Implementing Transformational Leadership as a Model for Service Learning Activities in an Online RN to BSN Leadership Course




Stoerm Anderson EdD., R.N. and Ava Miller EdD, RN, AHN-BC




Anderson, S., & Miller, A. (February, 2007).  Implementing Transformational Leadership as a Model for Service Learning Activities in an Online RN to BSN Leadership Course. Online Journal of Nursing Informatics (OJNI), 11, (1) [Online]. Available at





This article chronicles the development and implementation of a Transformational Leadership class in an online RN to BSN Program.  Illustrated is a new approach to service learning and online instruction in nursing courses. Given the appropriate refocusing of the clinical lens and a more collaborative teaching-learning relationship between student and instructor, leadership as both a professional behavior and a curricular focus, benefits tremendously from the increased flexibility and self-direction that an online course can offer. This leadership course encourages connection between the student and the facility for which the leadership change project is developed through the development of collaborative relationships designed to facilitate successful change project completion and inspire service learning through transformational leadership activities.



Keywords:      Nursing Leadership; Transformational Leadership; Service Learning;

Online RN to BSN; Reflective Practice



While service learning has only recently become big news in general education circles, it is something that nursing education has been engaging in for a very long time. From early apprenticeships to more recent hospital clinical paradigms, nurse educators have planned activities to foster student learning through engagement with patients and hospital staff. This engagement not only promotes meaningful learning for students, but generates significant service to both health care institutions and the communities within which they exist. These learning activities represent almost definitional examples of service learning.

Meaningful service learning, however, involves intent as well as service. Unless the spirit of service is realized by students, the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of giving back to the community is lost. Reflecting upon our experiences as nurse educators, we became concerned that these opportunities were frequently squandered by overly prescriptive clinical practicum. It was with the goal of promoting more authentic service learning in mind that we, as two nursing educators, (one of whom possessed technical expertise in instructional design and the other the experience in teaching the course) endeavored to develop a meaningful leadership course for an online RN to BSN program.

            One widespread concern regarding online nursing courses is the efficacy of clinical components. The traditional model of clinical nursing education is not one that is given to inclusion in a distance learning curriculum. The lack of direct control can be intimidating to nursing faculty; it is invariably quite different than the culture of nursing education that was modeled for us as nursing students. However, as we began to gather information and review available literature, we became encouraged and optimistic: there were those who had reported successfully accomplishing that which we intended to undertake.

While it is entirely possible that some clinical nursing courses might be especially challenging to implement in an online environment, it gradually became clear to us that leadership was not one of these courses. Given the appropriate refocusing of the clinical lens and a more collaborative teaching-learning relationship between student and instructor, leadership as both a professional behavior and a curricular focus would benefit tremendously from the increased flexibility and self-direction that an online course could offer. Developed and implemented appropriately, an undergraduate online nursing leadership class could, through the inclusion of student driven change projects, promote profound leadership and service learning experiences that were embedded in both context and need.
Leadership in Professional Nursing Course

            Leadership in Professional Nursing is a capstone course that allows students the opportunity to make use of nursing concepts from earlier nursing courses in order to develop and implement a leadership change project. Students may conduct their project at a health care facility or a community based facility that is local to their location. Together, with a nurse mentor serving as a content expert, students collaboratively identify a nursing problem. Students then independently develop a solution to that problem utilizing the available literature and, with the guidance of their mentor, develop and implement a change project that addresses the identified problem. 

A critical factor in the success of the leadership course and the efficacy of the resulting change projects has been the inclusion of course activities and learning experiences that build to and support the final change projects. The course engages students in readings selected by teachers and by other students, research utilization and clinical activities related to the change project, reflective journaling, and opportunities to respond to case studies that relate to the subject matter. Additionally, by using online discussion forums, students engage in collaborative scholarly discussions about their projects in a manner that is unfeasible in a traditional classroom setting, affording students the opportunity to asynchronously and meaningfully connect with one another. 

The creation of lasting positive change – a legacy of student work – was something that we felt was important for us to promote as a part of the change project. We wanted students to have a sense of the long-term impact that their project would have on the institution and the community in which it was implemented. One major criterion for this project is that it “live on” after the student has completed the semester. Some of the past projects that have been completed are teaching modules, community awareness brochures, orientation manuals, health teaching programs for elementary schools, accreditation guidelines for community facilities, and many other projects that have resulted in policy and/or procedural change. Through the collaborative learning communities that develop in student discussion forums, each student both develops and implements their own change project and contributes to the projects of their classmates.

            Throughout the semester, students simultaneously learn and apply necessary cognitive skills in the development and implementation of their final change projects. When developing the course, our intent was to incorporate learning experiences that were embedded within the context of the student change projects. The change project itself is intended to serve as a capstone complex performance assessment that requires both previous learning from earlier courses and contextual application of leadership principles more recently apprehended within the leadership course.
Transformational Nursing Leadership

            Transformational leadership theory is based on the work of James MacGregor Burns involving historical leaders, and is specifically concerned with the identification of a type of leadership in which leaders inspire and motivate followers to a higher moral level (Burns, 1978). The essence of transformational leadership is inspiring commitment to achieve the vision of a preferred future, and thus makes it a particularly useful leadership approach when change, development, initiative, and creativity are required.

