How to Support Students’ Digital Leadership Skills from a Distance

Contributed By

H. L.

Assistant Principal

How to Support Students’ Digital Leadership Skills from a Distance

Posted in Evolving Ed | October 15, 2020

Leadership: New Rules, Same Need

For the last several months, educators of all stripes have felt as if they have had to reinvent all the rules of education; first as digital triage, and now—while summer gives way to fall—as a full-fledged hybrid education system. Nothing has changed, however, in terms of what students need from the education system. They need the ability to develop their leadership abilities to direct their own lives and improve the lives of others. Here are some ways you can support the development of students’ leadership skills in a digital environment—even when you’re working with them from a distance.

Set Clear Expectations for Digital Citizenship and Be a Good Example

Perhaps the most important step in developing and supporting students’ digital leadership skills in a distance learning environment is by setting and modeling digital citizenship expectations. Incorporate a set of common standards for digital citizenship, such as those authored by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), into your classroom environment. Model the expectations in your interactions with students and their families. Have students reflect on their choices. All of these are important first steps in supporting their digital leadership skills.

One of ISTE’s standards for students is to “engage in positive, safe, legal, and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online.” When you set those standards or, better yet, collaborate with your students to determine what those requirements look like for your classroom culture, students are prepared to take the next step. For example, you and your students could, using examples as a guide, determine what discussion posts and responses should look and feel like in the course—how to compose an initial post, how to respond in a critical yet positive manner, how to avoid academic dishonesty when posting. With this preparation, students will be ready to self-monitor and potentially lead one another in engaging appropriately within the course.

Communication: The Timeless Leadership Skill Digital citizenship is only the tip of the iceberg of overall digital leadership, however. In fact, The Edvocate identified 24 digital leadership responsibilities for students, only some of which—digital rights, safety, and security, for example—are traditionally thought of as digital citizenship skills. Others, like digital communication, are equally critical—and timeless.

Beyond basic etiquette, which runs the gamut from maintaining a generally respectful tone and not “yelling” in all caps to submitting files that meet naming and content requirements, digital leadership in communication extends to more “big picture” soft skills, such as flexibility, curiosity, empathy, and the ability to develop compelling narratives in a number of different formats. These aren’t skills that are limited to communications careers, either. These are skills that are applicable across most industries and jobs in the 21st century. Preparing students to cross-apply communication skills should be one of our top priorities.

You can support these skills from a distance by using your learning management system (LMS) to organize and assign collaborative tasks and leadership responsibilities for students with clear (and shared) expectations for outcomes and accountability. Encourage curiosity by having students build upon one another’s discussion posts and ideas by actively looking for original ideas to add to the conversation. In video chats, have students restate ideas and information from the point of view of their classmates. Have students develop sleek, simplified visual representations and graphic organizers from more verbose course content (e.g. the causes of World War I—your students could surely create something at least as compelling and meaningful as this example). The key is to create opportunities to practice professional communication skills whenever possible.

Critical Thinking in Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Joseph Aoun identified four key elements for students to be successful in light of the coming changes in society and the economy. Three of the items were systems thinking, entrepreneurship, and cultural agility. At the top of the list was critical thinking, and critical thinking is essential to leadership. Critical thinking requires students to identify problems and possibilities, develop research skills, identify and control for bias, and more.

From a distance, you can help students develop all of these skills and help them lead others as a result. For example, your students might be studying an important election. Students could be put in charge of identifying the issues and the platforms espoused by a selected candidate, identifying baked-in biases, sharing out specifics via the learning management system, researching alternative policy positions, jigsawing with other students/groups, and demonstrating an ability to communicate the positions of the other candidate(s) as a result. That’s how the leaders of tomorrow begin to practice critical thinking skills today.

The Larger Community

Ultimately, digital leadership skill development becomes more powerful when those skills transfer to benefit the community at large. In a traditional environment, this might mean attending and discussing a community meeting as a class, or bringing the community to the school for a science fair, concert, or other events. But how can you encourage more community involvement and leadership amidst social distancing?

Take the above example of an upcoming election. Students could lead the way by making and sharing candidate presentations via the LMS and partnering with a local civic organization, such as the League of Women Voters, to present a virtual candidate information event. Or, students in a biology or environmental science class could present their ideas for conservation to a virtual city council meeting. History students could conduct and present research on a person or event of significance for the local historical society. The possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination and drive. The benefits for both student leadership and the knowledge base of the community at large are vast. Take advantage!

Let’s Try Not to Let the Distance Separate Us

Even though we have been apart for many months, let’s try not to let the distance stop our students from developing the skills they will need to lead in a digital world. The good news is that we can engage students in core leadership skills that will always be needed, such as digital citizenship, communication, and community participation and involvement. When you find ways to support those core skills, powered by your LMS and other edtech tools, students will learn to lead and help bring us into a better future.

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