learning.

The students were relatively diverse. Some had never studied at a university before. Others were experienced, with a up to five years of university studies. Their leadership experiences with were also diverse, ranging from none to having worked as a manager for several years. It was, of course, difficult to make a course that could reach all the students where they were, at their specific levels of knowledge, respectively, and satisfy their specific needs. Therefore, I instead tried to use the diversity as a source for learning.

Course Content
Grades from five assignments determined the overall grades. I gave no lectures, except for a few short, written guidelines on how to write essays and argue academically. The course pretty much consisted of the assign-ments.

Instead of lecturing, my task was to provide structure and facilitate learn-ing. I gave the students a lot of feedback on their work, sometimes in "public" so that all students could see it, and sometimes privately. To give the students opportunities to learn from their experiences, I did not tell them the real goal of each assignment at the outset, but rather revealed them gradually.

Two of the assignments were group-based and three were individual. I will describe all of them, but will focus on the group-based assignments, which involved experiences more than the individual assignments, and therefore had a more major role in the students' experience-based learning.

Group Assignment 1
The first group assignment, which was also the first assignment for the course, was probably the most important one. An obvious though partly concealed aim was to encourage students to get to know their group mates better.

Thirty-five students were grouped into teams of six or so each. I tried to make the groups as heterogeneous as possible, based on the students' own, written introductions of themselves (openly available on the distance education platform). Diversity was an important objective for the division of the students into groups. Each group was given a communication site on the distance education platform, which only the specific group had access to and which they could communicate via. I had, though, also access to their communication, so that I could refer to what had happened during the group work when it was time to learn from their experiences.

I assigned one person in each group to be the group's leader for the first assignment. I chose students that I thought would be fairly comfortable with being leaders during the assignment, and at the same time could learn something from it. All but one accepted their roles, and I had to select another leader in that group. All the group leaders were also told that I would only communicate with the them during group work, and these were the only ones who were given access to a site at the distance education platform where the assignment was presented. Thus, the group members that were not chosen as managers did not know what the assignment was all about, and only received information about the assignment through their leaders.

The assignment was to first choose one of 12 controversial statements about leadership, such as, "It is impossible to learn how to become a good leader" and, "Women are better leaders than men" to argue for and against. Next, they split their groups in half, and decide which subgroup would defend the statement, and which would object to it.

Before the other students got access to these arguments, each of the other groups were asked to either agree or disagree with each statement. In other words, each group had to decide what it thought about five other statements, in addition to their own. These opinions were then posted. Each group then had to comment on all the other groups' stances about their statement, so that each statement would be thoroughly discussed. This was the assignment's official agenda.

Principally, I more or less let everyone pass this assignment, and just let them get a feel for how much feedback to expect from me. I give a lot of feedback, primarily about critical thinking and academic argumentation techniques. Most of my comments were published openly on the platform as short instructions or guidelines, so that every participant on the course could see them. I also gave them guidelines for how to write short essays and guidelines on APA style citation. The goal of the assignment was for students to base their learning about academic argumentation techniques on how they had experienced the strength of their own arguments, as well as the other students' arguments, during the assignment. From that moment, they were supposed to stick to these guidelines, or at least to start to use them and learn from using them.

The hidden agenda, though, had to do with leadership. After the group work was finished and had been reported—but also after individual assignments—each and every student individually was obliged to participate in a reflecting discussion, which I call learning discussions. I initiated reflections and discussions about their experiences during the assignments, from a leadership perspective.

This assignment, in particular, had many hidden learning opportunities. For starters, students learned about on what premise managers might be recruited, and also how it feels to be selected and not to be able to influ-ence the recruitment process, or decision-making processes in general. I presented some alternative strategies for recruiting managers or leaders, discussing internal versus external recruitment. I also presented some alternative criteria that recruitment decisions can be based on, such as experience, knowledge, age, sex, leadership style, and so forth.

Based on these and similar models, we analyzed and discussed the nature of my choices for leaders, the students' feelings and thoughts in relation to the "recruitment process," and how they thought the process of recruiting leaders (in particular what to base the decision on) should ideally be.

Second, we discussed what leadership is all about. Since I had been ob-serving their intra-group communication, I could refer to what had hap-pened in the groups. I did not want to embarrass or make anyone feel uncomfortable, but during the learning discussion, I could refer to what had happened in "some" group. In some groups, the leaders had been quite autocratic, while in others they had acted in a more democratic manner. Some leaders decided themselves which statement the group should work on, while others made the decision in cooperation with their group members.

