The Greatest Challenge Facing School Leaders in a Digital World

Opinion | Technology Tips

The Greatest Challenge Facing School Leaders in a Digital World

By Scott McLeod     Oct 29, 2017

The Greatest Challenge Facing School Leaders in a Digital World

This article is part of the guide: The Personalized Learning Toolkit.

As founding director of CASTLE (the Center for the Advanced Study of Tech­nology Leadership in Education), the nation’s only university center dedicated to the technology needs of school leaders, I have had the good fortune to work with administrators all over the world on digital leadership issues. Because digital devices and online environments can simultaneously be transformatively empowering and maddeningly disruptive, the work of integrating digital learning tools into schools is usually difficult and complex. Common challenges arise, however, and can be thoughtfully addressed by proactive leadership.


By far the most prevalent issue I see in schools struggling with their technology integration and implementation is the lack of a collective vision for how digital learning tools will be used to enhance learning. Schools often purchase software, computer devices, and technology-based learning systems because they are effective marketing tools for recruitment, or because they want to keep pace with the digital investments of rival institutions, or simply because they fear appearing outdated. None of these have to do with learning, of course, and inevitably are insufficient to smooth over the challenges that arise as digital tools enter classroom spaces.

Additionally, for some independent schools, the potentially disruptive nature of these devices and online spaces presents perceived threats to institutional history and norms. If a school’s reputation and pride are built on decades or centuries of “this is how we’ve always done things here,” resistance from staff, parents, and alumni to significant changes may be fierce. In such institutions, heads of school may have to steer carefully between deeply ingrained habits and the need to modernize the information tools with which students and faculty work—but they need to steer nevertheless.

Too often, when navigating faculty or parental resistance, school leaders and technology staff make reassurances that things will not have to change much in the classroom or that slow baby steps are OK. Unfortunately, this results in a different problem, which is that schools have now invested significant money, time, and energy into digital technologies but are using them sparingly and seeing little impact. In such schools, replicative uses of technology are quite common, but transformative uses that leverage the unique affordances of technology are quite rare. Teachers who used to lecture with a chalkboard or whiteboard may now lecture with an expensive interactive whiteboard. Teachers who used index cards or worksheets as quick checks for student understanding may now use more expensive student response systems (“clickers”) to do the same. Teachers who used to roll in the cart with the television and VHS/DVD player so that they could show movies may now locate YouTube videos online for their students to watch instead. And so on.

While these replicative uses have some value, particularly during early stages of technology initiatives, many schools fail to proceed further because they don’t have a collective vision of what more transformative uses of technology might look like, nor do they have a shared understanding of and commitment to what it will take to get to such a place. As a result, faculty instruction and the learning experiences of students change little or not at all.

The most successful schools that I see have rich, robust visions for how digital technologies will transform learning and empower students. These schools have taken the time to involve all stakeholders—including students—in substantive conversations about what digital tools will allow them to do differently compared with previous analog practices. Their visions promote the potential of computing devices to facilitate all of those elements we now think of as essential 21st-century capacities: confidence, curiosity, enthusiasm, passion, critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-direction. Technology doesn’t simply support traditional teaching—it transforms it for deeper thinking and gives students more agency over their own learning.

In these schools, faculty, staff, and parents have a shared commitment to technology-suffused communication, collaboration, and creativity. Models and exemplars of high-level, ­technology-enabled learning experiences are visible, transparent, and omnipresent. Ongoing discussions occur about how to navigate inevitable setbacks and how to ensure adequate bandwidth and technical support. Plans are in place to provide faculty with appropriate professional learning opportunities and, perhaps most important, heads of school have nurtured a school culture of risk-taking and innovation in which faculty feel safe to experiment, fail, and try again.


Another prevalent issue preventing technology change in schools is fear—fear of change, of the unknown, of letting go of what we know best, of being learners again. But it’s also a fear of letting kids have wide access to the Internet with the possibility of cyberbullying, access to inappropriate material, and exposure to online predators or even excessive advertising. Fears, of course, need to be surfaced and addressed. But what schools don’t need is to let such fears limit the very technologies that we are supposedly trying to promote. It’s as if we try as hard as we can to get digital learning tools into the hands of students and teachers and then try as hard as we can to prevent them from using them.

Fears about digital learning tools are especially tricky because they’re primarily emotional, not logical. Fed by our own uncertainties, occasional anecdotes, and sensational stories from the media, we ignore the data that overwhelmingly show that digital environments are no worse—and often better—than in-person environments. That is to say, the data show that in-person environments nearly always have higher rates of bullying, harassment, and abuse/predation than digital environments. The fear drives some schools to ban cellphones, disallow students and faculty from using Facebook, and lock down Internet filters so tightly that useful websites are inaccessible. They prohibit the use of Twitter and YouTube, and they block blogs. Some educators see these types of responses as principled stands against the shortcomings and hassles of digital technologies. Others see them as rejections of the dehumanization of the education process by soulless machines. Often, however, it’s just schools clinging to the past and elevating what is comfortable or familiar over the potential of technology to help them better deliver on their school missions.

Education will always rely on the guidance and wisdom of adults. And there will always be a place for teaching and learning that doesn’t involve technology. But we owe our children regular and substantive opportunities to master their current technology-suffused information, economic, and learning landscapes if they are to flourish in the present and prepare for their futures.

Heads of school don’t have to be skilled users themselves to be effective technology leaders, but they do have to exercise appropriate oversight and convey the message—repeatedly—that frequent, meaningful technology use in school is both important and expected. Nostalgia aside, there is no foreseeable future in which the primacy of printed text is not superseded by electronic text and multimedia. When nearly all information is digital or online, multi-modal and multi­media, accessed by mobile devices that fit in our pockets, the question should not be whether schools prepare students for a digital learning landscape, but rather how.

