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Cross-institutional Leadership Collaboration: Toward the development of a peer-mentoring framework of practice in adult online education

By Haijun Kang, Rachel Ohmes / August 2022

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Faced with budget cuts and, more recently, the COVID-19 global pandemic influence, education institutions are looking for ways to grow their adult distance learning programs by collaborating with each other. Such efforts are seen as “consortium sourcing, … a supply management concept combining symbiotic horizontal relationships and strategic understanding to gain competitive advantage” [1]. This type of lateral/horizontal leadership collaboration allows the practice of holacracy, or decentralized management and organization, to help mobilize and optimize the limited resources and talents of member institutions [2], the success of which relies heavily on cohesive collaborations among member institutions made possible through their liaisons within the consortium. These liaisons have great autonomy regarding the roles they play in the consortium. The relationships between these liaisons are different from employee relationships in a traditional academic institution or vertical organization in that consortium liaisons hold equal power; no one has real and tangible authority over other member institutions. In such a unique organizational structure, peer-based mentoring becomes important and necessary.

Drawing from the extensive literature on organizational leadership, digital leadership, human resource development, community of practice, and adult learning development, and tapping into our first-hand experiences working in various adult education “consortium sourcing” activities [1], we propose a peer-mentoring framework of practice that consists of the following three pillars: Developing a shared vision, respecting diversity and differences, and streamlining communications. In this article, we first review the literature on the challenges and opportunities that today’s educational leaders are faced with in the digital world. We then describe how a distance education consortium was formed and the challenges they encountered along the way. Lastly, we discuss the three pillars of the peer-mentoring framework of practice and use this consortium as a case study to demonstrate how this framework can provide guidance on tackling challenges related to cross-institutional collaborations. This distance education consortium is referred to as “OPEN-EDU” throughout this article for brevity and anonymity.

Agile Leadership in The Digital World

Online education is rapidly progressing into very agile and dynamic frontiers where online education leaders are faced with new challenges and opportunities. Accelerated technology evolutions, unrelenting social and political changes, pandemics, financial crises, and other external factors have created a broad environment “characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity” (VUCA) [3] that Bennis and Nanus believe a leader needs to manage to provide the type of leadership that is truly “pivotal force behind successful organizations and that to create vital and viable organizations” [4]. Influenced by this broad context, online education institutions now face the dilemmas between the labor shortage and The Great Resignation, Millennial and GenZers workforce development, the changing nature of workspaces and schedules, the requirements of new skills and technical competencies in preparation for post-covid work environments, understanding the essence of technology and the impact of cyberethics on educational leadership practices, among others [5, 6, 7].

To tackle these and other challenges, the literature indicates that the field needs to revisit what modern educational leadership in a digital world should entail and recharacterize what should be considered as best digitalized educational leadership practices. First, Marshall contends that "we are at the dawn of a new age of collaboration" because "people naturally want to collaborate with each other, want to own their work and the workplace, and are motivated by trust and mutual respect" [8]. Even though organizational hierarchy is still prevalent in most of today's educational organizations, Taylor's scientific management approach to leadership development with a focus on power and control is obsoleting [9]. "Collaboration, based on the principles of psychological safety, ownership, and trust, is the new predicate for how to lead organizations in the Digital Age" [8]. Second, Lave and Wenger's Community of Practice (CoP) [10] is seen as having the potential to contribute to today's collaborative educational leadership development by urging leaders to build social capitals in both the physical and digital worlds [11, 12]. CoP's three dimensions (mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire) correlate with McGregor [13] and Marshall's [8] people first concept in that collaborative educational leadership can develop an organizational culture where "every individual is honored for the gifts they bring and is empowered to be the best version of themselves. Where every team is empowered to do their best work and produce superior results" [8].

