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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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School Leaders: Guiding Teachers into the Digital Age

We all know that leadership is important in education. Without strong leadership, education initiatives tend to crash and burn. Consider professional learning. Leadership is one of Learning Forward's seven Standards for Professional Learning -- evidence-based standards that outline the characteristics of professional learning that lead to effective teaching practices and improved student learning.

This standard holds that leaders develop their own and others' capacity to learn and lead professional learning, advocate for it, provide support systems, and distribute leadership and responsibility for its effectiveness and results.

I thought about this standard while reading a recent evaluation of an on-demand computer-based professional learning application. That evaluation found that when a school's staff was highly engaged with the application, student achievement -- measured by performance on standardized assessments, dropout rates and a goal of college attendance -- improved at a much higher rate than at schools where the staff was less engaged. Interestingly but unsurprisingly, the schools that showed higher engagement, and thus greater improvement, had something else in common -- what the author termed "leadership, implementation and accountability."

These results add to the evidence on the importance of leadership in professional learning and help combat the rhetoric that we don't know what effective professional learning is (we do). But I can't help but wonder if there is another leadership issue at play in this evaluation. Perhaps those at lower-engaged schools were highly engaged in professional learning in general...but not engaged in that learning digitally.

How to Begin

As we move deeper and deeper into the information age, more and more professional learning will occur digitally, and that professional learning will be more and more dedicated to digital learning for students. If a school leader is unable to create a digital culture, his or her school will struggle. While individual educators can develop the skills necessary to help students succeed in the new economy, if that capacity does not spread throughout the school, and if the school lacks the tools needed for teachers to effectively instruct in the digital world, ultimately, students will suffer.

This fact was driven home at NASSP's 2013 Ignite Conference, where several of the most interesting sessions I attended were focused on how school leaders can support digital learning. As keynoter Scott Klososky pointed out, education leaders today are transitional leaders. They are responsible both for managing people and for managing the transition to teaching and learning in a different way, preparing very different students to go into a very different world. And they have to develop a strategy with which technology will be implemented in their school, taking a long-term view on a subject that is constantly changing.

Klososky believes that school leaders need to become "technology masters." He offered a model for how to get there.

  • Develop three to five technology guideposts for the school. These are goals to work towards -- for example, "We want to deliver 35 percent of instruction online." These goals should take two to three years to accomplish.
  • Create an adaptive culture. Ensure that those in the school understand that things are constantly changing -- and changing quickly. Educators must get new technologies to students quickly, understanding that there will be many failures and that they should not fear mistakes.
  • Develop a good technology team. This team includes vendors, IT staff, contractors, and others who are responsible for the day-to-day management and troubleshooting of technology. According to Klosoky, too often leaders don't work hard enough to ensure they have an excellent team to make things run smoothly, so they experience problems that demoralize staff and hinder progress.
  • Develop processes around technology. Without processes, leaders can find themselves haphazardly choosing vendors and products and only sporadically training teachers, for example. Clear processes around these issues and others both increase efficiency and ensure that all aspects of a school's technology tie to the ultimate vision of the school.
  • Differentiate between "digital learning" and "digital plumbing." Digital learning is how we use technology tools. Digital plumbing is technology infrastructure. Prioritize both, but clearly distinguish between them in developing a technology plan.
  • Consider measurements. Without being able to measure the impact of a technology tool, a leader cannot be sure it is an effective use of time and other resources.

These sentiments were echoed by Ryan Imbriale, Principal of Maryland's Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts and one of NASSP's 2013 Digital Principals. In an email interview after the conference, I asked what advice he has for other school leaders who are interested in moving towards a vision of digital learning. His answer, in one way or another, hits on each of the points in Kolosky's model:

"I would say it's essential to create a culture of innovation in the school. Accept that there will be many successes and some failures, but those failures will drive even more success. Have a solid plan in place that involves all constituents in the process, and ensure the plan has clearly defined outcomes. From a nuts and bolts standpoint I would say ensure the infrastructure is where it needs to be. If teachers do not trust the technology it will not be used."

We know that the future involves digital learning. Education leaders must be intentional in creating a culture that will help it thrive.

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