School Leader Insights: Leading Toward Success

Lightbulbs with phrases inside, "innovation" "solution" "technology" etc.
The School Leader Insights blog series provides school leaders with practical guidance and advice on how to develop and support digital learning programs within their schools and districts. Based on research and on-the-ground experiences working with school leaders, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute aims to identify and share effective practices with these school leaders to support their work and encourage their success. In this final blog post of the series, we discuss how to lead a new digital learning program toward success in the long term.

Leading in a digital culture

To effectively implement change that supports a digital learning program, school leaders need to think about how they can foster a digital culture. Effective leadership practices often involve a focus on learning for an entire school community. The driving concern should be if and how students are meeting curricular goals through new digital learning opportunities. 

Once a digital learning program takes off, teachers and staff should be able to find ways to continue to innovate and evolve their instructional and student support practices. Members of the broader community may then have options and resources that they did not have before.

School leaders need to maintain diplomacy and flexibility to encourage a school or district to sustain new digital learning initiatives. Also, it is helpful to remember that technologies help teachers do their jobs; technologies are not a replacement for teachers and what they have been trained to do. Therefore, school leaders should consider some apt advice:

Let technology do what it does best, and let teachers do what they do best.

By advocating for innovative changes that help teachers grow and learn as professionals, school leaders can maintain a positive work environment for teachers, which ultimately helps students and school communities advance their skills and knowledge through digital learning innovations.

Be the “champion”

Shepherding a new digital learning program from conception to enactment requires much energy, willpower, and adaptability. In many ways, a digital learning program needs a champion who will be an instructional leader, an advocate, a counselor, and a cheerleader focused on making a vision turn into a reality. It is hoped that a champion’s efforts then inspire teachers and staff to continue the momentum within the broader school community.

Being a champion requires establishing a culture of trust, expectation, and innovation. School leaders need to communicate clearly and with transparency. They need to make sure all crucial stakeholders are included and feel included in the process from start to finish.

Moreover, leaders need to help a school community recognize that there are opportunities for success as well as the chance that failure happens along the way. Together, everyone can “fail forward” by embracing risk-taking and reflecting on lessons learned as the process unfolds to achieve a digital learning program’s underlying vision and purpose.

School leaders should recognize that people look up to them and watch them as change is introduced and carried out. As such, they should model the desired behaviors they want to see in others within the community.

School leaders become the exemplar of innovative change by being empathetic, diplomatic, available to listen, and open to modelling self-care. Or, as Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi famously advised, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” 

To create change that leads to the successful implementation of a digital learning program, school leaders must reflect on their place as champions for the cause.

At the same time, they should make sure that whatever technological resources are pursued align with the school’s or district’s instructional vision. When school community members are included and feel like their voices are taken seriously to realize this vision, more champions for digital learning emerge, which only help increase the chances of success in the long run.

Looking ahead

As this School Leader Insights blog series has emphasized, school and district leaders are the linchpin to the success of any digital learning program. Being intentional by listening to all members of the school community goes a long way to introducing and sustaining innovative change. This blog series provides advice and tools to be the leader and champion of a digital learning program:

  • Establish a clear purpose (a reason “why”) for a program
  • Understand the interplay of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for a program
  • Examine technology as a foundation for implementation and long-term impact
  • Recognize professional learning as a catalyst for change
  • Take a 360-degree look at school operations to support digital learning
  • Be a champion of a culture focused on learning, having clear expectations, being willing to innovate, and adapting as necessary to realize the vision of the initiative

Moving forward, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute will continue to study what is necessary for leaders to successfully implement change in support of a school or district’s vision of innovating through digital learning.

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The authors would like to thank Tracy Gieseking from the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute for her contributions and advice in writing this blog post.

About the authors

Christopher Harrington

Dr. Christopher Harrington, director of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Ed Timke

Dr. Ed Timke is a research specialist for Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Although he specializes in qualitative research — such as interviews, focus groups, ethnographies, and textual and visual analyses — he was trained in mixed methods research while in his doctoral program in communication and media at the University of Michigan. Ed has taught online and face-to-face courses on writing, research methods, global media and communication, the role of advertising in society, and intercultural communication at American University, Duke University, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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