To succeed in today’s digital world, the culture or “DNA”  of an online education institution needs to be recreated [14]. To do so, today’s online education leaders need to change traditional leadership practices by calling formerly uncritically held assumptions, beliefs, values, and perspectives related to leading online education initiatives into question [15]. This mindset shift involves “processes that result in significant and irreversible changes in the way a person experiences, conceptualizes, and interacts with the world” [16]. Only when changes occur in their frames of reference, “the structure of assumptions and expectations through which we filter sense impressions” [17], today’s online education leaders are ready to explore and acquire 21st-century leadership knowledge and skills.

American OPEN-EDU

To better serve adult learners across the United States, seven education institutions convened in the 1990s to develop OPEN-EDU, a national adult distance education consortium that now has nineteen member institutions. As a cross-institutional leadership collaboration, OPEN-EDU sponsors eighteen adult online learning programs. Member institutions participate in programs that fit their needs, interests, and expertise.

Besides being governed by a cabinet and two academic boards, OPEN-EDU’s central functions and daily operations are carried out by a lead institution through collaborations with Campus Coordinators (CCors) from member institutions. CCors are the liaisons between member institutions and OPEN-EDU. Their main role is to work with the consortium to provide dedicated virtual student services for all the adult learners this consortium serves. They strive to develop a nationwide model of best practices in virtual adult learner services. This role is unique in that:

  • CCors are hired/contracted and paid by their home institutions and are mainly responsible to their home institutions.
  • Work appointments vary, including CCors who work both exclusively and partially with the consortium.
  • CCors work with the consortium remotely.

The characteristics of this role determine that the CCors work at the intersection of their home institution’s vertical organizational structure and OPEN-EDU’s lateral and horizontal structure. CCors are expected to represent the missions and values of both their home institutions and the consortium and are held accountable for maximizing the mutual interests and benefits of both parties. Working with OPEN-EDU remotely and not being able to fully immerse themselves in the consortium’s egalitarian and participatory culture is what makes this CCor role challenging. Examples of common issues many CCors have experienced include personnel and programming changes.

The Peer-Mentoring Framework of Practice: Three Pillars

Pillar One: Developing A Shared Vision

Organizational vision development is different for a lateral organization, such as a consortium, than for a vertical organization, such as a traditional educational institution. The vision of a vertical organization is usually determined by the top administration and is infused throughout the entire organization through organizational activities. In a consortium that has a lateral and horizontal organizational structure, its vision is developed through negotiations among member institutions, which is never an easy task. The process of developing a shared vision is the process of negotiation and alignment of different member institutions’ goals and visions.

A working shared vision provides guidance on how to distribute responsibilities equitably among the member institutions while leaving room for negotiation when unequal responsibility, investments, risks, and resources exist [18]. Ongoing negotiation is needed to align the consortium’s vision with those of the member institutions. Well-developed shared visions will automatically drive away any disharmony and injustice among member institutions, which will lead to the consortium’s high performance. Once a shared vision is developed, member institutions are committing resources to this consortium and assuming no less than equal risk to achieve the agreed-upon common goals.

For a liaison to function in between the visions of the consortium and their home institution, good program planning skills are needed, including how to negotiate between the two visions. Liaisons need to be sensitive to larger environmental changes and shifts, evaluate potential influences on the visions of the consortium and their home institutions, and find ways to achieve a close fit in between. Liaisons need to wholeheartedly accept the shared vision. If not, liaisons of member institutions may view their roles in the consortium as a momentary diversion from their real business within their home institutions. Such misunderstandings can contribute to feelings of betrayal and devaluation among liaisons and lead to broken agreements and departures of member institutions. Liaisons also need to understand when to prioritize the consortium's shared vision, when to emphasize their home institutions' vision, and when to represent both. This is particularly important when the shared vision does not fully align with an individual institution's goals and expectations. If a liaison can find ways to balance the consortium's shared vision and that of their home institution, their home institution will most likely recognize and assure the value of the collaboration with the consortium.

