Category Archives: School ecologies and complexity theory

The Changing Role and Purpose of the School Website

Mal Lee

The role, purpose and importance of the school website is changing at pace in those schools globally that have moved to a digital operational base, are on track to normalise the use of the digital throughout and which are rapidly creating their own, unique, tightly integrated digital ecosystem.

The digital evolution that is transforming every facet of these schools is profoundly impacting those school’s websites, moving the website from its traditional peripheral position to being core and critical to the school’s everyday operations, its teaching, growth, evolution and enhanced performance and productivity.

The time has come when all schools and education authorities need to recognise that change, and the profound implications that flow at both the school and education authority level.

Moreover they would be as well to grasp the critical reality that with society normalising the everyday use of the digital, digital transformation and the movement of the digital schools away from the loosely coupled, segmented, almost silo like, organisation to a form that is evermore tightly integrated the part played by the school website fundamentally changes, both in nature and standing.

In the traditional highly segmented, insular paper based school the website has been viewed as but one of the many largely discrete parts of the school, largely peripheral to the everyday teaching. In many instances it has been window dressing, sometimes very high quality window dressing but in the main it has done little to enhance the pedagogy or student learning.

Crucially the online experience has been viewed as separate from and lesser than the physical.

In marked contrast within digitally based schools an apposite, dynamic, ever evolving, working website is central to virtually every operation, including the school’s 24/7/365 teaching.

Indeed without that website schools cannot create their desired digital ecosystem and successfully realise their shaping educational and digital vision.

Try and imagine how organisations like Apple, Amazon, News Ltd or the Tax Office could operate without their websites and you’ll begin to appreciate how critical they are to the workings and growth of digitally based schools.

That fundamental difference needs to be understood and the discussions begun at the school and system level on what is required to move forward.

As Westerman and his colleagues observe (Westerman et al, 2014) societies that have normalised the use of the digital no longer differentiate between the online and physical experience.

If, as some appear to be doing, the school wants to remain as a traditional paper based, silo like organisation focussed on readying its students for paper based external examinations those discussions on the website are not needed.

If however your school’s desire is normalise the use of the digital and create an ever evolving digital school ecosystem that will educate each child for today you do need to have the conversation and decide what is to be done.

Interestingly ask any school leader or educational administrator why an apposite website is critical to the successful whole school embrace of BYOT or the evolution of the school’s ecosystem and it is likely only a handful could tell you why.

Moreover ask a software house to create a website for a digital school and it is likely even the best and more prescient will still prepare a polished offering for the traditional mode of schooling.

The desire with this article is begin remedying those shortcomings and to highlight the core, multifaceted role of the school website – and its associated digital communications suite – in the digital transformation and evolution of schooling.

The Traditional Website

For the last 15-20 years the school website has been largely peripheral to the school’s everyday workings and in particular its teaching. It has been primarily a static source of information, a marketing tool and possibly a gateway to the inner, seemingly secret teaching of the school that necessitated password entry. The closed classroom door was retained when the school went online. In many education authorities globally the websites have been ‘cookie’ cut’ with their operations tightly controlled by the central office bureaucrats and the external ICT experts. The schools were invariably given little say in their form even at a time when schools were being given greater decision making and obliged to shape their own growth. Even today at least one Australian education authority still prohibits schools having their own website, while other authorities and their ICT controllers continue to micro manage the nature and workings of the ‘school’s’ site.

Invariably within the school an individual has had responsibility for maintaining the school site, ensuring it was not ‘spoilt’ by other staff, although that said one will find schools where the different operational units, like the library or student support services, also operate their own website, separate to that of the school.

In many schools, particularly the independent the site is maintained by the school’s public relations/marketing unit, ensuring the desired image, with the apposite Pepsodent smiles is always to the fore.

Do a quick scan of a cross section of school websites, primary and secondary, state and independent – including the award winners – and you’ll likely find most are still primarily sources of information, some very polished, some very dated. Undertake a Google search of the ‘purpose’ or ‘importance’ of school websites and you’ll find even the more reasoned such that by University of Florida – http://fcit.usf.edu/websites/chap1/chap1.htm– still underscore the largely peripheral, information providing role.