Transformational leadership encompasses skills, behaviors, and characteristics that are critical for transformational leaders to have a positive impact on followers (Rosenbach, Sashkin, and Harburg, 1996). Specifically, transformational leaders convey the connection between the organization’s philosophy and shared values, and embed those values in organizational rules and actions in order to communicate meaning and inspire followers (Benis and Nanus, 1985).

            Transformational leadership theory depends on the concept of collective empowerment, in which all parties are allowed to work together to the best of their ability to achieve a shared goal.  It is important to note that, in the process of this journey, both the leader and the follower are thought to be transformed. The focus of transformational leadership is the promotion of innovation and change (Carroll, 2006). Additionally, according to transformational leadership theory, followers are thought to need a sense of mission. Leaders must inspire in their followers a sense of purpose that goes far beyond the development of interpersonal relationships or an appropriate extrinsic reward for a job well done (Bass and Avolio, 1993). To choose to follow, people must feel that they are endeavoring to do something that is worthwhile and important.

The need for mission and purpose is perhaps particularly true in nursing. Nurses care for people – both ill and well – both as a profession and a service. Though nurses wish to be appropriately reimbursed for their expertise, what typically attracts most of us to the profession is the desire to make a difference in people’s lives. After all, there are many easier ways to make a living, but very few that allow us to contribute very directly to the good of humankind in such an important fashion.

In nursing, the provision of truly high quality care is our goal as well as our responsibility. Transformational nurse leaders may collectivize this goal, giving us the more palpable sense of mission necessary to move us towards its achievement. They can describe the goal of nursing in such a way that it is so meaningful and exciting that it inspires commitment in the people with whom they work (Trofino, 1995). If successful, the goals of the leader and their followers will “become fused, creating unity, wholeness, and a collective purpose” (Barker, 1992, p. 42).

            It was within the framework of transformational leadership that the leadership change project was undertaken. Faculty were required to model transformational leadership in such a way that students were collectively empowered to assist staff and community members in the identification of a need for change. Students then worked collaboratively with one another and with their mentors, using their instructors as consultants, towards the development and implementation of a completed change project within the facility.

Service Learning

Service Learning is an educational experience in which students participate in service that meets community needs within the framework of specific educational credit-bearing activity. Nursing schools have been involved with community service and service learning in some form since the dawn of formal nursing education. In some settings, nursing students have historically provided the bulk of nursing care in certain health care institutions. They participate in service oriented clinical experiences which have increased the capacity of many public and private agencies. It is not at all uncommon in the twenty-first century hospital to overhear nurse managers taking student presence into account when discussing upcoming nursing workload assignments. Likewise, surely every clinical instructor has heard hospital nurses profess their thanks for the student assistance that made it possible for them to leave work on time the previous night.

Truly, students benefit from their patient care assignments themselves while contributing significantly to community and institutional welfare: what nursing students do in their clinical practicum exemplifies the service that is implied in service learning. Yet, a crucial component that is often lacking in clinical service is the actual service learning: we have not effectively brought to the foreground students’ awareness that they are engaging in service. While they are connecting with the community and providing specialized service to those in need of assistance, they are often unaware of the importance of that participation and the value of their service to the community.

Because traditional clinical nursing assignments lack the sense of voluntary contribution that characterizes the most powerful variety of service learning, many nursing programs are venturing into alternative means of threading service learning through the nursing curriculum. Some nursing programs combine academic study with voluntary community service of some sort. Student contribution to seminars and clinical conferences are sometimes assigned to reinforce awareness of the world's health problems. Subsequent reflection upon their experiences and investigation of the social policies necessary to effect positive, long-lasting change in those global health problems may lead to improved health of individuals both locally and globally.

An important benefit of service learning activities is empowerment: it is empowerment, and the self-direction that it engenders, that characterizes the effective professional nurse. Service Learning provides nursing students with the opportunity to get involved and make a positive difference in health care outcomes. Modeling service learning through the use of transformational leadership to enact a change project in a local health care or community facility brings about awareness of the service learning while embedding it within leadership activities that may assist in demonstrating the power of that service to the community.

Through the spirit of giving back to the community the student gains a sense of efficacy, belonging, and worth. Students often express gratification in their ability to provide specialized service to their targeted audience. Many projects result in policy change and also foster continued relationships that result in ongoing civic engagement by the student. The leadership course encourages connection between the student and the facility for which the leadership change project is developed through the development of collaborative relationships designed to facilitate successful change project completion and inspire service learning through transformational leadership activities.