Concept in Action: OPEN-EDU. Understanding and accepting OPEN-EDU's shared vision helps CCors align the consortium's value to their home institutions. Specifically, negotiating this shared vision within the consortium and at their home institutions proves integral to a successful partnership. Within OPEN-EDU, early policy and procedure initiatives at the consortium and institutional levels involved over eighty academic leaders who revised their policies and practice environments across institutional and inter-institutional teams, thus making possible a cross-institutional collaboration that was both academically and fiscally responsible and beneficial. This process was driven by leaders from member institutions who saw the value in participating in an academic consortium and who effectively negotiated the vision and value of the consortium to their home institutions.

A similar yet smaller-scale initiative has been emulated by members of the CCor group, with some hosting annual meetings at their home institutions to communicate the value and various informative points about the consortium to their institutional leaders. While the nature and content of these meetings vary, common themes include best practices in adult online learning and student services, updates about the consortium, and a forum to allow for open dialogue regarding the consortium and member institutions. In this way, CCors create a space at their home institutions for multiple voices to be heard and considered at all levels within the institution, including the role the institution has been playing and will/should play in OPEN-EDU.

In addition to facilitating a shared vision at their home institutions, CCors also work together to create their own shared vision within the consortium. In fall 2019, the group developed its first CCor strategic plan. Within this plan, a group of four volunteer CCors drafted the mission, vision, values, and goals that would serve as the basis for initiatives and professional growth through the 2023 academic year. As the draft progressed, the larger CCor group could review, provide feedback, and ask questions. Throughout multiple facets of this process and their job, CCors have continuously negotiated a shared vision and navigated their institution’s vision alongside that of the OPEN-EDU’s.

This process of negotiating and developing a shared vision is critical in all institutional collaboration contexts mainly because it helps stakeholders from different institutions identify themselves with the cross-institutional collaboration and create a collective identity of who they are and whom they want to be.

Pillar Two: Respecting Diversity and Differences

Respecting diversity and differences [19] in a consortium is twofold. First, liaisons of member institutions should respect and accept institutional differences. Institutional diversity is seen through institutional arrangements that “are intricate clusters of rules and human interactions, shaped in large measure by the variety of situations of social life” [20]. The differences between member institutions may be embedded in each institution's foundational missions and visions; the vertical organizational structure and institutional decision-making processes, programs, and services they offer; resources available for the consortium; the learner population they serve; and their expectations of the consortium, among others. These institutional differences are beyond the control of individual liaisons but will influence how they perform in the consortium.

Second, liaisons and the population they serve are human beings with diverse backgrounds, personalities, and experiences. Nested in different groups and institutions, individual diversity and differences are no less (if not more) complex than those of an institution. The most recognized personal traits include social, educational, and work backgrounds and experiences. Specific to consortium liaisons, they may also have different expectations and assumptions about the roles they or other liaisons can or should play in the consortium. Though representing their home institutions, their personal diversity and differences will interfere with their work. For the consortium to succeed, all liaisons should be culturally competent and know how to work with people from different backgrounds. Therefore, it is beneficial for the consortium to develop diversity competencies and emphasize diversity management as a required skill set for people involved with the consortium so the adult population they serve receives quality services.

Acknowledging and respecting diversity and differences at both institutional and individual levels is a tremendous driving force for the healthy growth of a consortium. It helps the consortium allocate people, funds, and resources, which in turn helps mobilize member institutions’ enthusiasm and engagement. By respecting diversity and differences at both institutional and individual levels, a consortium can create synergy to make the programs and services they offer culturally inclusive, create a positive organizational image, and attract more diverse but qualified institutions to join the consortium. A modern consortium respects the individuality of the member institutions, pays attention to the differing ideas and needs of the member institutions, stimulates the potentials of the member institutions based on their comparative advantages, creates a welcoming environment for member institutions to participate and collaborate, and cares about the diverse target populations they collectively serve.

Concept in Action: OPEN-EDU. The work of OPEN-EDU aligns well with this pillar of the peer-mentoring framework of practice and manifests itself in tangible, process-driven ways. For example, the course access process exemplifies how the CCor group respects and accepts institutional differences, as students take classes from multiple institutions and learning management systems throughout their degree program. Each CCor and institution provides course access to non-home institution adult learners in a way that aligns with institutional processes and within various timeframes according to the course start dates. The CCor group communicates their respective processes through course information pages that are available on OPEN-EDU’s website, which is publicly accessible.