Finally, I asked the students what they had learned individually, in order to pick up on anything that might have been outside my expectations. Group Assignment 2
The second group assignment was the third task in the course. During this assignment, the students worked in the same groups as during the first assignment, but each group had to choose its own leader. This gave us the opportunity to discuss criteria for choosing a leader, in contrast to when the management or board (or me) makes the decision.

We also discussed how decision-making processes were organized in the respective groups, ways of organizing that they could have used instead, and the pros and cons of using the different decision-making methods. In addition, we discussed how it felt to be selected versus not being selected, and to have the power to influence the process versus not having any influence. For instance, is friendship an important factor in such processes: Would students give their vote their friends when choosing a new leader?

The actual assignment was to make an inventory of existing literature, using our library's national and international online databases, on distance leadership and write a report on it, which was made available for everyone on the course to read. In this way, the students also learned how to search for literature in a specific subject and to review and critique literature, and eventually get a grip on the subject. (One student actually suspected that I gave them this assignment because I was lazy and did not want to search for this literature myself!)

After this assignment, discussions revolved around leadership in general, and on the success and failure, as well as efficiency and effectiveness, of groups. We compared how the groups had functioned during this assignment, especially during the process of selecting a leader, with the first assignment of the course, where I chose the leaders. I gave the students a few frames of reference, which I described shortly, that they could use when interpreting why their groups had failed or succeeded: group composition, group climate, level of maturity of the group.

Individual Assignment 1
The first individual assignment, which was the second assignment for the course, required each student to read a leadership book, academic or not, identify the main thesis, and interview an experienced distance leader on whether the main thesis of the book was also valid for distance leadership.

I was the only one to whom they had to show their essays. Many of the students asked, what "distance leadership" meant, which was a good start for the learning discussion. We also discussed topics such as if there were any differences between distance leadership and leadership in general, whether all leadership to some extent actually is executed at a distance, and the concept of "virtual organizations," which can be seen as an organization in need of much leadership on distance.

Finally, we discussed the students' experiences conducting interviews and, in particular, which questions to ask and how to ask them, so that the investigation get a high level of validity.

Individual Assignment 2
The second individual assignment (the fourth assignment for the course) asked the students to find a job ad for a leadership position and interpret it from the four perspectives of leadership that Bolman and Deal (2003) present, as well as from some of Yukl's (2002) concepts for structuring leadership research: behavior, traits, and contingency. Their essays thus dealt with questions such as whether the job ad they had chosen focused on specific traits or behaviors, and if they presumed that the applicants would have skills and competency in the specific branch in which they would work as leaders. All the job ads, as well as the students' essays about them, were published on the platform before the final part of this assignment, which was a live two-hour online discussion. I presented some basic themes to discuss, and encouraged the students to start new discussions continually about relevant topics. For example, we also discussed whether there is a hidden assumption in many of the job ads that only men should apply.

Individual Assignment 3
In the third individual assignment (the fifth and final assignment of the course), the students were analyzed their own leadership individually, on the basis of the course literature and discussions. Those who had never before been formal leaders could instead choose to describe themselves in any informal leadership role they had experienced (such as parent), or to write about how they ideally would like to be as leaders. Since many of these papers revealed personal information, they were not published openly on the platform.

Reflections and Suggestions
I must say that it was quite difficult to teach an experience-based course online, but I would definitely do it again. As is the case with many online academic courses (at least in Sweden), the retention rate was about 50 percent, and I had to recruit students from the quite long reserve list gradually, during half of the 10 weeks of the course.

I had expected more students to remain on and complete the course, since it was experience-based and therefore—or so I thought— more adapted to students who had never studied at the university level. On the other hand, I guess most people are not used to any kind of experience-based learning in an academic setting—neither online nor on-campus!

According to the students' course evaluations, some thought that experience-based learning is in itself a non-academic way of learning. Others said they preferred more traditional courses, with lectures and an instructor who told them what and how to learn. Generally, the students saw me as quite an autocratic and not very compassionate teacher, which was surprising since my on-campus students usually find me too sympathetic and democratic. I guess that, as a teacher, I have to learn more about how to change my method of communicate to suit the online classroom. For example, compared to in-person experience-based courses, I learned that online I have to explain the aims of the course and assignments much more explicitly, otherwise the student become frustrated.