Service learning is more than volunteerism, service learning combines community work with classroom instruction, emphasizing reflection as well as action.  It empowers students by making them responsible in a real world context while giving them the support, encouragement, information, and skills to be effective (Rosenberg, 2000, p. 8).  Service learning is a pedagogy that fosters the development of skills and knowledge needed for participation in public life (Forman and Wilkinson, 1997, p. 278).

Reflection in Action:  Reflective Practice

            To students’ initial dismay, an important component of the leadership change project is reflective journaling. Throughout the course, we encourage reflection in action as a life long professional and personal practice. Many students are initially very unsure of how to approach reflective journaling; they seem to almost feel it presumptuous to describe their own thoughts – as if they were somehow too unimportant to be recorded. Students eventually grow into an appreciation of their own subjective experience, but rarely without an initial degree of apprehension.

Reflective journaling allows the student to meta-interpret novel situations within the context of their own previous experience: they draw upon the past to construct meaning out of the present. By asking students to reflect on topics such as transformational leadership and service learning, they are encouraged to focus on the application of these topics to their coursework, their change projects, and their professional and personal lives. By embedding this reflection in a self-directed change project, students are more easily able to find meaning in leadership and service learning, both in their course work and beyond. Reflection in action helps students to determine what leadership and service learning means to them, as a student, a person, and a professional nurse.

The online environment is given to the use of reflective journaling as a learning experience. In order to provide a living record that demonstrates the flow of dialogue between us instructors and our students, we employed the use of numerous internet technologies. Some students prefer the use of email, while others find the use of online discussion forums to be more helpful. Still other students use weblogs to record their thoughts, some opening them up to the world and some confining them to their instructors.

Far from being a hindrance that was required to be overcome, the online nature of the leadership class is perhaps responsible for how the class has evolved into what it has become. As professional educators, we each brought powerful skills to the table, neither one of us would have been able to put the various pieces together alone: there was too much expertise required in too many different areas. We gradually developed expertise in all areas through collaboration and mutual mentoring of one another.

As educators, we were able to collaboratively construct a course that slowly evolved as did the internet’s ability to promote connection and collaborative learning. The internet provided ways to implement time-consuming asynchronous learning activities that would have been both impossible and exhausting in a traditional classroom setting. Similarly, students have benefited from collaboration on change projects and related assignments. The multiple perspectives offered by numerous viewpoints have always strengthened students’ individual change projects and the class as a whole. Active discussions regarding service learning and reflection have likewise promoted increased understanding of course topics and the evolution of the nature of student learning. 

Without the ability to easily share information with one another or to edit a sentence in order to perfectly portray a particularly elusive feeling, how successful could we hope that such a complex change project might be? We made a conscious move towards online teaching because we hoped it would allow more students to enroll in the program and complete their baccalaureate degrees, but the internet proved to be a valuable collaborative learning mechanism without which our teaching of leadership and service learning would not be as rich. We came for the efficiency, but stay for the quality.

Significant credit for the successful development and design of the leadership course should also be given to the online nature of the course. The volume of student feedback we receive throughout the course in journals, discussion forums, and emails provides the instructor with an enormous amount of extremely rich evidence regarding teaching effectiveness. Teaching effectiveness was confirmed in students’ ability to operationalize concepts of transformational leadership and service learning in journals, case studies, discussions, and change project summaries. It was clear that most students had not only learned concepts related to leadership and applied them appropriately, but they also evidenced pride in their contributions to the community.

            Our greatest satisfaction was the realization that, despite prevailing concerns with implementing a clinical course in an online setting, we had been successful in crafting a high quality educational experience that retained the flexibility so important to working nurses seeking to further their education. The quality of the leadership course did not decline at all, but actually increased as a result of the move to an online format. Student contributions were rich in detail and reflection. All students had the opportunity to participate at a time that was most suitable for them, allowing for more generous and innovative ideation that increased the quality of all students’ projects and assignments. We realized at the end of one semester that the educational experience of service learning in our transformational leadership class had become truly collaborative in nature. While students were both professionally leading and giving to the health care community, they were also providing service and leadership within the learning communities that they had formed in the class.


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Authors’ Bios

Stoerm Anderson EdD., R.N.


Dr. Anderson, currently the RN to BS/MS Program Coordinator at Texas Women's University in Denton, Texas, has over 12 years experience as a nurse educator.  His areas of expertise are nursing education, research, educational technology, global education, and cultural studies. Dr. Anderson's current research involves the investigation of the experiences of Chinese university students with regard to educational use of the Internet in post-secondary settings.


Ava Miller EdD, RN, AHN-BC


Dr. Miller, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, has over 20 years experience as a nurse educator and currently teaches in the Holistic RN to BSN Program.  Anchored in the narrative inquiry tradition, Dr Miller's research program explores the contextual synergy between teaching and learning with foci on:

pedagogy, caring, student retention, and ubiquitous learning.  Dr. Miller's current research examines the meaning of being a student or teacher within the context of an online course.