The choice of the award winning sites appears to have far more to do with looks, design finesse and interactivity than functionality and how the facility contributes to the realisation of the school’s shaping educational and digital vision.

Significantly most will also be closely ‘guarded’ sites with community access to any teaching materials invariably restricted by password.

Emergence of the ‘working’ website

From the mid 2000’s as the first of the schools globally moved to a digital operational base and began their digital evolution one has seen in all those schools the on-going transformation and evolution of the school’s website, that as indicated by Lee (2013) mirrored the school’s evolutionary path, and which saw its shift from a peripheral to a core role.

The website, like those in all other digitally based organisations, plays a central, multi-faceted role, assisting enhance the school’s culture and ecosystem, furthering the school’s growth and evolution, enabling the school to interface with the networked world, being used integrally in every facet of the schools’ 24/7/365 teaching, the integration of all school operations, educational and administrative and the on-going enhancement of the school’s efficiency, effectiveness and productivity.

The website increasingly became the interface for the school’s community and a medium that facilitated the integration of all the school’s operations in and outside the school walls.

In contrast to the largely constant peripheral offerings these are dynamic working sites that are being updated and added to virtually every minute of the day by all within the school’s community, be they the children, the teachers, the parents or community members.

The focus is very much on the work to be done, educational and administrative and using the site – and the associated digital services – to do that work as expeditiously, simply, effectively and productively as possible, and where apposite to have the technology simultaneously perform multiple roles and to automate the tasks at hand.

While rightly concerned to project a professional image these are 24/7 /365 worksites where sections might at any times appear as messy as the physical classroom. If that is so, so be it.

Look for example at the websites of The Gulf Harbour School (NZ) – http://www.gulfharbour.school.nz – or that of Broulee Public School at – http://www.brouleepublicschool.nsw.edu.au – and you’ll soon appreciate what is meant by ‘working’ websites. These sites, like those in the other schools that have normalised the use of the digital, employ a template service that makes it easy for all the teachers and students and indeed interested parents and community members to publish to the site. Long gone is the sole publisher controlling all uploads, but not a quality controller astutely ensuring unnecessary mess is removed.

They are moreover multi-purpose entities where the website provides seamless access to a plethora of online facilities and services, removing the divide between the school’s physical and online offerings. While reference has been made to the ‘website’ that is partly a misnomer because as apparent in both the above mentioned sites there are links to an ever evolving digital communications suite that includes such diverse services as an emailed school communiqué, an online survey facility, advice on new teaching programs or resources, the online advisement of student absence, Twitter, Facebook and the facility to instantly inform parents of a critical incident, like a death. Indeed as a colleague has suggested it might be opportune to find another term to describe the role played by the website in a digital school.

The sites are modular in nature with the schools using a mix of free and leased online services, able to quickly discard superseded ‘modules’ and replace them with a new more apposite ‘module’.

Critically both these sites are open for anyone to view. The parents, grandparents miles away, interested educators, education authorities or prospective parents all have open access to the day’s teaching, being able to readily view and if they wish comment upon the work. Yes the schools have had to do their homework and have permission to reveal the children and the work but that is just part of operating within a digital and networked world, collaborating with one’s community.

The closed doors are opened and the teachers and children can with pride reveal the work done.

Simultaneously, and without any extra effort by the teachers or students the school are using the website – through the medium of the likes of blogs and wikis – to enhance the teaching and learning, to daily enhance the school’s ecology, to collaborate with and inform the student’s homes, to account for the school’s work, to receive instant and continual feedback and vitally to automatically promote the school.

Of note is the number of parents globally who now make their choice of school after scrutinising the open working websites of the digital pathfinders; Net Generation parents who can explore the natural workings of the school without the PR spin and experience first hand the unique digital ecosystem the school has created. Going is the need for the specialist Web/PR unit.

They very much appreciate the school website provides an invaluable actual the insight into the school’s thinking, aspirations and daily workings that can not be replicated by even the best marketers.

The website affirms by virtue of its intimate ties with the school’s total operations, that the school and its teachers are working within a higher order tightly integrated digital ecology that is simultaneously addresses the many variables that enhance student learning.

Conclusion

This type of school ecology and culture, and the use of a website that will further its growth takes, as the many previous articles underscore, years of astute concerted effort to create.

