“Digital leadership is a mindset and a call to transform a school’s culture into one that unleashes the creativity of students so they can create artifacts of learning that demonstrate conceptual mastery”
Eric Sheninger’s 2014 book, Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times (2014), is both an explanation of and a guide to effective digital leadership in today’s schools. I read this book a year ago (when it first came out) and it has really stuck with me. The book is easy to read and provides many real-life examples of effective school leaders in action. Sheninger himself didn’t begin his administrative career as a connected leader, nor was his school particularly innovative with technology or learning. Once he began to connect with other school leaders and see the possibilities, he was able to establish a vision for how technology should be used in the school in order to support education. The connection he found with other leaders and the transparency with which he communicates are the keys to the success he has had.
The main argument in this book is around the seven pillars of Digital Leadership, which he seamlessly dovetails with ISTE’s National Educational Technology Standards for Administrators.
Before examining the pillars of Digital Leadership, Sheninger makes a case for change in education. Rather than focusing on memorizing facts, students today need to learn to collaborate and solve new problems. In order to serve our students and prepare them for a new society, we must reinvent the way in which they are taught. Sheninger makes the case that this can only be done by visionary leaders who take the time to communicate and model innovative learning. In Sheninger’s words, “Leaders today must establish a vision and implement a strategic process that creates a teaching and learning culture that provides students with essential skill sets – creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, technological proficiency, and global awareness.” Only after this vision is established can the leader embark on the seven pillars of Digital Leadership. These are outlined below.
Communication, Public Relations, and Branding
The first three of Sheninger’s pillars of Digital Leadership are closely linked in my mind. Communication, Public Relations, and Branding are all themes that come up repeatedly in ISTE’s NETS-A. Sheninger make a clear case that leaders who are able to articulate their vision will have greater success than those who cannot. Although he puts great value on blogging and social media for communicating with the greater world, he also makes a case for holding face-to-face workshops with parents. Along with the idea of communicating a vision comes Public Relations (building a story about the school) and Branding (building a story about the leader). It is up to the school leader to communicate the story that he or she most wants the world to know. If this isn’t done, then the world may tell a story that is less favorable and even untrue. If the school leader can demonstrate positive Communication, Public Relations, and Branding for the faculty and students, they can follow the example and have more rewarding digital experiences themselves.
Professional Growth and Development
School leaders who can model modern professional growth and development will be more effective to themselves and their schools. Particularly, Sheninger gives the example of several leaders who model learning through a Personal Learning Network (PLN). Rather than passively receiving information, as in a traditional school setting, leaders are making choices and constantly evaluating information. School leaders who can effectively demonstrate personal learning are invaluable models to the faculty and students around them.
Increasing Student Engagement, Rethinking Learning Environments, and Discovering Opportunity
A school’s primary mission is to serve the students and to prepare them for their future. However, rather than start with this goal in his pillars of Digital Leadership, Sheninger finishes with it. He feels student goals cannot be met until the school leader is able to communicate and model this way of learning. For example, if technology integration happens before a shift in learning culture, we end up with teachers who use iPads as worksheets and SMARTboards as overhead projectors (Alan November’s $1,000 pencil comes to mind). Once school leaders and faculty embrace the ideas of connected learning, student environments can be transformed and made relevant to today’s learners. Students, like leaders and faculty, will learn to approach learning as an intrinsic, personal activity. In locating, evaluating, and synthesizing the information around them, they will learn to be the resourceful, creative problem solvers the world needs them to become. When leaders and teachers model connectivity, students will themselves learn more responsible ways to use social media in their education. Through connecting with others around the world in order to find and share resources, students can create a positive digital footprint that will begin to serve as their personal brand.
Throughout this book, Sheninger repeats that effective leaders have to model the innovative and collaborative behaviors that they want to see in their faculty and students. To underscore this idea, he gives multiple engaging examples of school leaders who have followed the pillars of digital leadership with success. These detailed, real work examples make clear to the reader the rewards of following the pillars of Digital Leadership. Only leaders who can connect with others, communicate ideas, demonstrate lifelong learning, and create school environments that match this thinking will be be able to effectively lead their schools into the next century.