Monthly Archives: July 2019

The Challenge of Creating a Digital School

Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

The challenge of leading, growing and sustaining the evolution of a digital school is immense.

Few globally have succeeded in creating, let alone sustaining the evolution of such schools.

Few school leaders have moved schools from a paper to a digitally based construct. Hundreds of thousands have acquired extensive digital technologies, with many teachers making astute of that technology, but virtually all are doing so within the traditional paper based construct, continuing to use the traditional. linear Industrial Age organisational structures and processes.

The schooling remains site based, unilaterally controlled by the head, with the teaching conducted within specified dates, at set times, for a prescribed period, with defined outcomes, invariably taught by solitary teachers who control everything within their classroom.

Most schools today structurally and organisationally are much the same as those 60-70, likely 100 plus years ago.

There are many reasons why, but likely the greatest is the constraints societies, their governments and bureaucrats impose on schools. They are immense, multifaceted and likely growing.

They are rarely mentioned in the school change literature or considered when major school change, like moving from a paper to a digital operational mode are contemplated.

History strongly affirms their consideration is far more important than the actual technology, both as relates to creating, and sustaining the evolution of a digitally mature school. 

That said schooling’s poor track record, and propensity for near all core school change to regress to the traditional ways does not mean that digital schools can’t be created and grown.

It will simply be challenging.

The key is to understand both the constraints and the factors that will allow you to go digital, and what it meant by create a digital organisation.

In researching the digital evolution of schooling globally (Lee and Broadie, 2018) and the young’s learning with the technology in and out of school over the last twenty-five years the authors’, as two experienced school administrators, were struck by the enormity and array of constraints facing today’s heads.

For a time, we seriously asked ourselves whether any change was possible, but slowly as we reflected on the ways forward, and Mal examined a core whole of system change that has been sustained for forty plus years we appreciated it was achievable, provided one observed the key tenets of organisational change, understood the constraints, and appreciated that working within a digital paradigm would allow astute, committed heads to overcome most of the hurdles.

The major constraint facing most of the world’s schools today is that very few governments or bureaucracies are committed to genuine school change. Every so often there is a committed national or provincial government wanting to provide an apt contemporary education but if you look back fifty years at your situation you’ll likely find few. Indeed, where fifty years ago school innovation and change was deemed paramount, today the focus of most governments is fine tuning the status quo. Most want to continue their control of all schooling, universally reluctant to foster the digital evolution and transformation of schooling.

Aiding their cause is the suite of structural, organisational, cultural, human, legislative, historical and societal impediments that most societies have unwittingly grown, most of which are intertwined, and many of which likely can never be varied. 

Atop those institutional constraints is a layer of society wide realities that impact school operations, the likes of OHS, sexual harassment, bullying, the privacy laws and the mandatory reporting of child abuse.

The Constraints.

  • Structural  

Schooling globally is still largely conducted in linear, hierarchical Industrial Age organisations, employing many Industrial Age practises and processes, still employing a paper based construct, readying students for the 1960s.  

As the world has found in its quest to accommodate accelerating digital transformation this type of rigid structure lacks the agility and flexibility needed to accommodate the rapid, unintended, uncertain change of the Digital Revolution.

The corporate world soon appreciated substantial restructuring, and a move away from the model was essential if organisations were to become digitally mature, able to continually meet rapidly evolving client expectations.  

That need seemingly has never been recognised with schooling, and indeed over time the workings of ‘schools’ industry’ has acted to reinforce the existing structure.  Procedures have been documented, institutionalised and handbooks written declaring what can and can’t be done. Funds have been locked away in time honoured budget categories, with it near impossible to free them for new priorities. 

Most school systems continue to employ a variant of the ‘Westminster’ system of administration with ‘ministers of education’, who invariably have no teaching experience, are advised by ‘departmental heads’ who increasingly are public service administrators with no background in schooling; lacking the educational understanding, drive and vision to lead or even facilitate core change.

