Professional Development Opinion

The New Consumerism In Educational Leadership

By Lance D. Fusarelli — January 14, 2004 4 min read
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It is now possible to become a certified educational leader without ever leaving your home.

Within the past few years, a disturbing change has occurred in how we prepare leaders for America’s schools. Spurred in part by advances in new technology, the proliferation of for-profit universities, and the conservative critique of university-based preparation programs, educational leadership courses have increasingly gone “online.” It is now possible to become a certified educational leader without ever leaving your home.

A quick search of online degree programs identifies numerous examples in educational leadership. The online master’s program offered by the University of Phoenix, for example, advertises: “All you need is a computer and an Internet service provider. You’ll receive lectures, questions, and assignments from your instructor, then review them offline at the times and places most convenient to you.” Another “national” university suggests that “effective communication is the oxygen for leadership,” yet offers a multitude of online leadership courses in which much of the “communication” is limited to interaction between the student and the computer.

More disturbing is the movement to offer online doctorates in educational leadership. An increasing number of e-universities, and some of their more established counterparts, offer fast-track “executive leadership” doctoral programs—Ed.D.s and Ph.D.s— for busy working professionals. One university promises that a highly motivated candidate will be able to complete a doctorate in educational leadership (coursework and dissertation) in only two short years, all while holding a full-time job!

Campus-based educational leadership programs are under greater and greater pressure to offer more courses online. Failure to do so is often cited as evidence of professors’ unwillingness to cater to students’ (our “clients’”) needs—a view that itself represents the new consumerism run amok. Faculty members are expected to respond instantaneously to student queries via e-mail—morning, noon, and night. In many locales, school districts (and their corporate partners) have become savvy consumers, shopping around for the “best deal” from nearby universities.

Campus-based educational leadership programs are under greater and greater pressure to offer more courses online.

It’s odd that educators, of all people, should be the ones most interested in finding the easy, shortcut way to a degree, always searching out programs with the minimal requirements. They seem, in effect, to be stressing the importance of education for everyone but themselves. Much like their own students, aspiring school leaders appear interested only in finding the easiest route with minimal effort. Sound familiar?

Many districts, meanwhile, are pressuring state legislatures to allow them to offer their own degree programs— in effect, substituting quick, one-shot professional-development workshops for graduate credit.

This all raises some fundamental, as-yet-unanswered questions about how best to prepare leaders for schools.

What could be better than a degree when you want it, how you want it; one designed to fit the busy schedules of working professionals? Under the new consumerism, we have education on demand. No time to take courses? No problem, just point, click, complete the exercises and presto, you’re an educational leader.

But technology is substituted for personal interactions. Face-to-face contact becomes anachronistic. Deep engagement with critical educational issues is replaced with workbooks students can complete at their convenience. Presumably, communicating effectively through one’s computer via an ISP is equivalent to communicating effectively with teachers, parents, and other stakeholders in a real school environment.

One has to wonder about the quality of online leadership-preparation programs. In years past, advertisements for college degrees via correspondence courses were found in the backs of popular magazines and on matchbox covers. Online degree programs and their hype merely represent the high-tech manifestation of these earlier courses and ads.

For example, the sponsors of a Web page I recently viewed offering links to online educational leadership degree programs included companies hawking home remodeling, fire alarms, replacement windows, siding, porches, and swimming pools. Do we really want our educational leaders sponsored by aluminum-siding salesmen?

Leadership cannot be crafted through a disembodied, depersonalized delivery system. The training and development of leaders cannot occur in isolation.

My point is not to blindly defend all traditional, university-based educational leadership programs. It is, rather, to convey a simple truth: While technology may play a crucial role in education, developing effective educational leaders is fundamentally and irrevocably an interpersonal, relational process—one that requires face-to-face human contact, deep thought, deliberation, reflection, engagement, and interaction.

Effective educational leadership isn’t a list of skills to master or a set of modules to complete. Every significant leadership theory of the past 60 years has emphasized that effective, transformative leadership is a relational process between leaders and followers. If education is to be a transformative experience, it must be just that—a set of contemplative, rigorous, interactive experiences that enhances personal growth and development.

Leadership cannot be crafted through a disembodied, depersonalized delivery system. The training and development of leaders cannot occur in isolation. Leadership requires cultivation of the habits of heart, mind, and soul—habits that do not translate well to the sterile, lifeless environment of online leadership preparation. Effective educational leadership is a “people” process that requires sustained, face-to-face interactions not only with faculty members, but also with colleagues.

Unfortunately, the new consumerism in educational leadership sacrifices content and quality at the altar of convenience.

Lance D. Fusarelli is an associate professor of educational leadership at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, N.C.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as The New Consumerism In Educational Leadership


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