Trust And Digital Schooling


By Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

Trust is critical to the digital evolution of schools and in achieving digital normalisation. At first glance, the prominence accorded this key human trait might appear exaggerated. However, the deeper the authors delve and the more they work with school leaders globally in the digital evolution of their schools, the more critical becomes the willingness to trust, genuinely collaborate, empower and to distribute the control of the teaching, learning and school resourcing in the school’s growth and evolution.

Without trust, schools cannot thrive in a socially networked society and sharing economy.

The principal needs to trust and empower all staff, students, parents and the supporting community. That trust will be repaid in numerous, very positive and as yet not fully appreciated ways.

Trust fundamentally changes the nature of schooling and opens the way for a more collaborative 24/7/365 mode of schooling and resourcing. When pupils are trusted to take responsibility for their learning and collaboratively create a culture where disruption of learning is not acceptable, the pupils become a major new teaching resource. This can be used in all sorts of ways, including peer tutoring, peer assessment, pupil leaders of learning, in co-constructing the curriculum and even leading lessons.

The traditional hierarchically structured school is based on distrust, even if there is an appearance of devolved control. It is deemed imperative that a small executive team exercises unilateral control over all school operations. Neither the classroom teachers, the support staff, the students, the parents nor the community can be trusted, and their roles must be carefully managed from on high. The ethos is at root one of teachers and pupils doing what they are required to do on pain of sanctions, rather than an ethos of mutual expectation that what is required will be done because that is the job that the whole community is collaboratively engaged in.

The history of the use of instructional technology in schools (Lee and Winzenried, 2009) over the last century has been characterised by its distrust of teachers to use the technology wisely. That history sees teachers being obliged to secure licences to use the gear, instructional technologies being ‘teacher proofed’ and ironically, from around 1984, the ‘ICT experts’ controlling every facet of digital technology.

While ostensibly intended to promote the use of digital technology in teaching, the unilateral control exercised by the ICT experts and the distrust shown towards all users of the technology – and that includes principals – has and continues in many instances to stymy the digital evolution of schools. Most will have experienced or will still be experiencing ICT experts who refuse to trust teachers with the choice of their digital teaching tools, administrator rights, the network password or the unblocking of sites or services.

In many schools, the students have to use the prescribed device, the specified software and have every keystroke monitored. Students most assuredly cannot be trusted with their own digital technologies within the classroom or indeed to use the school’s technology without a teacher supervising. That distrust extends through to current times, as witnessed by the California iPad debacle.

The distrust stymies the school’s facility to make best use of its greatest resource; its people – salaried staff, students, families and community – and the very sizeable body of resources those people can bring to the play. All feel disempowered and unrecognised, most unwilling to put in the extra yards to assist the school’s growth.

In their consultancies and teaching, the authors continue to be amazed by the distrust shown by those in positions of power, their often petty and irrational distrust and seeming inability or unwillingness to consider the part they ought be playing in shaping the desired school ecosystem.

The experience of the pathfinder schools, extensively documented in the authors’ Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages (2016), is that when schools move to a digital operational mode they begin to use the technology to reach out beyond the school walls, to genuinely collaborate with their parent community and to recognise and respect the contribution the teachers, support staff, students, families and wider community can make to the holistic teaching of each child. If this process is not led by the principal, it is very likely to start happening surreptitiously, particularly amongst the pupils but with aware teachers also starting to use online systems and social networks. These schools begin to appreciate the benefits of more fully trusting all, empowering them and distributing the control of the teaching and learning.

That said it invariably takes time – likely years – before the leadership, and indeed the teachers, are willing to cede some of their power and distribute the control of teaching, learning and, significantly, the digital technology resourcing.

In many school settings, as the work by Lee and Levins (2016) will attest, some of the most reluctant to cede that control and trust others are the ICT experts. While in general terms most who have had control of the school’s digital technology have led the way in the distribution of the control, there has been many a rump group that has refused to change its ways, with some having to be dismissed or sidelined. Yes – for many, the ICT ‘empire’ has been their power base, but if schools are to normalise the whole-of-school community use of digital technology, the control has to be distributed and all within the school’s community must be trusted.

The school’s and in particular the principal’s willingness to trust will be crucially tested when faced with the decision of letting students use in class the suite of digital technologies they already use 24/7/365. Is the head prepared to trust students and parents and go with bring your own technology (BYOT) or declare his/her continued distrust by going the bring your own device (BYOD) route where the school specifies the personal technology? Is the principal willing to trust students and parents, accepting what to him/her might not appear be a perfect solution but which, in time, with genuine collaboration will not only work well but yield many other dividends? It is a critical decision in the school’s digital evolution.

Until the principal is willing to trust and respect each student’s and parent’s choice of technologies, and to genuinely collaborate with them in teaching, learning and technology resourcing, the school’s digital evolution will be stalled and digital normalisation will be unachievable. While there are schools with ‘successful’ (though expensive) approaches that provide all pupils with the same device, at the root of this is the school wishing to dictate the use of certain software or device functionality. This puts the focus on the technology rather than on the task to be achieved and denies innovation as the devices and software inevitably age. Far better to decide what human and interaction functionality is necessary for all pupils to use their devices.

Readers should reflect for a moment on their children’s normalised out-of-school use of digital technology and they will appreciate it is dependent on their trust in them to use and maintain the technology wisely. Children will invariably respect and build upon that trust, such that in a relatively short time their use of the technology becomes so normal as to be largely invisible. Reflect also on how socially networked people now answer their questions and solve their problems collaboratively, whether that be by contact with colleagues or strangers in forums, or by using reviews posted by others and pointers to resources via Twitter and blogs. In everyday life, people are all learning how to learn collaboratively.

That is what is wanted within the school walls, but it is only achievable when the school has created a whole-of-school culture – ecology – that trusts, respects and empowers the students and their parents, and values the contribution they can make to the workings, safety, resourcing and growth of the school.

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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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