Structurally teaching still mainly occurs within the physical place called school, within the prescribed dates and hours.  The focus continues to be site based, schools largely rejecting any moves to recognise out of school learning, or to collaborate and network with any other parties in the education of the young. 

The schools, like the factories of old, still operate as stand-alone entities, the curriculum, teaching, student assessment and everyday operations intended for use only within the classrooms, in class hours.

Physical and digital access to the school’s workings continues to be limited, with the parents having scant understanding of and no say in the teaching occurring behind closed classroom doors. 

The students move as age cohorts along a 12/13 year ‘production’ line, where there is still a strong division of labour, with the students invariably taught in class groups, with solitary teachers teaching their designated part of the K-12 curriculum. 

In being obliged to focus on the micro most classroom teachers, particularly at the secondary level, are professionally disempowered, lacking the macro understanding of the school’s total workings needed to assist bring about organisational change.

The teaching, like the movement of the age cohort, continues to be linear in nature, planned, tightly structured, teacher controlled, with most areas of learning taught year on year. In most situations, the time to be spent on teaching various areas of the curriculum is prescribed, with there being little scope for spontaneous, integrated, collaborative teaching or the use of micro-credentials.  

Most school teaching, learning, student assessment and certification continues to have a strong academic focus, with tertiary academics invariably shaping the teaching program, ensuring academic ‘standards’ are maintained and that the ‘right’ students are readied for university.  The workplace continues to have relatively little sway on school teaching, running a distant second to the academics.

Globally schooling, through the internal and external testing regime continues to sort and sift, with the final, invariably paper based handwritten exams rewarding future management personnel.

Significantly the data gathered in conducting the Industrial Age academic tests has grown its own industry, private and public sector, who in turn use that data to reinforce the status quo. 

The ‘quality’ and ‘effectiveness’ of the production line is tightly overseen by a brace of in and out school authorities. Within the school the teachers are controlled by their unit managers, who in turn are obliged to follow the dictates of a suite of external control groups, the likes of the central office bureaucrats, auditors, inspectors, curriculum agencies, exam boards, and the teacher registration, and teaching standards authorities.

Staff remuneration and rewards, for teachers, the professional support, executive and heads is still based on the traditional thinking. Reward is given the ability to maintain the status quo, in a risk-free manner, with rarely any incentive given to innovate. 

While governments globally continue to laud the opening of their latest ‘school of the future’ the system school building code invariably continues to ready plant for running the traditional school. 

  • Organisational

Organisationally schools continue in the main to be strongly hierarchical, with the principal atop the pyramid being the prime decision maker, mostly unwilling to distribute the unilateral control, and empower others.

Most schools, heads and even governments moreover seemingly believe that only the professionals, working on the school site can and should teach, invariably unwilling to recognise any out of schooling learning or teaching. 

Student assessment and credentialing is zealously monopolised by the schools and education authorities.

It is appreciated that over the last century there have been schools at all levels that sought to flatten the hierarchy and empower more of the community, and shift away from the bell curve, but they remain as ever a minority.

In most the head, and a small executive run the school.

Most teachers and professional support staff remain disempowered, micromanaged, restricted to their area of responsibility, with little or no say in the macro workings of the school.

The parents and students, the clients, sit at the bottom of the pyramid, having no real say in the school’s operations, with the children, having no voice in the teaching or their learning, obliged to instantly comply with all staff demands.

The professionals know best, with the clients expected to appreciate that expertise.

While over the decades, significant organisational change has been attempted, most schools today, and particularly the secondary remain strongly segmented, with the units/faculties having significant authority over ‘their’ operations, and the teachers continuing to work alone with ‘their’ students’. Efforts to better integrate the teaching, to have teachers collaborate are often frustrated by faculties refusing to cede power.

  • Cultural

Culturally most schools have changed little in the last century.

The ‘masters’, even though now mostly female, remain very much in control, dictating the students’ every move.