The CCor group also implements a team approach when students struggle with course access, technical obstacles, navigate disability support services, or are non-participatory in their courses. Each CCor makes sure that a home institution CCor is kept abreast of pertinent information, which helps both individuals foster student success and persistence. Additionally, the CCor group provides information to both students requesting DSS accommodations and the DSS offices when verifying information. Despite varying procedures within the course access process, individual CCors not only respects these differences but actively collaborates with one another to remove them as a barrier for OPEN-EDU adult learner.

Further, the CCor group develops and strengthens its awareness of individual differences by discussing ways to support students and creating an open environment that allows dialogue. One example is when CCors began discussions regarding preferred pronouns so students could be properly addressed in digital correspondence. It was important for the CCor group to have these discussions to be inclusive and responsive when engaging with students. This conversation has paved the way for additional initiatives with mental health awareness and response at the forefront of respecting diversity and differences. 

As the world is becoming more and more connected and, to a certain extent, mobilized, diversity is becoming part of the new normal of most online education institutions. Developing a cross-institutional plan and mechanism addressing diversity and inclusiveness can help participating institutions of cross-institutional collaborations develop mutual engagement, increase trust, and enhance integrity.

Pillar Three: Streamlining Communications

Communication refers to the exchange of information. For a consortium to succeed, good and efficient communication is needed to help connect all stakeholders’ beliefs, values, thoughts, concerns, and even emotions. Communication is vital to building strong collaborative leadership and nurturing a positive organizational culture [21]. There are two types of institutional communications, namely, horizontal and vertical communications. Within a traditional institution, horizontal communication refers to an informal information exchange with proximate colleagues, and the information exchanged is of socio-emotional content. In contrast, vertical communication occurs between staff members and top management, and information exchanged is mostly work-related [21].

In a traditional institution, vertical communication is a strong indicator of organizational commitment because this type of communication is a process for staff members and top management to establish their social and institutional identities. In a consortium, these two types of communications are meshed together because of the lateral nature of the consortium and the vertical nature of member institutions. This type of communication can be referred to as blended communication. The blended nature of communications in a consortium challenges liaisons from member institutions to constantly shift between formal and informal information exchanges, move between socio-emotional content and work-related relational communications, and seek to establish interpersonal relationships while at the same time building on their social and organizational identities. Multilayered, good, and efficient communication is often linked to positive attitudes, better performance, improved job satisfaction, and stronger institutional commitment [22].

Another important aspect of developing efficient communication is to assure transparency across the board so that everybody is up to date on the status of the consortium and member institutions. This can be accomplished by building a digital communication repository where consortium documents such as meeting agendas and minutes are stored, synchronous and asynchronous communication tools are integrated, and a calendar tool is activated. To achieve communication transparency, a consortium should also agree on and develop protocols for communications between member institutions through liaisons. For example, regular meetings should be scheduled among liaisons to discuss current issues, challenges, and opportunities; brainstorm new ideas and initiatives; highlight organizational and personal accomplishments; and more.

Concept in Action: OPEN-EDU. At the OPEN-EDU, streamlined and transparent communication is present within multiple components of the CCor role. One example is their onboarding process. When a new CCor begins their position, the lead institution provides numerous avenues for onboarding training and encourages communication. First, an electronic, self-paced orientation is provided via Qualtrics, which orients the new CCor with the consortium, the multiple roles within it, and their role. Then, an initial onboarding session takes place with the lead CCor over Zoom, where the CCor handbook, the member portal, the student information system, and various other components of the CCor role is thoroughly reviewed. The third and final component of the onboarding process delves deeper into the student information system and how data is gathered and reported. The onboarding process represents the consortium’s commitment to transparent and streamlined communication, which helps to create a culture for CCors to emulate this practice.

