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A leadership framework for online and digital education: adapting ALT Framework for Ethical Learning Technology

In a leadership role I adopt reflective practice to explore ways to improve my approach and ultimately enable me to support my team to achieve our team and organisational objectives. Collaboration is one of my underlying principles and I have shared my thoughts on this previously as particularly important in educational settings. Recently, I have been leading a significant and difficult change programme and my reflections on my leadership are the subject of a forthcoming paper at the ALT Annual Conference. To support my reflections I was keen to seek out a framework to guide my questioning, both retrospectively and as a reference for ongoing development. This post explores how I found the ALT Framework for Ethical Learning Technology (ALT, 2021) a valuable starting point for questioning and reflecting on my practice.

Exploring leadership frameworks

There are many descriptions and metaphors for leadership characteristics and behaviours, and it is likely different theories will resonate with different leaders. For example, in considering an often cited leadership dichotomy, I prefer the ‘transformational’ leadership approach over ‘transactional’, as this aligns with my view of effective change. Indeed, Kanungo and Mendonca (1996) positioned transformational leadership as more ethical, noting how it adopts strategies of empowerment and is more human-centred.

“The empowerment strategy also brings about attitudinal change in followers through the identification and internalisation process. However, unlike the transactional leader, these processes are designed by the transformational leader to increase followers’ self-growth, enhance their self-worth, and enable them to function as autonomous persons. These effects reflect the leader’s altruistic value and orientation and promote the dignity of the human person. We can, therefore, conclude that when leaders adopt the transformational influence process mode, their leadership is more likely to be ethical, more effective, and more enduring.” 

(Kanungo and Mendonca, 1996, pp. 73-74)

Specific theories or models represent idealised versions of leadership however, as it’s not simply the attitude or approach of a leader that manifests change. More recently, ideas of distributed leadership depict leadership as a shared endeavour, requiring actions in a participatory culture, where individuals in a team are able to actively contribute to leadership decisions and are empowered to bring creativity into decision-making by drawing on their individual expertise (Jones, et al., 2012). This provides a viewpoint for leaders that is less about control and more about the culture and environment for participation (Woods and Gronn, 2009). Yet, what these principles actually mean in practice are not readily defined. What exactly is required to develop a participatory culture and align vision with individual motivations, for example. Actions that seem specific, may on implementation still fall short of intentions if the framing for participation, pace of change or even technology used presents a barrier to engagement.

Jones, et al. (2012) provided one of the clearest examples of descriptors to support implementing distributed leadership with their ‘Action Self Enabling Reflective Tool (ASERT)’ and mapping dimensions and values against criteria. The headings for the two-dimension framework are shown below, and there is an additional level of detail available in ASERT that puts actions mapped against these (not included below). 

Dimensions and values to enable development of Distributed Leadership

  • Context – Trust
  • Culture – Respect
  • Change – Recognition
  • Relationships – Collaboration

Criteria for Distributed Leadership

  • People are involved
  • Processes are supportive
  • Professional development is provided
  • Resources are available
(Jones, et al., 2012, p.76)

As an example of an action that shows ‘People are involved’ under ‘Culture – Respect’, Jones et al. (2012) specified ‘individuals participate in decision making’. However, the level of involvement in decision making as perceived by the leader may be different from the perception of the team. Those perceptions are also difficult to surface, hence, the need for an emphasis on a leadership culture that fosters such participation.

Adaptable framework

An additional consideration relevant to the fast pace of change in digital education is a reflective framework that is adaptable. In their argument against tick-box approaches to reflection, Cressey, et al. (2006, p.22) described that “Reflection is always in a state of becoming. It is never frozen; it is always in transition or movement.” By defining specific reflective activities then, the opportunities for learning may be constrained. Therefore, particularly when leading in a sector that is constantly evolving and innovative, as well as one that must work around highly guarded traditions and institutional structures, a framework that does not prescribe a set approach, but one that opens new ways of thinking may be what is required.

