Reflections on Learner Leadership

As a student in Athabasca University’s Doctor of Education program, I have been challenged to reflect on myself as a future leader in education. This has led me to questions regarding the role of students in education leadership, within the context of global shifts that both encourage and require collaboration and lifelong learning, in which the influences of technology and globalization prominently figure (Becker et al., 2018; Betts, 2017; Buckreus & Ally, 2019; Chang, Shanahan, & Hsu, 2014; Harari, 2018; Roll & Wylie, 2016). The meaning of student has been reconceptualized as learner, embodying an autonomy that is fundamentally changing pedagogical roles and processes, and the nature of educational institutions (Becker et al., 2018; Betts, 2017; Buckreus & Ally, 2019; Chang et al., 2014; Roll & Wylie, 2016). Learner leadership[1] is a core imperative.

In this paper, I consider two dimensions of learner leadership: 1) The role of learners in shaping education agendas at meso-levels, and 2) The role of learners in shaping micro-level learning environments (Bozkurt et al., 2015; Jansen, Moosa, Niekerk, & Muller, 2014; Prinsloo, Slade, & Khalil, 2018; Zawacki-Richter, Backer, & Vogt, 2009). These dimensions embed democratic leadership and consensus leadership, respectively, situating learner leadership as a participative leadership approach (Amanchukwu, Stanley, & Ololube, 2015; Dong et al., 2018; Elwyn et al., 2017; Jansen et al., 2014; Ureña, Chiclana, Melançon, & Herrera-Viedma, 2019). I consider examples of my experiences of learner leadership, and a growing perception of a call- to-duty for my future as a leader in education and research.

Meso-level Learner Leadership

As a child of democracy, I understand well its participatory processes, my role as a participant-follower, and the potential leadership roles open to me. While studying journalism at Ryerson (Polytechnic) University in the mid-1990’s, I was elected vice president of Ryerson’s student association[2]. One tradition I initiated was for the vice president to run for a student seat on Ryerson’s Board of Governors (BoG). As a BoG member[2], I had a participatory role[3] in shaping the institution’s educational, administrative and operational agendas, as it transitioned towards greater research-focus[4] (Amanchukwu et al., 2015; Jansen et al., 2014; Ryerson University, 2019). My mandate changed to one of balancing student, institutional, and broader pedagogical interests through collaborative, rather than adversarial, processes.

Jansen et al. (2014) describe challenges regarding authentically engaging students in representative roles in school governance alongside school leadership (principal, administrators, etc.). Co-optation is a prevalent risk, especially among younger students (Jansen et al., 2014). This risk may be compounded in distance education contexts, wherein separation can impede immediacy and social presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010; Woods & Baker, 2004).

I have spent much time considering whether I was co-opted at Ryerson. My tenure coincided with the Metro Days of Action protest, situating education reform within broader political upheavals of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government (Rapaport, 1999). Taking a collaborative, rather than adversarial, approach, through the BoG[5] I was able to secure a private meeting between Ryerson’s student association and the chair of the government’s task force on education reform[6]; Dialogue from this meeting was referenced in the task force’s final report. Does this mean we influenced the government’s education agenda? Unlikely. But it does mean we had an authentic voice at the table.

Collaboration and communication (including persuasion) are critical skills for the 21st century (Buckreus & Ally, 2019; Harari, 2018; Roll & Wylie, 2016). For both education and education leadership, interaction is increasingly mediated by distance and technology (Becker et al., 2018; Bell, McAlpine, & Hill, 2017; Chang et al., 2014; Roll & Wylie, 2016). Both increasingly encompass sociocultural, economic and political[7] diversity (Cantwell, Coate, & King, 2018). Boundaries between nations, between educational institutions and workplaces, are dissolving as societal goals converge, bringing new stakeholders to the table (Cantwell et al., 2018; Chang et al., 2014). Collaboration through democratic leadership is needed to ensure authentic voices, conveying critical information about the needs and interests of all stakeholders, to inform education agendas (Bozkurt et al., 2015; Zawacki-Richter et al., 2009). Students – learner leadership – must be included stakeholders.

It has been sometime since I served as learner leadership. Instead, my leadership has comprised applying and exploring technological and pedagogical innovations in my work context[8], experiencing firsthand the affordances of collaboration among diverse teams. As my expertise grows, I reflect on how my future as a leader in education could advance.