Creating diverse work groups was probably both educational and problematic for the students. Most of the groups did not seem to be very harmonious, something that homogeneity often mitigates. On the other hand, to work together with people who are different is often seen as a moment for learning. However, to be true, we would have to presume that the students feel secure enough to show their weaknesses and strengths. In my course, unfortunately, I think the introductory group assignment came too soon, before the students were given a chance to become comfortable with one another.

In terms of changes I plan to make to the curriculum, first, I will give the students more time to work with and evaluate their learning in accor-dance with the hidden agendas of the assignments, particularly in the group-based assignments. Similarly, I will have them analyze what had happened in their groups during their work, taking into account literature from both the course and their own research, and based on themes that I would provide. For instance, Belbin's (1996) team roles would be relevant in understanding their group work.

Second, I will try to involve more practices, such as "building towers of pipe cleaners" (although this particular practice would be difficult to adapt to online education) as well as tests.

Third, in the early stages of the course, I plan to cull students who do not immediately show up, that is, log on to the distance education platform. It was very disturbing for those of us who did show up, that other students were missing, and we never knew if they would ever show up. Some never did. It was also difficult to introduce new students to the course, after it was nearly half over. In the future, I will not replace dropped students, since the course requires students to take part in the whole process. Some students even suggested that the first assignment should be an individual task, so that the group dynamics would not be affected by missing students.

Fourth, the students should get the guidelines for academic argumentation and writing at the outset, which will probably increase their learning (although doing this might be at the expense of the experience-based direction of the course).

Fifth, I will put higher demands on the literature that the students chose to read for the second assignment. Some selected popular management books that lacked any explicit connection to research, which I will reject in the future.

Sixth, I will make loud and clear the reason I have access to and can take part in their intra-group communication: that I use it as a base for (and consequently to help in) their experience-based learning, and that it is not part of their grade. One group actually communicated by email instead of at the platform, since they were uncomfortable with my occasional appearance.

The variety among people who study online will probably only increase. Some students will still be very experienced in theory, others in practice, others in both, and some will have no experience at all.

Working with students of such differing skill and experience levels raises a lot of problems, but could also be seen as an opportunity for learning. I still intend to divide students into heterogeneous groups, each containing as much diversity as possible, but in the future I will emphasize the learn-ing opportunities that the diversity could give rise to and encourage the students to view it as a resource.


  • Mon, 29 Nov 2010
    Post by originalcourse

    it's good to see this information in your post, i was looking the same but there was not any proper resource, thanx now i have the link which i was looking for my research.

  • Mon, 29 Nov 2010
    Post by bestthesisonline

    I have been visiting various blogs for my thesis research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards

  • Sun, 04 Oct 2009
    Post by Anders Örtenblad

    Dear Jill, Perer and Anne,

    Thanks all for your comments! An especial thanks to Anne for interesting suggestions and encouragement!! Sorry for being so late in responding.

    Would you be interested in doing something together? We could, for instance, have a small (online?) conference on online leadership courses, or we could arrange something bigger, like a conference on experiential learning at online education in general. I have a couple of times suggested WCET to have a stream like this at their annually conference, but they have not accepted. We could perhaps write something together, or just get together (skype?) for exchanging ideas, and let's see what happens from there. What do you say?

  • Wed, 05 Aug 2009
    Post by Anne Pauker Kreitzberg

    Hi Anders. Thanks so much for sharing your very thoughtful and insightful summary of the course design, your experience with it and your own personal learnings. I am very interested in connecting with others who are also working in this area. Having taught leadership and related courses from a business perspective for a long time, I am not focused on teaching critical thinking and leadership in a Web 2.0 environment. Like you, our approach is on experiential learning and discovery. We start with the intrinsic attributes that social computing tools bring and can be used to enhance the learner's experience rather than take traditional courses and translate them into an LMS.

    A couple of thoughts. I'm not sure if you have the capability or the students have the inclination to meet online via skype or some other tool so that they can see one another visually when they are working in their groups. This might help.

    Again, not sure if they have the capability, but if so, perhaps you can get them to create the "towers out of pipecleaners" or other activity using an online white board.

    Another thought I had was that you might want to expand on your first assignment by having the students complete an online assessment, for example, the MBTI or StrengthsFinders or some other relatively simple tool so that they can have a common language for talking about style diversity and how this affects critical thinking, leadership style, etc. This might also help the team members have a way of introducing themselves to the others.