I am seeking to adopt leadership approaches that aim to be inclusive, distributive and transformative. As leadership and context are intertwined (Middlehurst, 2008), I am in need of a framework that is contextually grounded, adaptable and provides specific prompts for active reflection.

Finding questions for reflection 

With feedback from others during the leadership of a substantial change programme, I started to see gaps in my approach and missed opportunities. As part of my reflection, it became obvious to me that a framework of questions could provide a guiding star for further leadership decisions and could help focus attention and reflection on core values. To provide a scaffold for my reflections I am drawing upon the Association for Learning Technology Framework for Ethical Learning Technology (FELT) (ALT, 2021). Even though this framework is designed to support the deployment and use of learning technologies, the four core areas I find particularly useful in reflecting on professional practice in digital education more broadly. Accessible version of the FELT (see final page of PDF).

Framework for Ethical Learning Technology - core areas of: awareness; professionalism; care and community; values.

I have considered the framework in the context of my leadership role and from these areas have created a list of prompt questions. The four headings below are the areas defined in the FELT and I have selected just three of the FELT prompts under each as a stem for a reflective question. 

Care and community

  • What do I need to put in place to ensure care of myself and others?
  • How do I enable change through open dialogue and mutual understanding?
  • How do I minimise the risk of harms where change impacts individuals directly?


  • How have I positioned learners in the focus of change?
  • How have I explained decisions and my accountabilities aligned with values?
  • What is the balance of detail with open and transparent leadership?


  • How can I enable my team towards greater autonomy and partnership?
  • How am I using the feedback I’m getting to adapt my leadership?
  • How do I ensure I am bringing external ideas into local context sensitively?


  • How will I demonstrate accountability alongside enabling autonomy?
  • How do I support the development of my team as a result of dialogue?
  • How can I build trust and show integrity, whilst also embracing uncertainty?

These questions comes from identifying gaps in my own thinking, planning and practice. They come from reflections on the reactions to my leadership decisions and are representative of the direction I wish to bring to the team. They have no one single answer and are likely to change over time, as will my answers and actions from them. However, I am hopeful that they will provide a means for me to check my own direction, ensure that I act according to my values and that of the team, and strive to provide opportunities for the team to succeed. 

Reflective practice as development

Being reflective, analysing what has been and planning action for improvement are activities that I feel are important for both me and my colleagues. Cressey, et al. (2006) explained the relationship between reflection and team development, and perhaps such an approach will similarly contribute to team empowerment.

“While reflection is used to enhance effective action, it also has a developmental dimension. It is part of a range of organizational practices designed simultaneously to contribute to solving organizational problems of today while equipping members of the organization to be better able to deal with challenges that face them in the future. It does this through building agency among participants, confidence that they can act together in meaningful ways and develop their own repertoire of approaches to meet future challenges.” 

Cressey, et al. (2006)

From this then, the next steps for me are to explore the relevance of these questions on an ongoing basis, to set some actions for my own change in practice, and to model reflective leadership. I would be interested to know how others establish principles that underpin their practice and whether devising their own reflective questions supports their professional and leadership development.


  1. ALT (2021). Framework for Ethical Learning Technology, Association for Learning Technology.
  2. Cressey, P., Boud, D. and Docherty, P. (2006). ‘The emergence of productive reflection’, in: Boud, D., Cressey, P, and Docherty, P. (eds.) (2006). Productive Reflection at Work. Abingdon: Routledge. 11-26.
  3. Jones, S., Lefoe, G., Harvey, M. and Ryland, K. (2012). ‘Distributed leadership: a collaborative framework for academics, executives and professionals in higher education’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(1), 67-78.
  4. Kanungo, R. N. and Mendonca, M. (1996). Ethical Dimensions of Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage.
  5. Middlehurst, R. (2008) ‘Not Enough Science or Not Enough Learning? Exploring the Gaps between Leadership Theory and Practice’, Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), 322-339.
  6. Woods, P. A. and Gronn, P. (2009) ‘Nurturing Democracy: The Contribution of Distributed Leadership to a Democratic Organizational Landscape’, Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 37(4), 430-451.


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