This article was first published in Education Review.
“Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach,” Marc Prensky wrote nearly 15 years ago, describing digital natives.
Globalisation, the redefinition and expansion of knowledge, technological advances and ways in which organisations and institutions operate have forever altered the world of work – and the field of education is no exception. Through this redefinition has come the need to reconsider not only the skills and abilities we teach our students, but also the role of the teacher in 21st-century schooling.
School leaders today must establish a vision and implement a strategic process that creates a teaching and learning culture providing students with essential skill sets – creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, technological proficiency and global awareness – commonly referred to as 21st-century skills to operate in the society in which they live and for jobs that have not yet been created.
Consistent innovation, effective integration of technology, meaningful professional development, connecting beyond the walls of school and an open mind are all mandatory duties of a leader in the digital age. These duties are identified and explored by Eric Sheninger – a.k.a. Principal Twitter – in his book Digital Leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times.
Sheninger presents a framework for leaders to harness the power of digital technologies in order to create school cultures that are transparent, relevant, meaningful, engaging and inspiring. He defines digital leadership as “establishing direction, influencing others, initiating sustainable change through the access to information, and establishing relationships in order to anticipate changes pivotal to school success in the future”.
I co-hosted an #aussieED chat with Sheninger. He joined all the way from New Jersey at the early-bird time of 4.30am. The chat attracted more than 1000 participants, exploring the characteristics of digital leaders and effective tools to support the process of transforming school culture. The conversation was fast and insightful, with hundreds of innovative ideas thrown in from a global personal learning network. What stood out most was the enthusiasm and commitment all teachers had for improving student learning and strengthening community relationships using technology.
Sheninger says the pillars of digital leadership are specific areas embedded in the culture of all schools that can be improved or enhanced through the use of technology, especially social media. Here is an overview of the pillars with some practical examples to get you leading more effectively in the digital age.
1. Communication Provide stakeholders with relevant information in real time in a range of ways. Use a variety of free social media tools to communicate important information in real time. Provide opportunities for two-way communication, make your professional email account available and use it openly. Share a class blog or website and give opportunities for key stakeholders to engage meaningfully.
2. Public relations “If we don’t tell our story, someone else will, and more often than not, another’s version will not be the one we want told,” Sheninger says. Schools need to narrate their stories to form positive public relations using free social media tools. All stakeholders will appreciate transparency, as it highlights all the positive things that happen at the school. Some call it bragging, others call it celebrating; either way, connecting with others and telling your story is crucial to engaging your audience.
3. Branding The effective use of social media helps establish the brand presence of a school community. Having a dynamic and positive brand highlights the key aspects of school culture, increases community pride and helps attract new stakeholders looking to attend or collaborate with your school. What is your vision and mission all about?
4. Student engagement/learning Our students are connected to a global community of learners with technological tools and networks at their fingertips; they are learning with or without us. A challenge as leaders is to provide authentic learning experiences and real-life tools that allow students to think critically and creatively to solve problems and communicate their learning with others – all skills that are essential in the 21st-century workforce.
5. Professional growth/development Like all learners, leaders have diverse learning needs and special interests or areas for development. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all professional learning inservices and meetings. Leaders must consider forming their own personal learning network to connect with like-minded peers and experts to access knowledge and resources in order to build their teacher capacity. Twitter is a great way to do this. Joining chats such as #aussieED gives you immediate access to a global PLN.
6. Re-envisioning learning spaces and environments Learning spaces need to be flexible in order to cater for diverse learning and social needs. Considerations need to be made to furniture, lighting, resources and equitable access to digital tools. Provide as many opportunities as possible for collaboration, comfort and student voice. Get rid of visual clutter and make the thinking of your learners visible.
7. Opportunity Connect, collaborate, innovate and repeat. See ways to evaluate the effectiveness of existing resources, such as programs, professional development or learning spaces. What works? What could be done better? Engage the thoughts of key stakeholders and make necessary changes. Reach out to experts who can mentor and support learners. Tap into the rich resources of universities through internships and practicum students. Provide authentic learning opportunities for staff and students.