The Challenge Of High School Digital Normalisation


Research strongly suggests that high schools, in general, will evolve and move to the Digital Normalisation stage and beyond slower than primary schools. The size, organisational structure, culture, the focus on the subject, the limited collaboration with the students’ homes, and the extensive use of paper-based external tests, seemingly makes it harder for high schools to move to a digital operational base, to achieve the full take up of BYOT and to shift to a higher order mode of teaching than primary schools.

That is not to say that there are not pathfinder high schools globally years ahead of their primary counterparts in their evolution, simply that the high school challenge, based on the current operational parameters, has been, and is likely to remain for some time yet, that little greater.

The flow on impact of that development is that primary schooling is likely in general terms to evolve and move to a higher order mode of teaching faster than high schools, and primary school graduates will invariably move from a higher order to an often appreciably lower order mode of teaching when entering the high school. The implications are potentially profound, even if prescient high school leaders begin addressing the development immediately. Not only are many children likely to be disappointed, frustrated and possibly alienated, but so also will be their educationally and digitally empowered parents. The primary-high school transition is on course to become that much more challenging.

The key is to recognise this disconnect is already occurring globally with the pathfinder primary schools, is on track to escalate and that children that have normalised the use of their own digital technology in their 24/7/365 learning and teaching will likely enter paper-based high schools at a lower evolutionary stage, that still ban the use of the children’s technology. Interestingly, the 2011 Project Tomorrow study observed:

In many ways, today’s 6th graders are more technology savvy and fluent with the emerging technologies than even their older siblings in high school (Project Tomorrow, 2011, p2).

Imagine if you were one of those students or their parents and are faced with the dilemma of what high school to attend.

High schools ill prepared to address the development could well be impacted enrolment wise. It is that important. It is thus critical that high schools – and here it is important to include middle schools and the secondary component of K-12 schools – understand the challenge, are aware of the factors that might impede their evolutionary journey and address the issue. It bears noting that the several newer pathfinder high schools studied, where the principal had been able to select most staff and imbue a whole of school culture from the outset, evolved at pace – even when having to address the below mentioned potential hurdles.

Size of organisation is undoubtedly a factor impacting the path to digital normalisation and beyond. It is appreciably easier to change the culture of a school of 150 students with the requisite staff compared to one of 1,500 students.

The traditional loosely coupled high school organisational structure (Weick, 1976), where the individual silo like units – or as some would say ‘empires’ – are run largely autonomously, can be an impediment. Schools wanting to pursue a common shaping educational vision, to shift to a digital operational base that will naturally grow the school, to integrate the school’s operations, lower and in time remove the existing internal walls and create a evermore tightly focussed school ecology, will need to create a more integrated entity. Organisationally the starting place for most high schools is well behind the more holistic model found in the primary school. Primary teachers who have traditionally had as their focus the holistic development of the child and a concern for the macro education are that much easier for an astute principal to build upon than their subject focussed secondary counterparts.

The challenge of the segmented organisational structure can be increased by a strongly hierarchical management structure where the middle level managers of the operational units – the faculties – all too often control ‘their’ staff. Theirs is invariably a micro focus, with a concentration on the subject and content that has little to do with the macro development of the school. Allied is the reality that many in this position are, as the label connotes, managers not leaders, who are in a tenured role, who occupy the position for years, and who derive their power and standing from their role.

The strong subject, KLA focus of the faculties, while important, can unwittingly serve to reinforce the segmented nature of the school. Invariably, high school teachers introduce themselves as maths teachers, teachers of English, and/or Physics specialists, rather than like their primary colleagues who introduce themselves as a teacher of school X. Once again, the high school is likely to be starting behind its primary counterparts in the quest to have the teaching staff contribute both in their area of responsibility and to the macro workings of the school.

That quest is not aided, when, as explained in the earlier article on Empowering All, the secondary teachers are disempowered professionally and viewed simply as ‘assembly line’ workers bid to focus on their part of the production process. While it is vital that teachers are expert in their area of teaching, and that expertise is forever strengthened, they need, at the Networked evolutionary stage and beyond (Lee and Broadie, 2014), to also be educators simultaneously contributing to the holistic 24/7/365 teaching of their students.

Vitally, as indicated previously, all the teachers need to be using the digital technology naturally in their everyday teaching if the school is to move to a digital operational base, to grow naturally, to achieve the total uptake of BYOT, and to move to the Digital Normalisation stage and beyond.

That quest, in most education authorities in the developed world, has been, and is still today, impeded by the continued and archaic reliance on paper-based external final exams. As discussed more fully in a forthcoming article, while the use of external exams ought to be questioned, more stultifying is the continued reliance on the low level and markedly limited technology: paper. That technology not only obliges schools to waste considerable time preparing the students for the now dated mechanics of sitting a two or three hour written exam, but vitally means the assessment methods employed by the certifying authorities are lower order, inefficient, expensive, and unable to employ the higher order assessment methods possible with evermore sophisticated digital technology.

The movement to the Digital Normalisation stage and beyond obliges the schools to genuinely collaborate with their homes, to trust and respect their contribution, and to actively involve them and their digital technology in the 24/7/365 teaching of the young. This attribute was evidenced in all the pathfinder schools, be they primary, special schools, K-12, or high schools. Primary schools, with their close relationship with the parents, particularly in the early childhood years, are once again invariably better positioned to ramp up that genuine home-school collaboration than most high schools which historically have been loath to distribute their control of the teaching and learning, and genuinely collaborate with their parents.


Notwithstanding the very considerable body of educational expertise in their ranks, high schools are, in general terms, starting behind their primary counterparts in their quest for digital normalisation and indeed until they are able to lower or remove the aforementioned impediments, are highly likely to continue to evolve and move to the higher order teaching more slowly than the primary schools.

How they best address the potential considerable disappointment of primary school graduates encountering the significant drop in the quality and relevance of the teaching in the high school, is likely to be a very real challenge for some years.

The research would strongly suggest the high schools genuinely collaborate not only with the prospective parents but more importantly their colleagues in those schools at or near the Digital Normalisation stage, primary, K-12, special, or high school, whose expertise has enabled them to successfully address, over the years, the near on 50 key variables needing attention to secure the desired ongoing organisational evolution. In some situations it might oblige secondary educators to recognise the organisational shortcomings of their present school structures and the necessity of talking to and learning from those that have demonstrated their organisational and cultural capacity to continue evolving at pace.



  • Lee, M (in press) Digital Normalisation and School Transformation
  • Lee, M and Broadie, R (2014) A Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages Broulee Australia Retrieved 12 June 2014 from
  • Project Tomorrow (2011) The New Three E’s of Education: Enabled, Engaged and Empowered Speak Up 2010 National Findings Project Tomorrow 2011. Retrieved 24 June 2014 at –
  • Weick, K (1976) ‘Educational organisations as loosely coupled systems’. Administrative Science Quarterly 21 1976



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Mal Lee
Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now, author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.

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