The learning culture is invariably autocratic in nature.

The students K-12 are distrusted, disempowered, having no voice in their learning, what is taught or assessed, when or how. Their very considerable out of school learning with the digital is rarely recognised. The contrast between in and out of school learning cultures is ever greater, with the digitally connected young globally being trusted and empowered to take charge of their learning with the digital.

While the schools continue to ban the in-school use of the young’s personal technologies the student’s families actively support their children’s astute 24/7/365 use of those technologies in their learning.

Fear remains very real from the early childhood years onwards. Today, as was so a century ago, the students are expected to immediately comply, to conform, understanding that if they don’t they will be disciplined, no matter how petty or daft the instructions.

Likely most parents, except on special occasions will be reluctant to enter the school, particularly if to see the head.

The ‘jocks and burnouts’ scenario so aptly described by Eckert in 1989 still holds globally. The academic achievers, who know how to play the game are rewarded, and those whose interests and talents lie elsewhere are largely disregarded, unless they act out.

  • Human

The human resources provided the schools are those readied by the universities and employers to maintain the status quo, where everyone knows their place.

Few, if any of those institutions have sought to develop principals with the appropriate skill and mindset, able to successfully lead and grow a continually evolving, increasingly integrated, highly complex digitally mature organisation.

The small cadre of heads able to play that role and successfully lead a digital school are largely self-developed.

Their leadership, like the CEO’s of the digital master’s in business (Westerman, et.al, 2014) is critical to the successful digital evolution and transformation of schooling.

While employers speak continually about appointing ‘leaders’ as heads they invariably appoint ‘managers’ who can do the state’s bidding, lacking the ability or desire to markedly change a school, or importantly continue the work of an innovative head. 

Those ‘managers’ are one of the most telling constraints on significant school change, regardless of how good is the staff. 

The authors know of few selection criteria designed to appoint leaders of digital schools.

Interestingly in a connected world few schools or education authorities have opted 

to take advantage of what Shirky (2012) terms the cognitive surplus of networked societies, that seemingly unbounded willingness for people online to assist others.

Rather the focus appears to be on imposing ever more controls on the existing limited human resources, lifting the accountability, restricting the ability to draw others in to the learning, obliging police checks, mandating national standards and requiring regular accreditation.

Conclusion

To these already considerable constraints one needs to add the many legislative, historical and societal hurdles.

You’ll invariably think of others.

It is easy to see why most schools haven’t fundamentally changed in the last fifty years, why so little innovation is sustained and why most schools will likely stay the same for many years to come – despite the need to evolve.

Pleasingly the experience of the pathfinder schools reveals the shift from a paper to increasingly digital base enables the school to overcome many of the impediments, but others will remain, frustrating your efforts.

The key is to understand they exist, that some can’t be changed or even by-passed but most can if approached astutely as a school community.

 Schools as formal state approved organisations will never have the freedom of digitally connected families but as digital constructs they can be configured to provide a far more apt contemporary education than now.

In opting to lead a digital school, and to provide what you believe to be the desired education you could well be flying solo, without the support of most heads, the education authority, tertiary educators or government. 

Some might even actively oppose your quest.

But that said change at the individual school level is possible.

So too is the capacity to sustain that change.

But it requires astute committed heads with vision who understand the challenges and realities, and who are willing to bear the burden that comes from wanting to do best by one’s students.

Bibliography

  • Eckert, P (1989) Jocks and BurnoutsNY Teachers College Press
  • Lee, M and Broadie, R (2018) Digitally Connected Families. And the Digital Education of the World’s Young, 1993 – 2016, Armidale, Australia, Douglas and Brown – http://douglasandbrown.com/publications/–  
  • Shirky, C (2012) Cognitive SurplusNew York Penguin
  • Westerman, G, Bonnett, D and McAfee, A (2014) Leading Digital. Turning Technology into Business Transformation, Boston, Harvard Business Review Press