    In addition to my consulting practice, I also teach courses in human resource management and business policy through a professional certificate program offered at Wharton, which are live - but since all the students are working full time, I try to incorporate online activities if I can.

    Building trust both between student and instructor and among the students themselves is extremely challenging and takes time, live and online. You sound like a wonderful teacher!

    [email protected]

  • Wed, 05 Aug 2009
    Post by Peter Miles

    Hi Anders, Very interested in your experience as my interest is also the design and facilitation of online ledership courses. With a group of colleagues (employed by the UK National College of School Leadership), we have designed and run a series of short online courses on a range of leadership subjects (e..g. coaching, time management, team leadership, vision and values,leadership styles etc)for potential UK Headteachers. They have been hugely successful - best evalautions I have ever received in 30 years in leadership development! We try to make them as experiential as possible.

    One day I will get round to writing up our experience. In the meantime, love to exchange ideas/experience with you, and anyone else, who is involved in teaching leadership online.

  • Mon, 03 Aug 2009
    Post by Jill Duffy

    The most important take-away thought for me is how individual assignments versus group work/assignments were used in the course. In general, it seems like online learning really pushes group assignments. It was interesting for the author to propse starting with an individual assignment to let the student acclimate to the teaching environment before having to acclimate to one another!

  • Sun, 06 Apr 2008
    Post by Peggy Pang

    Besides using blogs , wikis is also a good tool to use to encourage collaborative learning. We use these tools in our university to encourage learners to reflect on what they have learned and how they may apply the skills and knowledge back at their workplace. In this way, content relevance is ''deepened'' and tacit knowledge is captured in a concrete form.

  • Mon, 03 Mar 2008
    Post by Robert Davison

    I don''t think that the specific functional context - Agriculture or Astrophysics - is that important. What is more important is that students have something to say, to reflect, to share. Weak computer skills is no excuse for not sharing! For agricultural applications of IT in developing countries, try and search - but honestly I can''t remember if we have published any papers on this topic or not.

  • Mon, 03 Mar 2008
    Post by Robert Davison

    I have to be honest and confess that I have never even heard of twitter - or micro-blogging - so clearly there is more to learn. Did eLearn publish articles on micro-blogging? Can you link them to my article?

  • Mon, 03 Mar 2008
    Post by Lisa Neal

    Great article, Robert. As I read it I wondered if you had used, or thought of using, a tool like twitter to give a micro-blogging experience to your students.

  • Wed, 18 Jul 2007
    Post by patsyadams

    This is the first I have heard of Second life and my thought is what if the government had used a VW before Iraq. Would we be in a different place now if they had practiced?

  • Wed, 18 Jul 2007
    Post by Paula M.

    I believe that VW''s can be a learning tool.They allow people to dream and to practice how they want to live. I''m just not sure that they''re a tool for teachers.

  • Thu, 07 Jun 2007
    Post by Mark Underwood

    Mashups that merge VW''s (especially SL) with external systems through newly exposed/developed APIs will make the VW model more compelling than it is today.

  • Tue, 22 May 2007
    Post by mauricio

    Unless your organization is a true early adopter, it is premature to invest a ton of resources in VWs. Nonetheless, we encourage you to dip your toe in the virtual water. It''s neither expensive nor difficult, and it will give you an appreciation for the fresh viewpoints that are rippling

  • Mon, 26 Mar 2007
    Post by Dionysia

    At last! I was waiting for this the last 7 yrs. Now we can start developing a new era for learning and performance for all around the globe. Thanks for sharing and enabling others to contribute in the learning era.

  • Fri, 23 Mar 2007
    Post by Dan Mc

    Wonderful ideas, very new to me. "VWs may herald a more intuitive metaphor for communication and interpretation of our real world." What I''m still seeking is a sense of 3D Self being projected (culture, values/beliefs, personality). Is this in there and I missed it? If this is to be an advancement beyond breaking down distance, it must improve (beyond even the real world) our ability to communicate and connect deeply in VW. Not to take away from what is a great tool and good article, but can you share a bit more about the ability to do this in VW? Oh yeah, and you are missing a bullet before ''Repetition''. :)

  • Fri, 23 Mar 2007
    Post by AR

    Hey this is a terrrific article, but seriously the bit of berries and mammoths indicates the authors are not too savy about the fact that human beings have been doing vw ever since they started doing cosmology. Just think about it -- for centuries European civilization was rooted in the notion of a earth-centered universe, a pretty powerful vw or fiction. Otherwise aok.