That said if you want your school to create that unique, ever evolving, digitally based ever higher order ecosystem your school too will need to build into your planning from the outset the creation of the apposite website and complementary digital communications suite.

The Changing Role and Purpose of the School Website

Bibliography

  • Lee, M (2013b) ‘School Websites as Indicators of School’s Evolutionary Position’. Educational Technology Solutions No. 55 2013
  • Westerman, G, Bonnett, D and McAfee, A (2014) Leading Digital. Turning Technology into Business Transformation, Boston, Harvard Business Review Press

 

Chaos and order – the new working paradox

 

Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

Schools increasingly will need to work, nay thrive with the seeming paradox of accommodating seeming operational chaos at the same time as the on-going quest for order.

Tom Peter’s famously wrote Thriving on Chaos for the business world in 1987.

25 plus years on much of that advice is now apt for schools operating on a digital base and evolving at pace.

Couple that advice with the understanding provided by complexity science on the nature of organisational evolution and you’ll appreciate why in time all schools and their staff will work in what seems at first glance a paradoxical situation.

The pathfinder schools are unwittingly learning the art of thriving on chaos where daily they are contending with what to do with inadequate old practises, the promise of the new, the messiness, uncertainty and at times the seeming chaos associated with the substituting the old for the new and the order that comes with astute adoption and normalised use of more apposite approaches. What we found in all the pathfinder schools, in all four nations was a palpable excitement, student pleasure, and the very noticeable professional satisfaction of the staff.

On-going change and evolution that was orchestrated from within the school was increasingly accepted as the norm. Staff, the students and the parents appeared remarkably accepting of the on-going evolution. It was quite remarkable how quickly time honoured practises disappeared and new practises became normalised and accepted.

The new, but very pleasant challenge for the school leaders in the pathfinders was the need at times to apply the brakes on the rate of the school’s evolutionary transformation and to ensure highly committed and excited teachers didn’t over extend themselves and ‘burn out’. As indicated in the evolutionary stage attributes school leaders needed increasingly to monitor the work of highly committed staff, to identify how each expressed stress and to employ appropriate ‘welfare’ measures.

The contrast with the constancy and order in many of the paper based schools where change, internal and external, is frowned upon, many teachers have ‘switched off’ and where a sizeable proportion of the students find the teaching irrelevant and boring is pronounced.

Tellingly while as indicated in the earlier post on complexity science the digital schools constantly seek order in most of what they do they are simultaneously excited about taking advantage of the educational opportunities being opened. They appear to be very willing to move into unchartered territory if they believe it will assist enhance the student learning, knowing full well mistakes might be made and alternatives might have to be pursued. Moreover they seemingly better understand the macro scene, the increasingly interrelatedness of all school operations and the importance of ensuring the ever evolving school ecology provided the desired education.

The key in all the pathfinders was the existence of a culture, a school ecology that supported change and on-going evolution, which valued leadership at multiple levels and teachers taking risks and trying the new, with the concomitant implications.

While highly unlikely to be versed in the workings of complexity science the schools and their staff appear to be very comfortable working with the seeming paradox of chaos and order.

 

Peters, T (1987) Thriving on Chaos NY Alfred A Knopf

Taking Control of Your School’s Evolution

Mal Lee

Critical to the evolution of schooling is the necessity of each school taking control of its own evolution, daily shaping its ever evolving and distinct ecology to provide the desired education.

All of the pathfinder schools studied in the researching A Taxonomy of School Evolution and the forthcoming work on Digital Normalisation and School Transformation had been proactive, and had of their own volition for 15-20 years embarked on the quest to provide what they believed to be an apposite education for an ever evolving digital and networked world.

They were not, like so many other schools willing to sit and wait for those on high to provide the lead.

