School Leader Insights: Shifting School Operations to Support Digital Learning

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 blog post, we discuss the importance of shifting school operations to support digital learning. Significant implementation challenges arise without staying in touch and coordinating with a variety of stakeholders responsible for school operations.

Role of digital learning in an academic program

To successfully roll out a digital learning program, implementation should not be done within a vacuum. Schools are complex organizations with many layers contributing to their operations. The various stakeholders responsible for school operations need to be included in the planning and implementation of any digital learning program.

Previous blog posts in this series emphasized the importance of understanding the underlying goals of a digital learning program; examining the interplay between curriculum, instruction, and assessment; thinking carefully about technology needs; and offering professional learning opportunities. If logistical concerns of school operations are not also factored into enacting a digital learning program, implementation can be significantly hindered.

When thinking of integrating a digital learning program within existing school operations, careful considerations are needed. School leaders need to remember that school operations often involve a finite number of dedicated facilities staff, limited budgets, and rigid and time-sensitive schedules. Thus, school leaders must think about how much a digital learning program will impact existing procedures, processes, and systems that keep a school functioning. 

School leaders should reflect on the nature of a digital learning program. Is it supplemental to existing operations and more of an add-on that might not necessarily disrupt existing plans and procedures?

Or is it something that needs to be highly integrated across many different school operations systems, plans, and procedures? Similarly, is a digital learning program a system-wide adaptation throughout a school, or is it an isolated program that targets a particular part of a school community?

Suppose a digital learning program is isolated or supplemental. In that case, there may not be a dramatic impact on existing school operations. However, coordination with relevant stakeholders still needs to occur to ensure a digital learning program can be enacted and function smoothly within a school’s broader operational structure.

If a digital learning program is more integrated and systemic, even more significant discussions are needed with school operations leaders and staff to ensure that new and existing work can be managed well within the desired implementation timeline. 

Lastly, depending on the intensity and reach of the digital learning program, careful thought must be on expectations of how staff will use technologies and where and when they will use those technologies.

Such reflection requires attention to the most granular operational details to ensure interoperability of technologies and software as well as the availability of facilities staff to install and test new equipment properly.

Making room in day-to-day operations

Implementing a digital learning program requires careful planning, especially ensuring there are enough resources and support to keep day-to-day operations as smooth as possible. As noted about doing careful assessments of what kinds of technology would best serve a digital learning program, school leaders need to plan what technologies need to go where and when they should be installed, tested, and integrated into the learning environment. 

Such planning means that school leaders need to make sure staff and contractors who know how to install technology and new equipment are available. Educational technologists and facilities staff are best equipped to implement technology installations and upgrades. They must be given adequate notice and time within their existing work schedules to help roll out a digital learning program.

Similarly, buying new equipment and technology is only one part of the budgeting process. There may be significant installation and operational expenses to keep in mind. New equipment installation may require specialized outside contractors. New furniture or room equipment might be required to situate and use technologies in the classroom properly.

Also, electrical lines and outlets may need to be added to allow technologies to be placed optimally within a classroom. Technology additions and upgrades may involve long-term operational costs, including increased electricity costs and outside maintenance contracts with technology vendors.

Therefore, school leaders need to see where a digital learning program fits into a school’s facilities maintenance schedule and budget and have regular discussions with facilities staff to make sure any new work and procedures can be implemented and supported.

There are many schedules to account for when schools are operating, especially teachers’ teaching and prep schedules. 

If schools expect teachers to take on new roles in a digital learning program, they need to give teachers time to collaborate with other faculty and staff to plan and put the program’s curricular goals into action. 

Moreover, teachers need time to engage in professional learning opportunities, which could include mentorship programs, to enhance their teaching practices using new digital tools. Time must also be allocated in teachers’ schedules for them to take on new responsibilities and build the skills necessary for a digital learning program to succeed. The same should be said for support staff and students who may be engaging with new technologies for the first time.

Administrator support goes a long way in implementing any change within school operations. Effective school leaders are intentional in reaching out to all school community members to learn about and address their needs and concerns.

Change can be a source of stress for anyone, especially if it involves adding more responsibilities, developing new skill sets, and making adjustments to existing schedules. School leaders should work with teachers and staff to make sure that any new initiative does not derail existing priorities and operational procedures.

Administrators should also work closely with teachers to develop programs and resources that help teachers grow their skills and better understand their expectations as they implement a new digital learning program.

In the end, a new digital learning program presents exciting opportunities to innovate and grow.

However, for a school community to feel enthusiastic about the changes that will come, school leaders must have a full understanding of a program’s impact on school operations at all levels—from paying the electric bill to ensuring students’ grades are released on time. Such an understanding requires listening to many school community members and being intentional about trying to help everyone do their best to keep a school running smoothly.

Looking ahead

The final blog in this School Leader Insights series will focus on how to lead a new digital program toward long-term success.

Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!


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.

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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