Principal’s Guide to Developing a Digital Learning Strategy
Leaders at the building level are often buffeted by daily management items, crisis or otherwise: Investigations, meetings, professional development, staff evaluations, event coverages, and much more can absolutely consume your professional life if you let them. Don’t let them. Be the strategic leader who carves out time for the important, but not necessarily urgent, items that will help drive your building forward in the 21st century, particularly with regard to your digital learning strategy. Here are a few ways you can do that.
Engage All Stakeholders
One of the most common - and lethal - mistakes principals make when attempting to develop a new strategy is to attempt to reduce the inherent complexity of the process by skipping steps and forging ahead alone. This, of course, brings to mind the oft-quoted but questionably-sourced proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In education, a field absolutely dependent on the understanding and support of many different internal and external stakeholders, playing the long game is critically important.
If your district has already incorporated digital learning into its strategic plan and has placed a priority on hiring and supporting a cabinet-level director of technology, then the building blocks of your building-level digital learning strategy may already be in place. Go further. Host a panel of local business leaders and have them contribute to the discussion of what digital skills students will need by the time they graduate from high school. Host tabletop work sessions with parents and other interested groups from the community. What skills do they want their kids to have? How can they help support the initiative? Leave no stone unturned in gathering feedback from the community. No one person is smarter than the crowd. Crowdsource elements of your digital learning strategy and build capacity for implementation.
Make Digital Citizenship a Priority
It’s easy to focus on curriculum needs and resource availability when developing your digital learning strategy, but don’t forget to create space for digital citizenship and online safety. Start by working with students, parents, and staff members to build a working definition of what it means to be a good digital citizen. The school should build a strong consensus that goes beyond the demonstration of respect to others to understanding and safeguarding personal data and respecting copyright laws.
Once everyone agrees on what a good digital citizen looks like, it’s time to weave digital citizenship into all aspects of your digital learning strategy. That means that it’s not just up to “the computer teacher” to teach digital citizenship alongside word processing and digital presentations. It means that the english teachers have a responsibility to teach ethical research practices at the same time students are crafting thesis statements, and the health teacher should be touching on internet safety when the opportunity presents itself - any lesson on healthy choices should do, or any lesson with an online component. The idea is that digital citizenship should be integrated across the curriculum, not limited to one particular technology “silo.”
Consider the Infrastructure
Access issues are real. The so-called digital divide exists and is something with which any digital learning strategy must contend. In developing your digital learning strategy, remember to accommodate the needs of all learners and their families. A Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy can help fill the gaps, but ultimately may not be enough to address access issues. Will your district prioritize and support a take-home 1:1 program for those students and families without device access? Can you find other creative solutions? Just imagine how much more powerful and effective your digital learning strategy will be if you can ensure that all your students will have digital access on a 24/7 basis.
Choose the Right Learning Management System
You’ve worked with students, families, teachers, and the larger community to flesh out your “big picture” digital learning goals and desired outcomes. You’ve collaborated to develop a vision of how your students will act as responsible digital citizens. By budgeting your priorities you have worked with district leadership to ensure that adequate infrastructure is in place. It’s time to select the right tool to serve as the platform upon which the majority of digital learning will take place. It’s time to pick a learning management system (LMS).
In selecting the perfect LMS, make sure that it is aligned to your strategic goals. You don’t want to make a significant investment in a district-wide digital platform that doesn’t help you achieve your digital goals. For example, if a key pillar of your digital learning strategy is to use the learning management system to serve the strategic goal of increased student engagement - such as in the Schlechty model of high attention and high commitment - then you don’t want to select an LMS limited to a strength in mere content storage and curation. You’ll want to select an LMS that empowers teachers to build engaging lessons from that content. Or, better yet, an LMS that allows students to be engaged by curating content and creating digital products that fulfil learning goals in ways not possible with another learning management system or with traditional classroom tools.
Roll Out Relevant Professional Development
None of the planning will make a difference if your plan doesn’t extend to how you will train and continuously support your teachers as they implement the digital learning strategy in their classrooms. Professional development should be useful, relevant, job-embedded, and long-term, not a one-shot “sit and get” style experience. Be intentional in how you roll it out to your staff.
Sit down with your district tech gurus - this would be everyone from your district technology director to your technology coaches if you are lucky enough to have them - and plan all the way through to the end. After training your staff, what should an effective 21st century classroom look, sound, and feel like? What student learning outcomes should emerge from such a massive district initiative? Teachers should be able to use newly-acquired skills immediately, with support from peers and school leadership, and expect professional development experiences to continue over the course of several years, not just as a standalone experience. Do this and your professional development - and your digital learning strategy as a whole - has a much better chance of sustained success.
Strategy, not Tactics
Woe is the administrator who confuses strategy with tactics, or in this case, a digital learning environment with the mere presence of educational technology tools. You can have a 1:1 campus with all the desktops, laptops, and/or tablets galore and still be wandering in the edtech wilderness. You can have a top-notch learning management system and not see any demonstrable growth in student learning. To have a true digital learning strategy, above all be strategic. Plan it through to the end. The sharp tactics of implementation will come later and rest on much firmer ground if you do.