My choice of dissertation topic[9] is one way, having less to do with personal interest, and more with anticipating what’s coming and how to help optimize it. A duty to again seek representative leadership roles may extend from this, such as joining the Graduate Students’ Association (AUGSA), or involvement with the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education (CNIE). A picture emerges of leadership as a practice, centred on me rather than on specific organizational contexts (Raelin & Trehan, 2015).

As a future leader, I must consider how I will engage learner leadership in shaping the education agenda, including supporting learners in accessing democratic leadership experience and training. Integrating inclusive democratic participative processes towards authentic collaboration and enhanced social presence, in whichever leadership and technology-mediated contexts I find myself, is imperative.

Micro-level Learner Leadership

As a positional approach, however, democratic leadership will not facilitate the type of micro-level collaboration needed for 21st century personalized learning (Amanchukwu et al., 2015; Betts, 2017; Roll & Wylie, 2016). Another participative approach – consensus leadership – is needed (Amanchukwu et al., 2015; Dong et al., 2018; Ureña et al., 2019).

Leadership, in general, involves defining a point around which to coalesce, from which direction and change processes extend, and against which progress is measured (Crevani, 2018). In personalized learning, consensus leadership unfolds as a synthesis of pedagogy and curricular outcomes, the learner’s unique interests and needs, and the affordances of learning environments (which may include peers) (Betts, 2017; Buckreus, 2015; Hamilton, Rosenberg, & Akcaoglu, 2016; Roll & Wylie, 2016). Consensus leadership empowers learners in negotiating this synthesis, and is influenced by what technology makes possible (Dong et al., 2018; Hamilton et al., 2016; Elwyn et al., 2017; Ureña et al., 2019).

My Master’s research considered new roles in technology-mediated learning interactions, expanding on the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Buckreus, 2015; Garrison et al., 2010). I proposed a model of fluid roles, with learners periodically stepping into the facilitator role vis-à-vis teacher and peers. As machine intelligence[10] (MI) advances, it may substitute for human actors in some learning contexts, and may provide environments that redefine pedagogy and learning altogether (Buckreus & Ally, 2019; Hamilton et al., 2016; Rizzotto, 2017; Roll & Wylie, 2016). My dissertation research will explore how distance is being reconceptualized through technological advances that enhance immediacy and social presence; For instance, personalized learning informed by MI synthesizing student’s psychological profile and teacher’s pedagogical model (Buckreus, 2018a, 2018b; Buckreus & Ally, 2019; Garrison et al., 2010; Rizzotto, 2017; Roll & Wylie, 2016; Woods & Baker, 2004).

Learner leadership means entails students shaping how technology creates their learning environments (including the negotiation of fluid roles), in partnership with the teacher (Betts, 2017; Buckreus, 2015; Roll & Wylie, 2016). I have written about this before, but without considering dimensions of leadership. As a future leader, I feel an imperative to ensure consensus leadership appropriately informs my research, including any contributions I make to theory, methodology, and technological advancement. This implies engaging learner leaders as more than subjects, to inform my research and my own leadership practice.


Reflecting on my role as a future leader in education and research prompted inquiry regarding how learner leadership, embedding democratic and consensus leadership, can (must) inform 21st century education at macro-, meso-, and micro-levels. In this paper, I examined my own experiences of learner leadership, and considered what my future role might be in fostering learner leadership.



1 Not to be confused with learner-/learning-centred leadership (Davies, 2009; Male & Palaiologou, 2012), or the idea of ‘leader as learner’ regarding school principals (Barth, 1997; Hirsh & Hord, 2008).

2 1996-1997

3 I am under no illusion that I was an equal in that boardroom, however.

4 Ryerson became a fully-fledged university in 1993 (Ryerson University, 2019).

5 With support and direct assistance from Ryerson’s President and Vice Chancellor, Dr. Claude Lajeunesse, who was considered a controversial leader/disruptor (Heath-Rawlings, 2002).

6 We were the only student group to obtain such access.

7 Including non-democratic contexts.

8 Primarily within the Faulty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta.

9 I plan to explore machine intelligence in education.

10 The term ‘machine intelligence’ more aptly describes the type of intelligence, compared to the term ‘artificial intelligence’. It is not artificial; It is very real intelligence, and is machine-based (Buckreus & Ally, 2019).



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