Blog Post

04. MOOCs and LMX? Surveying the Intersections Between Massive Open Online Courses and Leader-­Member Exchange Theory

How does leadership intersect with massive open online courses (MOOCs)? I begin this entry by sharing that I dated MOOCs before my decision to marry blended learning in my research. That being said, I still have a warm place in my heart for the platform I consider to be an excellent way for institutions to showcase faculty and course content on a global stage. As a leadership studies scholar I have spent the lion's share of my doctoral program analyzing the ways blended learning and MOOCs intersect with leadership theory and practice...or if they do at all. Below is a segment of work I conducted around the idea that massive open online courses may include a leader-member exchange even with the extraordinary faculty/student ratios, seeming lack of formal authority and accountability, and distance between the "leader" in this case faculty, and the "followers" in this case students.   


Massive open online courses (MOOCs) exploded in 2012 with more than 100 courses serving 200,000 students in over 1,400 cities worldwide (Pappano, 2012). Early research from classroom assessments to cost-benefit analyses illustrate varied outcomes for this global technological shift in higher education. Researchers and institutions are quickly mobilizing in response to the call for education taking new shape, while simultaneously holding the academy accountable to the standards that make higher education a unique relationship between professor and student.
Leader-Member Exchange Theory (LMX), or in its early form, Vertical Dyad Linkage Theory (VDL) make these new professor and student relationships challenging. The theories state that favorable relationships rely upon similarities between leader and subordinate values and attitudes (Yukl, 2012). When the online classroom course ratio is one instructor, or leader, to 120,000 students, or subordinates, one questions how that leader would develop the theory’s recommended and unique exchanges with each subordinate (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995). This is where the broader social analysis of LMX moves into the discussion. As higher education delivery methods evolve, so too do the theories supporting the process.
The emergent nature of MOOCs within the field of higher education provides multiple opportunities to view the discipline under the leadership lenses that have developed over time. Viewing massive open online courses through leader-member exchange theory highlights the spaces where these new digital educational models and theoretical frameworks connect. The literature includes distinctions between branded MOOC platforms and a focus upon the intricacies of a concept largely communicated as one, uniform entity. This analysis also works through leader-member exchange theory and recent evolutions in the theory, moving towards social group applications (Sparrowe & Liden, 1997).
One example of a space where an educator is trying to enact the LMX individualized exchange within the MOOC teaching universe is Scott Plous, a professor at Wesleyan University. The psychology professor, teaching 70,000 students, is interested in learning how students who are homicidal or suicidal can be identified while they reside in a learning environment on the massive open online platform. Plous asks specifically, if a student is posting messages over an anonymous title and email address, how can professors offer interventions (Rivard, 2013).
The example above is one illustration of the collision between the traditional higher education model, complete with a strong undergirding of structured student service offerings, and the new MOOC structure, which is still evolving. Analyzing the massive open online course literature, to understand the respective structures and operations, and simultaneously researching leader-member exchange theories, represents the first time these two bodies of literature intentionally and independently reside in the same space. As the literature and primary research develop, I hope that we see more Cathy Davidsons in the mainstream press than primary citations from the New York times...though I am pleased to see that someone out there is covering this beat.  
If you are interested in the paper that explores these concepts I will gladly share the preliminary literature research. The paper does two things. First, the paper provides an overview of what MOOCs are, and how they function and then the literature turns to leadership theory to understand the development of relationship-based leadership, from Vertical Dyad Linkage Theory to Leader-Member Exchange, and onward to emergent relationship-based leadership work.
Graen, G. B., & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995). Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) Theory of Leadership over 25
years: applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective. Leadership Quarterly, 6 (2), 219-247.
Pappano, L. (2012, November, 2). The year of the MOOC. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Rivard, R. (2013). Dangerous and possibly anonymous. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from
Sparrowe, R. T., & Liden, R. C. (1997). Process and structure in leader-member exchange. Academy of Management Review, 22(2), 522-552.
Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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