The growing imperative for every school to take charge of evolution, and not fall into a state of equilibrium is explored in the ACER’s new online journal Teacher at – http://teacher.acer.edu.au/article/taking-charge-of-your-schools-evolution

Complexity Science and School Evolution

 

Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

The evolutionary nature of schooling, its remarkable global similarity, the existence of the six evolutionary stages, the emergence of ever higher order schooling, evermore integrated and complex schools and the increasing importance of unique living school ecologies needing to have operational responsibility for their own growth should bid educators and school administrators look very closely at the applicability of complexity science to the on-going transformation of schooling. That need is amplified when one reflects upon the following graph used by Helbing (2014) in his June presentation on the likely impact of the digital technology upon the organisations of the world.

chart_vp1

While complexity science had its origins in the explanation of the remarkable commonality that was found to emerge out of the seeming chaos in complex systems in nature in the last decade or so that thinking has been increasingly applied to complex human systems to try and explain the remarkable commonality that has emerged in the seeming chaotic growth of human organisations, particularly when they move to a digital operational base and become networked. A Google search and the Wikipedia entry on complexity science provide a ready entrée to the key readings. While as yet very little has been written on the application of the thinking to the evolution of schools there is a growing body of research that has been undertaken on businesses, and indeed health sector organisations that appears to be applicable to schools. In conceptualising the school evolutionary stages, the international nature of the evolutionary continuum, the existence of significant natural growth when schools go digital, the imperative of each school shaping its own growth and the impact of digital normalisation it was interesting to say the least to note the parallels with what had happened with all manner of business organisations. Yin for example as far back as 1979 used the term ‘disappearance’ to describe what we call digital normalisation while Bar and his colleagues at Stanford used the term ‘routinization’.

Yin therefore recognizes that the introduction of an innovation can result in organizational transformation through a process of increased embeddedness of the technology in the organization, which is consistent with the reconfiguration stage of our model (Bar, et al, 2000 p20). Interestingly the Stanford group also identified the same kind of evolutionary stages in networked organisations that we found in schools, albeit using different labels to describe the industry wide evolutionary pattern (Bar et al, 2000).

Those organisational evolution studies need to be read in conjunction with Pascale, Milleman and Gioja’s work on Surfing at the Edge of Chaos (2000). The following quote from that work provides a revealing an insight into what is happening with both the pathfinding ever more complex schools and those lagging.

‘The science of complexity has yielded four bedrock principles relevant to the new strategic work:

  1. Complex adaptive systems are at risk when in equilibrium. Equilibrium is a precursor to death.4

  2. Complex adaptive systems exhibit the capacity of self-organization and emergent complexity.5 Self-organization arises from intelligence in the remote clusters (or “nodes”) within a network. Emergent complexity is generated by the propensity of simple structures to generate novel patterns, infinite variety, and often, a sum that is greater than the parts. (Again, the escalating complexity of life on earth is an example.)

  3. Complex adaptive systems tend to move toward the edge of chaos when provoked by a complex task.6 Bounded instability is more conducive to evolution than either stable equilibrium or explosive instability. (For example, fire has been found to be a critical factor in regenerating healthy forests and prairies.) One important corollary to this principle is that a complex adaptive system, once having reached a temporary “peak” in its fitness landscape (e.g., a company during a golden era), must then “go down to go up” (i.e., moving from one peak to a still higher peak requires it to traverse the valleys of the fitness landscape). In cybernetic terms, the organism must be pulled by competitive pressures far enough out of its usual arrangements before it can create substantially different forms and arrive at a more evolved basin of attraction.

  4. One cannot direct a living system, only disturb it.7 Complex adaptive systems are characterized by weak cause-and-effect linkages. Phase transitions occur in the realm where one relatively small and isolated variation can produce huge effects. Alternatively, large changes may have little effect. (This phenomenon is common in the information industry. Massive efforts to promote a superior operating system may come to naught, whereas a series of serendipitous events may establish an inferior operating system —such as MS-DOS — as the industry standard.) (Pascale, Milleman and Gioja, 2000, p6).’

We’d suggest all four of the principles are evident in bucket loads in the schools evolutionary continuum.   The recent presentation by Helbing (2014) that examines the likely profound impact on the world of the rapidly increasing processing power and computer systems and which notes the increasingly pertinence of complexity science to all organizations posits that only the individual operational units – be it a school or hospital – has the wherewithal to shape desired way forward for the organisation. His contention is that the speed and complexity of the change occurring cannot be handled – as now – from on high and ought be handled at the unit level by bureaucracies, he noting

….complexity theory tell us that it is actually feasible to create resilient social and economic order by means of self-organisation, self-regulation, and self-governance. The work of Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom and others has demonstrated this. By “guided self-organisation” we can let things happen in a way that produces desirable outcomes in a flexible and efficient way. One should imagine this embedded in the framework of today’s institutions and stakeholders, which will eventually learn to interfere in minimally invasive ways (Helbing, 2014).

