A message for the visionaries
Mal Lee and Roger Broadie
Schools, like every organisation should be operating within a digital construct, with the digital underpinning all learning and operations, continually shaping their digitally based ecosystem to ensure all students secure an apt, contemporary, holistic and strongly individualised education.
All principals, at least in our mind, should be leading in their schools digitally mature organisations (Kane, et.al, 2016), working with a digital mindset and using their very considerable talents, visioning, drive, knowledge, experience and people skills to continually provide a learning environment and culture that will assist ready the students for today.
The stark reality is that if you agree with our stance you are very much in a minority.
Most schools and educational administrators, from our experience and research don’t share that belief.
Most still work with an analogue mindset, seeing no need to move from traditional mode of schooling.
The related reality, you may well have encountered is that most educational decision makers don’t understand what it means to shift from a paper to digital operational base, and to lead a digital school.
Most likely see a digital school as one that makes extensive use of the appropriate digital technologies.
It entails being digital, not simply doing digital.
They don’t seemingly grasp that schools globally invariably fit the use of the digital into what still is a paper-based construct, where the paper technology impacted how the school was structured and run. The use of paper obliged the teachers and students to come together in a physical site where the paper could be readily passed by hand. The teachers control of the paper based information placed them in charge of the learning, managing the flow of the information how they saw fit. If the digital technology is perceived to disrupt the paper based mode its use is rejected, the schools continuing with its traditional ways, albeit with some digital trappings.
In moving to a digital operational mode, in the digital being so normalised in every school operation as to be largely invisible the organization is, as the digital leaders in business have long recognized, (Westerman, et.al, 2014) free to throw off the shackles of the paper technology, and rethink its structure and every facet of the teaching and learning.
The change coming from digital is so fundamental that we have to question everything we have in the organization. Julian Weber, Head of Retail Shell (Durham, Fross and Rosethorn (2019, p6).
That fundamental rethinking that is now happening across both the private and public sectors holds equally with schools that move to a digital operational mode.
Reality says however that digital schools must attune their operations to the contemporary context and reality, charting their growth and evolution ever conscious of their client’s expectations and aspirations, and their local and national obligations and constraints.
If you are of a mind to take on the challenge of leading a digital school do so with your eyes wide open, and factor in to your planning the educational enhancement made possible by working within a digital construct but temper that thinking with a good portion of reality.
The assumption, as we’ve indicated, is that core educational change is relatively easy to achieve. It is not. And yet every month you’ll likely have received invitations to workshops and conferences, locally, nationally and internationally detailing how it can be achieved and sustained.
While those gatherings are likely great social occasions very few address the reality that most schools haven’t fundamentally changed in over a century, that near all core innovation has not been sustained, and that there is a plethora of barriers to be addressed to achieve the sustained shift to a digital operational mode.
In retrospect most of us, the authors included, likely haven’t given due regard to the historical reality, the myriad of constraints to core school change, and how we might better have addressed those constraints. While it is likely most heads have always been a general appreciation of those constraints, one will struggle to find in the literature and the school’s plans a recognition of the constraints, those can be overcome and that can’t.
Most will have their SWOT analysis, but within the ‘threats’ most will likely rarely have included the stark realities of school change.
History affirms the following, salutatory realities.
The first, and most pleasing of the realities is that astute principals can create and continually grow a digital school. But it is a challenge.
The digital evolution and transformation of a school is only possible if the principal is willing and capable of leading the operation. It is same as business, where the CEO must lead (Westerman, et.al, 2014). It is non-negotiable. It can’t be achieved by great deputies, the best of committees, great teachers or external advisers. They can assist. It must be led by the ultimate decision maker, the head working in concert with the rest of the school’s community.
Principals will only lead the school for what is in historical terms a relatively short time,and as such possess the facility to orchestrate core change.
Little core school change has thus far been sustained.The moment you leave a school, and a new head is appointed history reveals most, invariably if not all, the changes you’ve orchestrated will be ‘rectified’ and the school will return to its traditional ways.
Most principal appointment processes are not intended to identify heads able to lead and sustain core change.They are designed to perpetuate the status quo. Most do poorly in selecting a leader able to sustain and grow the changes made.
Only a relatively a relatively small proportion of schools globally have normalised the use of the digital, and operate in the state of being digital. Despite the hype, the global digital transformation of business, a quarter of a century of schools operating within the Digital Revolution near all schools only use the digital technologies within the existing paper based structures and processes.
Most principals don’t want to lead a digital school. Most as indicated don’t see the need for change, and are content to manage the status quo. Many in fairness lack the skills to orchestrate core organisational change and will struggle to even maintain a good school. The BYOT research (Lee and Levins, 2016) suggests only 20%-30% of heads are willing to tackle the challenge of digital transformation.
A century plus of scant sustained core school change highlights the challenge of successful digital evolution.The remarkable constancy of schooling detailed in the earlier posts, coupled with the magnitude of the constraints to core change and the marked disinclination go digital should be foremost in the minds of every head wanting to lead a digital school.
Understand where change is likely possible, desirable and sustainable, and where likely impossible. Do so in the context of your situation, understanding each school is unique.
Anticipate the school community’s educational desires. Bear in mind Steve Job’s telling recognition that in a rapidly evolving chaotic digital world the leadership needs to identify and articulate what the clients don’t yet appreciate they want. Part of the change process lies in educating the clients on the value of the new ways, sharing how the change will assist enhance the learning of all, and securing their sustained support.
Be aware of the personal risks associated with going digital. Protect your back. Anticipate the frustration and likely stress. Adjudge how far you can push, understanding that in most instances there is little those in authority can do with successful maverick heads.
Use the school community support to ‘protect’ and sustain the going digital. Politicians and senior bureaucrats historically are highly reluctant to interfere with changes when the school community strongly endorses the change.
Once the school begins to go digital it will evolve at an accelerating rate, in many unintended ways.After the hard work is done seemingly overnight the school will shift from a world of relative constancy and certainty to accelerating, exhilarating uncertain change.
In closing there is another stark reality to bear in mind.
Don’t expect any rewards for successfully leading a digital school. Anticipate significant opposition and put down, from both peers and at least some within the bureaucracy. You’re undermining their power. As a female head, you’ll likely incur the wrath of the boys’ club’. You will however have life long memories of great staff, wonderful parents and kids whose lives and life chances you’ve enriched.
Take seriously the warning inherent in the absence of sustained core school change.
That said don’t allow that warning to deter your quest to lead the desired digital school.
It simply means being smarter in realising your vision.
- Lee, M and Levins, M (2016) BYOT and the Digital Evolution of Schooling Armidale Douglas and Brown – http://douglasandbrown.com/publications/
- Westerman, G, Bonnett, D and McAfee, A (2014) Leading Digital. Turning Technology into Business Transformation, Boston, Harvard Business Review Press