It’s time for the next generation of leadership


A reflection by Dr. Ebba Ossiannilsson (Swedish Association for Distance Education) on her current research

In this blog post, I discuss some aspects of my latest research on next-generation leadership for education for all, 2030.

Next-generation leadership for education

Education and learning should, according to the UNESCO SDG 4 for 2030, be available for all, at anytime, from everywhere, and through any device in a global, lifelong, and lifewide perspective, where learners take the lead, and orchestrate their own learning in both process and manner to choose their personal learning journey in its widest interpretation. There are calls for modern governance arrangements and dynamic, proactive leadership and management. The Director-General of UNESCO argues that:

[A] fundamental change is needed in the way we think about education’s role in global development because it has a catalytic impact on the well-being of individuals and the future of our planet…. Now, more than ever, education has a responsibility to be in gear with 21st-century challenges and aspirations and foster the right types of values and skills that will lead to sustainable and inclusive growth and peaceful living together.

The fourth industrial revolution has changed the way we act, perform, live, work and learn today. The digital transition encompasses all levels of an institution. Therefore, rethinking leadership and management is needed at all levels.

Learning technologists and instructional designers have often single-handedly taken responsibility for development, and merging technology and pedagogy to enrich each other, putting these individuals in an ideal position to influence institutional strategy. However, this often self-imposed role has not always been supported or recognized, and is not even always understood by senior leaders. Next-generation leadership involves staff at all levels in the institution playing a strategic role in enabling, supporting and facilitating effective institutional change. In open education too, leadership is a shared responsibility – as illustrated by the Opening up Education framework, in which it is one of the four core dimensions of open educational practices in higher education institutions (Inamorato dos Santos, et al., 2016), see Figure 1.

Fig 1. The Opening up Education framework (Inamorato dos Santos et al., 2016)

Leaders at all levels can foster sustainable open education activities and initiatives through both top-down and bottom-up transparent approaches. They can pave the way for creating openness by inspiring and empowering people. Probably, the largest challenges relate to mindset and attitudes, as systemic changes are required. Hence, the human capital for cultural change is crucial, and this includes ownership, inclusiveness and participation. A key issue for leaders is thus to promote a culture which allows people to grow, take responsibility, and build trust throughout the organization, but also to promote a culture of passion, and persistence (Ossiannilsson, submitted).

The cultivation of a culture of quality is critical, and has to be in the interests of everyone, but also encouraged by leaders (Ossiannilsson, 2017, 2018). Rethinking the culture of quality as it applies to open pedagogy, situated learning and self-directed learning also includes rethinking quality assurance. Recognized international quality models of open online education take a holistic approach, focusing not only on the learning and teaching processes but also on policy, strategies, curriculum, course design, course delivery, infrastructure, and support for staff and students. Quality dimensions also relate to efficiency, learners and faculty satisfaction and engagement, and short- and long-term impact. In addition, work and study conditions for learners and staff have to be considered. Gulliksen (2015) argued that consequences of competitive advantages, meeting student expectations, reorganizations, continuing professional capacity building for staff, often are neglected. Digital tools are often not incorporated in a well-planned manner. Many problems could be minimized or prevented if leaders and managers had insights and knowledge concerning benefits and what can cause problems.


It is becoming clear from my current research on next-generation leadership for education for all 2030, that there is an urgent need for modernization of not just the approach to education, but also for effective organizational leadership in the digital era. Leaders and managers can make a difference to higher education’s offers, services, processes, quality and impact. There is a need for people who have the knowledge, abilities, competences, and attitudes to lead this process and analyze and evaluate digital work environments, using appropriate methods used to analyze complex digital environments.


Gulliksen, J., Ann Lantz, A., Walldius. Å., Sandblad, B., and Åborg, C. (2015). Digital arbetsmiljö (Digital Work Environment). Report 2015:17: Stockholm (Arbetsmiljöverket). Retrieved from

Inamorato dos Santos, A., Punie, Y., Castaño-Muñoz, J. (2016) Opening up Education: A Support Framework for Higher Education Institutions. JRC Science for Policy Report, EUR 27938 EN; doi:10.2791/293408. Retrieved from

Ossiannilsson, E. (2017). Leadership in Global Open, Online, and Distance Learning. In: Keengwe, J. & P H Bull (Eds.). Handbook of Research on Transformative Digital Content and Learning Technologies, pp 345-373. IGI Global.

Ossiannilsson. E. (2018). Leadership: In a time when learners take ownership of their own learning. In: K. Buyuk, S, Kocdar, and A. Bozkurt (Eds.). Administrative Leadership in Open and Distance Learning Programs, (pp.1-33). IGI Global.

Ossiannilsson. E. (submitted). Leadership in a Digital Era: The Ecology of Ubiquitous Inclusive Learning. Distance Education in China, An International Forum.



Dr. Ebba Ossiannilsson is an international independent researcher and consultant, in the areas of open online and flexible learning including OER, MOOCs, and TEL (OOFAT). For more information, see her homepage, or you can find her on LinkedIn or on ResearchGate.


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