Interestingly all the pathfinder schools in their evolutionary journey have taken control of their own growth and it is why today those schools are so well positioned to accommodate the continuing and likely escalating change organizational evolution.   Bibliography

  • Bar, F, Kane, N, and Simard, C (2000) Digital networks and Organisational Change. The Evolutionary deployment of Corporate Information Infrastructure Vancouver 2000 Retrieved 19 June 2014 – http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~fbar/Publications/sunbelt-2000.PDF
  • Pascale, R.T, Millemann, M, Gioja, L (2000) Surfing at the Edge of Chaos NY Three Rivers Press

 

Schools as Ever Evolving Ecologies

 

Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

We’ve found it helpful in considering the distinct nature of digital schools to view them as ever evolving, evermore tightly integrated ecologies where all the parts are increasingly linked.

They stand in marked contrast to the traditional paper based schools, and in particular the secondary schools that have long been viewed as largely constant, loosely coupled organisations where silo like units within the school operate largely independently. Indeed Karl Weick’s thinking on schools as loosely coupled organisations, that was penned in 1976 still holds true with most high schools today.

However view the attributes displayed by the pathfinder schools as they moved along the evolutionary continuum and you’ll see, as noted in the earlier posts the traditional loosely coupled school becoming evermore integrated and tightly coupled, with all the operations being increasingly linked to the realisation of the school’s shaping educational vision.

As the natural growth impacted, as the staff and client expectations rose, as new opportunities were identified so the schools evolved with all the parts becoming increasingly intertwined. The schools became increasingly distinct, ever-evolving ecologies addressing the particular needs of their situation by ensuring all facets of their operations, in and outside the school walls were linked and the silos were more closely integrated or dispensed with.

Moreover the digital convergence and the associated integration also saw the schools – often unwittingly – make ever-greater use of the facility the digital operational base provided to have the one facility serve multiple purposes with no extra effort by the staff.

Lee and Ward (2013) cite the example of school blogs where those blogs simultaneously and without any extra effort provided

  • an insight into the school’s daily activities to parents, grandparents, 
the local community and the students, and what they can do to 
complement that work
  • advice to parents on the school’s program, its calendar of events and 
the home study
  • a window into the workings of the school to all interested professionals, 
school or system executives or politicians
  • an important indicator as to where the school is at in its evolution
  • instant, ongoing accountability
  • the facility for instant teacher ‘evaluation’ and an insight into who is 
adding value
  • very powerful marketing of the school
  • an appreciation of how well the school operations are integrated (Lee and Ward, 2013, p89).

Factor in that all the schools were moreover increasingly marrying the teaching of the homes with that of the schools, and creating an increasingly integrated and tightly coupled 24/7/365 school ecology.

The challenge for the school leadership, and in particular the principal in the digital and networked school is to daily ensure not only are all the parts in the evolving ecology appropriately are apposite and can be integrated but that the total school ecology is shaped in a way that will best provide the desired educational benefits.

The challenge for researchers in or outside the school becomes ever greater. Thus far educational research has in the main been silo like looking primarily at linear connections within a part of the school’s operations. In integrated, ever-more complex, ever changing ecologies where the impact might come from synergies that are greater than the sum of the parts, and where much of the change is non-linear the difficulty of ascertaining what impacts student attainment will be challenging to say the least.

That said by recognizing that one is working with evolving, ever higher order ecologies – and not static loosely coupled entities – helps all associated with the school, be they the staff, the clients, community or the authorities, better understand the school’s nature and what is required for its on-going enhancement.

It is most assuredly not ‘one size fits all schools’ silver bullet solutions handed down from high.

The idea of a living, ever evolving complex ecology, which will forever experience significant natural growth and where all the parts will increasingly be intertwined, in and outside the school walls helps the school community, and in particular the school staff better understand their very different teaching and learning environment.

 

Lee, M and Ward, L (2013) Collaboration in learning: transcending the school walls Melbourne ACER Press

Weick, K, (1976) “Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems” Administrative Science Quarterly 21 1976