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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Does Digital Leadership Mean?

By Peter DeWitt — June 16, 2013 3 min read
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This past week, I watched fifth graders using Glogster to make their social studies reports come alive. One student was comparing her life to that of Jacob Kohler. Another student brought in antique clothing from his great grandmother. The clothing was fragile and gave students a sense of what it was like to dress at the turn of the 20th century. They were both excellent examples of student engagement but one was technology-based and the other was a real-life artifact.

In another classroom a teacher flawlessly used her iPad to take pictures of student work for their portfolios. She also needed to use some of the pictures for Evernote so she could keep a record of the great work that came out of her inquiry-based plan. When I got back to my office, it was time to mix technology and real-life.

Five fifth graders came to my office to Skype with my brother who lives in Cairo. They have been studying about Egypt for weeks and had numerous questions to ask him. After finding out he scuba dives, the students interested in marine biology had even more questions to ask. It was so easy to set up a time for them to talk with someone who actually lives in the country they were studying. Technology is no longer an add-on for any of us; it is a useful tool to help present, find and collect information.

Technologically Advanced
I don’t feel technologically advanced. I have several devices such as a Smartphone and tablet but I feel like that may be the norm these days. According to Huffington Post Tech, “The U.N. telecom agency says there were about 6 billion subscriptions by the end of 2011 - roughly one for 86 of every 100 people.” That’s a fairly amazing number.

Just because we all have Smartphones doesn’t mean that we are more technologically advanced than others. It just means that we are connected. We hardly ever meet people who do not have a cell phone or lack a computer of some kind. To be perfectly honest, even my mother (whose age shall remain a secret) Skypes with my brother overseas, e-mails her friends and stalks people...I mean keeps informed of their lives...on Facebook. It’s an important way for her to remain connected.

The Huffington Post Tech article goes on to say, “The Geneva-based agency says 2.3 billion people - or about one in three of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants - were Internet users by the end of 2011, but there’s a strong disparity between rich and developing countries.”

With the influx of technology tools, and if almost everyone owns something, what does digital leadership mean? School leaders and educators certainly cannot ignore technology anymore because it has crept into every part of our lives. However, how important is it for schools to be current in technology practices? Is this even possible considering how quickly technology changes? Is there such a thing as too much technology?

In a recent NY Times commentary (How Not to Be Alone) Jonathan Safran Foer says,

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn't always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it."

Digital Leadership
Many of us who are school leaders use our iPads or tablets to observe teachers. We may even flip our faculty meetings and parent communication from time to time, but we also need to make sure that we are teaching students and teachers how to use it properly, and when to break away from using it at all. Digital leaders may be the worst offenders because they may lack the ability to find a balance.

Foer went on to write,

Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there's no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step "forward" has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity."

The job of the digital leader is not just to model the art of being connected, it’s also to model the art of human conversation and unplugging the devices. We can simply say that this is a world that our students are growing up in and they are always connected but we have some responsibility to show them other aspects of the world as well.

At a recent Principal’s Advisory Council (PAC) meeting in the school that I lead we had two issues to discuss. One was professional development opportunities at our faculty meetings next year and the other was a monthly breakfast. Perhaps it’s just that it’s at the end of the year but the group was more interested in discussing the breakfast plan.

We long for human interaction and we have a need to take time to breathe and have real conversations with our colleagues. As important as technology is, and it is an important tool, so is our need to have human interaction and digital leaders need to promote that too.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.