As school leaders, in order to achieve the types of successes that we hope for with technology, we will have to overbalance for our staff and parents the side of the scale that contains fears and concerns with countervailing, emotionally resonant stories, images, visions, and examples of empowered students and teachers doing amazing things. That’s fairly hard to do if we’re technology-hesitant or unknowledgeable about the educative value of technology ourselves, which is why so many successful digital leaders preach over and over again the necessity of personal engagement and modeling.

Independent schools have to choose which mindset they are going to adopt. I confess that I always feel sad for the students and teachers in the schools who choose to simply ban and block rather than do the harder but necessary work of enabling and learning from other schools that have followed a less restrictive, more creative path. I can think of no better way to highlight organizational irrelevance than to block out the tools that are transforming the rest of society.


Many educators aren’t necessarily afraid of technology, but they are so accustomed to heavily teacher-directed classrooms that they are leery about giving up control—and can’t see the value in doing so. Although most of us recognize that mobile computers connected to the Internet may be the most powerful learning devices yet invented—and that youth are learning in powerful ways at home with these technologies—allowing students to have greater autonomy and ownership of the learning process can still seem daunting and questionable. It’s particularly tricky for educators who feel they need to cover certain content.

Luckily we can learn from schools that have gone down this path already. Places such as High Tech High (California), the New Tech Network, the Big Picture Learning schools, the PlayMaker School (California), and many others can show us what powerful student agency can look while still covering essential content and preparing students for college and beyond. The “beyond” is particularly important. When we give students some voice in and choice about what and how they learn, we honor basic human needs for autonomy, we enhance students’ interest and engagement, and we truly actualize our missions of preparing lifelong learners.

While it is possible to enable greater student agency without digital technologies, computers coupled with Internet access are powerful amplifiers. With today’s tools, students can connect with authors and artists from around the globe, create videos that mobilize local voters, or collaborate with other citizen scientists on crowdsourced projects. They can raise money to address community concerns, start their own businesses or nonprofits, or create websites, e-books, and code that benefit others. They can participate in online social justice projects, engage in geographically distributed political dialogues, or raise awareness for the environment and other causes. In short, these technologies allow students to learn and do things never before possible.

Independent schools that figure out how to blend powerful digital tools with greater student-driven opportunities in order to facilitate deeper learning and engagement—all while honoring past legacies and points of pride—will be poised for success in the decades to come. Innovative heads of school already have numerous possible configurations that they can consider, ranging from “genius hour” and “20 percent time” (in which the school allows students to explore their own project and learning outcomes for one hour a day or 20 percent of their time in school) to multi-week immersive projects to all-year grade- or school-level rollouts. New models of learning and teaching can be powerful “first-mover” differentiators in competitive independent school markets.

The goal of instructional transformation is to empower students, not to disempower teachers. While instructor unfamiliarity with digital technologies, inquiry- or problem-based teaching techniques, or deeper learning strategies may result in some initial discomfort, these challenges can be overcome with robust support.


Independent schools must focus heavily on technology integration support if they expect to see differences in classroom practice. A few workshops here and there rarely result in large-scale changes in implementation. A number of potential support strategies exist to complement more traditional professional development offerings. For instance, teacher-driven “unconferences” or “edcamps,” at which educators propose and facilitate discussion topics, can be powerful mechanisms for fostering professional dialogue and learning. Similarly, some schools offer voluntary “Tech Tuesdays” or “appy hours” to foster digital learning among interested faculty.

In addition to existing IT support, technology integration staff, or librarians/media specialists, some schools have student technology teams that are on call for assistance when needed. A few middle schools and high schools go even further and assign teachers their own individual student technology mentors. These student-teacher pairings last all school year and comprise the first line of support for educators’ technology questions. The student technology mentors can also meet with a faculty advisor once a month to brainstorm other ways that the group can be leveraged for a school's benefit. These types of support programs have numerous benefits and can be a great way to tap into students’ usually underutilized technology expertise and enthusiasm.

Perhaps the most powerful form of professional learning occurs when we connect with others outside of our own schools. As teachers, heads of school, counselors, coaches, and librarians, we all now have the ability to participate in ongoing, virtual, global communities of practice. When we’re members of online learning networks, innovative peers in similar school positions can share lesson plans, classroom activities, teaching strategies, implementation ideas, online resources, technology integration tips, and many other practices that we might never know about otherwise. Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, reminds us that connected learning networks fuel the most powerful innovations. Innovative independent schools will place a strong emphasis on connecting their educators to others around the world in meaningful, productive ways throughout the year, not just through occasional attendance at professional conferences.

Whether formal or informal, the focus of technology-related professional learning should be on student learning, not on the tools or devices. Independent school educators should always ask, “Technology for the purpose of what?” when considering the inclusion of digital technologies into learning activities. Technology never should be implemented just for technology’s sake. We can use digital technologies to amplify excellent instruction, but they will never save a bad lesson or activity and likely will only make them worse. Throughout our integration and implementation processes, there always should be a focus on instructional purpose and intent.

In the end, technology change in schools is not about the devices. It’s about robust, visionary instructional leadership. Magic doesn’t happen in classrooms just because schools bought a bunch of computers or invested in bandwidth. School leaders need to be active, engaged participants and modelers who recognize that digital learning is core work, not an ancillary add-on. We can’t simply delegate things to our technology coordinators and integrationists and be done with it all. We must take a visible, hands-on leadership approach to the technology-suffused learning and teaching that our students deserve today.

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