Digital Leadership: Retraining The Aircraft Pilots Whilst The Plane Is In The Air!


By Brian Host and Andrew Coote

A wise person once said to me, “Drop the program and look at the end goal, where do we want to see our students? What type of learners do we want them to become? What type of world will they be walking into as adults?” Even though these questions are big, they helped to frame a discussion on digital leadership with my digital leader and Head of Junior School Andrew Coote.

Digital leadership needs to be deliberate and intentional, and linked to a vision or a strategy; it cannot be random and haphazard. However, this does not mean that a particular program will be the cure to all ills. Digital leadership empowers the use of ICT to support the creation of individualised learning for each student. The learning is the focus and technology is the tool. To this end, pedagogy can be identified as the starting point for building any quality form of digital leadership. It is the belt on which tools are hung. Technology should be a tool that is used to magnify or amplify the learning and to examine and analyse teaching.

As a leader, understanding how to sell vision is crucial, since teachers will often adopt ideas and new ways of doing things if they can see how it will benefit the educational outcomes of students and streamline their workload. Educators are empowered to choose the technology or resource that is best for the lesson and the learners, allowing the focus on the learner and not on the teacher.

When the authors implemented a bring your own device (BYOD) program at their school, a lot of thought went into the potential implications from both the teaching and learning perspectives. A decision was made to make the program voluntary, taking the pressure off teachers and students to have a device and being immediately able to use it efficiently and effectively. In doing so, there was larger ‘opt in’ because users could choose to get involved when they were ready. For some, that was day one and for others it took a few months, but by the end of the first year more than 95 percent of the teachers and students were using their devices in multiple lessons on a daily basis. Over time, a culture grew that encouraged greater use of this technology to enhance the overall educational outcomes for students. Examples of some of these include the use of online collaborative tools such as Google Apps for Education (GAFE) or Office 365, which opened up ways for students to present understandings through video creation or screencasting, or for teachers to move towards a more adaptive style of teaching using flipped resources. Having teachers see how learning improves and is manageable using a range of devices and technologies (document cameras, 3D printers, Lego technics) has given more weight to this cultural shift within the school.

In leading the change, it is essential to look at the value of change educationally. In the past, many schools spent $40,000 fitting out a room full of computers, which may have looked good, but in reality many classes would have only seen them once a week. In the contemporary context, schools should look at the devices students bring within a BYOD program and question if they are contributing educational value, but from a parent’s perspective. In creating a culture that understands that teachers and students are all growing, the answer is “yes” as the devices students are bringing hold a vast portfolio of evidence of their learning.

It could then be suggested that increased educational return on devices, whether school-owned or BYOD, relates directly to the educational budgets allocated and the time devoted to professional development. Professional learning essentially requires teachers to connect with the technology and embed it into the teaching and learning cycle. By utilising tools such as the Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework and the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model, teachers develop programs of new learning that would not have been able to be achieved without the integrated technology and related applications. Michael Fullan states that there are links between new pedagogical changes, deep learning outcomes and the role of technology. When practitioners look at the links between content, pedagogy and knowledge with the technology they arrive at a nexus that brings insight together with new practices. Therefore, it becomes much less about the device and much more about the learning that is happening within the classroom.

The authors’ school utilises flipped learning, adaptive learning and Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL); they are great in that they focus on inquiry-based learning and collectively increase student engagement, but in and of themselves they are not an answer to the needs of students. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for students, nor one strategy that meets every students’ needs and this is the same with approaches to technology integration.

A leadership team can set the bigger strategy and tone for digital leadership in the school, but teachers must be on board. Selling the idea and the direction in a non-threatening manner is paramount. Where teachers are invited to explore and to get used to how technology might enhance and amplify teaching and learning in the classroom, success is more likely. Identifying and appointing teachers who will be the early adopters (pioneers) and who have a willingness to experiment as leaders, iterators, coaches or coordinators can be one of the single greatest advantages schools can have. That coach does not undertake the integration of technology for other teachers, but models and paces the process in a way that makes sense to their colleagues. In this fashion, the coach is the one who asks them to do it, but is also the one supporting both the successes and the mishaps. Teachers knowing that they can try and have the support to try again when it does not work find themselves taking on, as Carol Dweck frames it, a growth mindset.

In establishing a culture of experimentation, the digital leader is empowering an approach that seeks to find how the learning experience of students is changed through embracing the technologies that are such an integral part of their non-school lives. A culture of experimentation focuses on the questions, “Is it making a difference at the grassroots? If it is not making a difference, why are we doing it?”

Having the coach embedded in their culture and seeing them on a daily basis allows others to fire a quick question when something is not working or they want to try something new. Informal before or after school or RFF coaching sessions also become commonplace, where coaches engage with teachers to support them to apply the skill they are working on. In the back of the coach’s mind is always the strategic direction laid down by school leadership and part of their role is to demonstrate how the skill the teacher is developing aligns with this.

When teachers begin to be more independent with technology, it then becomes the coach’s role to ask the question, “How do you see what you are doing with technology aligning with the key focus we have over the next two to three years?” George Couros proposes division is something to be avoided and dissipation of energy down sidetracks does not move schools towards adding value or improving student outcomes. Eric Sheningher points out that it is key for digital leaders to empower the conversation and stand behind it. By paying attention to where teachers are at, listening to them and having open lines of communication so that they can state what they need when they need it, school leaders are providing the best kind of digital leadership.

As digital leaders begin to equip teachers as individuals, they model what they expect for their students’ learning, individuals progressing at various rates and at a different pace. They also demonstrate respect by inviting teachers to grow technologically at a pace that is right for them. In similar ways for early adopters, this level of respect empowers opportunities that have a broader audience such as writing, running workshops at other schools and conference presentations, sharing the successes and failures and how they were overcome. This spreads the knowledge base and allows new ideas to be brought back.

At the authors’ school, they are endeavouring to sharpen the focus to ‘anytime, anywhere learning’ and to do that in a way that is meaningful. The next step they are working towards is developing a constant feedback loop to parents using real-time digital portfolios so that there is a transparency in the teaching and learning process. This enhances how parents can collaborate and partner with the school. The final step of their focus is working towards a ‘school in the cloud’ where they can engage with other experts and classes, and share their expertise in an online context, and where students can contribute and collaborate with classes both nationally and internationally.

Digital leaders are essentially retraining their peers in teaching within a Key Learning Area from the way it has been done to both understanding and teaching the semiotics of multimodal texts ‘on the go’. Fundamentally, they are retraining the aircraft pilots whilst the plane is in the air!


Brian Host is a passionate learner, classroom teacher and ICT learning coach. He is excited about the possibilities digital technologies offer both teachers and learners in making learning more meaningful, differentiated and individualised. He is currently studying his Masters of Educational Leadership. Brian’s twitter handle is @hostbrian

Andrew Coote is the current Head of Junior School at Inaburra School, Sydney, and has empowered leaders at schools in both Australia and in Asia. Andrew sits as the Academic Chair of IPSHA NSW and is in the final stages of completing his Doctor of Education with a focus on How Children Learn to Read Using Digital Devices. He can be followed on twitter @cooteandrew1

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