In addition to process-focused communication, professional development is offered within various modalities, including opportunities for multiple CCor voices. Webinars, podcasts, annual meetings, and listservs are leveraged to communicate ways that CCors can improve their knowledge of the consortium, adult learners, and virtual student services. Providing opportunities to improve communication skills is useful for the CCors position within the consortium and many of their outside roles. Thus, these communication strategies are beneficial and transferrable to those CCors who only work with OPEN-EDU as a small percentage of their appointments.

Communicating within a remote environment brings many challenges, specifically with maintaining consistent correspondence and information in a designated, easy-to-access space. OPEN-EDU addresses this challenge through an online member portal that is accessible to all members of the consortium. Each program, including the CCor group, has its own workspace and can access shared documents and a shared calendar. CCors can upload their documents to this portal and can also download a variety of resources that will assist them in work-related tasks. This space allows for transparent and streamlined communication through its ability to house a variety of documents in one place. It also encourages communication through resource sharing.

Good, open, efficient, and transparent communication is always a key factor for an online education institution to succeed. This becomes even more critical for cross-institutional collaborations because of the combinations of vertical communications within each participating institution and horizontal communications across participating institutions. Streamlining communications by making good use of communication technologies will make employees feel trusted and know that their voices are valued.

Conclusion and Implications

How successfully and smoothly a consortium runs primarily depends on the roles the liaisons play in the consortium. Liaisons are essential to a consortium's shared vision as they determine when to prioritize the consortium's shared vision, when to emphasize the vision of their home institution, and when to represent both. Balancing the consortium's shared vision and that of their home institution makes it more likely that their home institution will recognize the value of the collaboration with the consortium. Further, liaisons can foster healthy growth within the consortium by acknowledging and respecting diversity and differences at both institutional and individual levels. This includes respect for the policies and procedures of all participating institutions and how a liaison supports students with diverse backgrounds, personalities, and experiences. Lastly, liaisons help streamline communication between their home institution and the consortium through transparent and efficient communication. This includes communication between the stakeholders at their home institution and the consortium, as well as among themselves and the students they serve.

In cross-institutional collaborations, the details are significant, yet even the smallest details can lead to serious problems if overlooked. Therefore, hiring the right liaison who is good at public relations, communications, program planning, as well as attending to details is important. Member institutions should understand the importance of a liaison's role and make it a priority to fill this position promptly should it become vacant. The OPENEDU case study emphasizes that skilled liaisons are necessary to ensure a successful cross-institutional collaboration from inception to growth; therefore, the role should not be overlooked.

Though establishing a cross-institutional collaboration is never easy, the peer-mentoring framework of practice discussed above provides practical guidance for adult distance education institutions at various stages of such collaborations. For those in their initial stages of exploring cross-institutional collaborations, this three-pillar framework can be used as the basis to collectively develop the goals and visions for the collaboration, evaluate the comparative advantages of member institutions, develop a reciprocal organizational structure, and hire and train institutional liaisons to help carry out the visions of the collaboration. Existing adult distance education consortia will also find this peer-mentoring framework of practice beneficial because it provides them with a model to use whenever the collaboration faces issues that challenge its foundations. As more adult learning programs consider and grow interinstitutional partnerships, they should continue to look for ways for liaisons to facilitate success within the consortium and help member institutions address challenges faced along the way. 


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About the Authors

Haijun Kang is an associate professor at Kansas State University. His primary teaching and research interests are at the intersection of adult learning and technology, online learning, and digital leadership development. He leads and participates in international research collaborations with scholars from different countries and has published in premier international journals, including Adult Education QuarterlyJournal of Transformative EducationOpen Learning (UK), The American Journal of Distance Educationand Distance Education (Australia), among others. He has also guest edited several special journal issues on topics related to adult education, culture, and ICT for development.  

Rachel Ohmes is a communications and GED instructor at Manhattan Area Technical College, where she instructs a diverse body of students preparing for industry-type careers. She has experience in multiple facets of higher education, including online student services, staff development and training, curriculum and course development, and instruction. She is a doctoral student at Kansas State University, and her research interests include digital literacy, online course development, and faculty development. 

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