Learning as Leaders: Creating an Online Community of Practice for Leadership Educators

By Lisa Endersby 

View Supplemental Video Interview  

Lisa Endersby PhotoLisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. She has recently begun her doctoral work, investigating professional development in online communities of practice. Lisa is also National Chair for the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community (TKC). Lisa enjoys numerous volunteer roles with ACPA and ILA and can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.

 Abstract: The online spaces and places we create for learning are not meant to be populated only by students. Values in the field, including lifelong learning and community building, are integral to the continued growth of the profession. These long-held values are now meeting rapid innovation and change, which has never been more apparent than in our use of digital learning technologies. This article explores pedagogical questions and strategies for online communities of practice as venues for meaningful leadership education amongst the staff who will support our next generation of leaders. 

Leadership scholars and educators have invested considerable time exploring digital technologies and online spaces for leadership education. While the impact of digital tools and social media on learning and development have been well documented (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009; Lenning, Hill, Saunders, Solan, & Stokes, 2013), it is only recently that administrators have begun to discover opportunities for their own leadership development that take advantage of emerging digital tools. The ability of online platforms to connect diverse professionals and disseminate large amounts of information across what were once geographically impermeable barriers have led many associations, institutions, and organizations to leverage these tools as modern opportunities to demonstrate our deeply held values of lifelong learning and inclusive community.

Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) describe such a community of practice as “a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4). The learning community’s “joint focus on both intellectual development and socially embedded learning” (Calhoun & Green, 2015, p. 56) provides a pedagogically unique space for professional development amongst leadership educators. In 2012, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) launched, LEARN, the Leadership Educators and Resource Network. Initially designed as a gathering place for information and individuals, the network grew to be a catalyst for a myriad of learning and development opportunities. Most notably, this central repository championed the social, collaborative creation, dissemination, and investigation of leadership theory and practice, bringing to life ideas of best practices in tangible narratives from across Canada. Initial learning outcomes for the network were quite broad, focusing primarily on more programmatic outcomes of the collection of information and the organization of professionals in a central (virtual) location. Over time, however, these online interactions sparked a desire to extend discussions beyond the screen to in-person dialogues with an emphasis on local or regional educational contexts. While facilitated discussion around a common theme is an important pedagogical tool, it was, and is, the intersections found in this online learning community and virtual knowledge dissemination that created an innovative pedagogy for educating and training leadership professionals.

The traditional imperatives for leadership educators to build important knowledge, skills, and dispositions are now much more complex — professionals are now tasked with exercising skills in communication and collaboration, the same competencies demanded of their students. In addition, these skills often appear different in an online environment, where more traditional markers of effective leadership are skewed or noticeably absent. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) describe effective learning environments as an overlapping collection of four themes: (a) learner-centered; (b) community-centered; (c) knowledge-centered; and (d) assessment-centered. It is within these themes that I share valuable lessons learned and important questions in developing and facilitating tools for teaching and learning in online communities of practice.


Who are your learners? It is never safe to assume that a learner will want to engage in an online space, or that they have the capacity and means by which to effectively use the tools and platforms you provide. In the early stages of community development, consider how the digital platform may hinder rather than help people connect with each other. The adage of meeting students (and professionals) where they are at does not always mean in front of a computer.


An online community cannot rely on physical proximity or frequently visible social cues for cohesion. How will you leverage the diverse perspectives, interests, and learning styles in the group to create a community of learners? Professional development in student affairs is no longer a solo sport; values of integration and collaboration are now just as important as certification. What will this look like when there is greater and more frequent access to people who share very differing opinions? What might the challenges be in working with a group who are working toward commonality instead of community?


Just as online communities of practice provide access to a wide variety of people, these digital spaces are magnets for diverse collections of knowledge and information. Professional development, however, is not simply the collection of facts and theories; meaningful learning and development comes from the analysis and eventual dissemination of ideas across the profession, with the goal of building innovative and more effective practice. How will you create opportunities for the critical review of the information crossing these more permeable scholarly barriers? How might knowledge be judged as ‘good’ or ‘ready’ to be disseminated? Issues of socially constructed knowledge, particularly in the online space, are emerging as vitally important areas for investigation.


Consider how your participants will be able to easily and effectively demonstrate their learning. What does success look like when you may only see the edited, filtered result of a messy learning process? Look beyond just what is said and explore how participants interact online. Do they write only for or about themselves? Do they respond to other points of view? Do they demonstrate a level of digital literacy, mentioning and critically analyzing alternative sources of knowledge?

The continued pace of change inherent in digital technologies should be seen as an opportunity for innovation rather than a challenge to more deeply-held ways of thinking about leadership and teaching future leaders. Our role as educators is to indeed pause to reflect on our pedagogy, even within the rapid evolution of teaching tools. In online spaces, there is room for leaders of all positions, populations, and personas; leadership educators, then, can act as guides in, through, and beyond this technological frontier, navigating the complexities of change right alongside the students they serve.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Calhoun, D. W.. & Green, L. S. (2015). Utilizing Online Learning Communities in Student Affairs. New Directions for Student Services, Special Issue: Learning Communities From Start to Finish, 2015(149), 55-66.

Greenhow, C., & Robelia, B. (2009). Informal Learning and Identity Formation in Online Social Networks. Learning, Media, & Technology, 34, 119-140.

Lenning, O. T., Hill, D. M., Saunders, K. P., Solan, A., & Stokes, A. (2013). Powerful Learning Communities: A Guide to Developing Student, Faculty and Professional Learning Communities to Improve Student Success and Organizational Effectiveness. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at pauseforpedagogy@ila-net.com

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Director and Assistant Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. The chief focus of Dan’s research agenda is leadership education. Dan is a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Secretary of the Association of Leadership Educators, and Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. She has recently begun her doctoral work, investigating professional development in online communities of practice. Lisa is also National Chair for the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community (TKC). Lisa enjoys numerous volunteer roles with ACPA and ILA and can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.

Article Not Displaying Above?

Please log in using your ILA member credentials. If you are not currently a member or you need to renew, please visit www.ila-net.org/Join to select your membership level. Need additional assistance? Contact our membership team at membership@ila-net.org or 1.202.470.4818.