School Leader Insights: Institutionalizing a Vision for Digital Learning

Meeting Discussion Talking Sharing Ideas Concept
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 process of developing a shared vision among school and district stakeholders and the process by which school leaders may institutionalize the vision for continued growth and sustainability.


For years, school leaders have been pushing to implement educational technology in ways that truly impact student learning.

Here at the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI), we have been working with school leaders in research and consulting capacities to understand better and guide their schools and districts to design and implement digital learning programs that are transformational and sustainable.

There are six core components of digital learning for school leaders to consider:

  1. Establishing the purpose, or the “why,” for a program
  2. Understanding the interplay of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for a program
  3. Examining technology as a foundation for implementation and long-term impact
  4. Recognizing professional learning as a catalyst for change
  5. Shifting school operations to support digital learning
  6. Leading toward long-term success

Each of these components will be discussed, in turn, in this School Leader Insights blog series.

This blog post focuses on implementing changes that lead to more digital learning in a school system—having a clear and understandable purpose that drives a school community’s motivation to enact that vision.  

Starting with the “why”

The digital learning programs found to be most effective and innovative are those that have a compelling “why,” a purpose that aligns with desired goals and outcomes shared by many members of a school community.

This compelling reason, the “why,” will provide the motivation needed to move a school community to do something differently.

Does the community want to make classrooms rich with technology? Does the community want to blend and integrate more digital learning opportunities in the classroom? Does the community want to develop its online programs?

Each of these paths, or a combination of approaches, cannot be pursued without thinking about why a school community wants to pursue particular goals. 

School leaders’ initiatives will flounder without a guiding north star that takes many community stakeholders’ perspectives into account based on compelling reasons for achieving particular goals. Moreover, as British-American author and speaker Simon Sinek notes in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Action, one must continue to think about the “why” in the long term: “All organizations start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year.”

Importance of leadership

Defining the “why” cannot be determined by pulling a rabbit out of a hat or having only one leader’s vision take over. Rather, arriving at the “why” requires careful deliberation and thoughtful actions on the part of school leaders with their school community.

Having clarity of purpose matters because you will return to your vision as you encounter implementation challenges. Having a shared vision built with the broader school community allows you to have broad buy-in and shift implementation where and when you need to.

A leader co-creates an initiative’s purpose and becomes the guiding force behind the other five components of school leadership in implementing digital learning initiatives, which will be addressed in future blogs in this series. 

In the end, an initiative’s vision should be student-centered. It should describe where we want kids to be that will stand the test of time. It defines the bigger picture of what teaching and learning could look like in the next three to five years, where transformation can take shape. The underlying vision ties directly to how you view teaching and learning.

When widely shared among many members of a school community, the vision seamlessly becomes part of a school’s culture for the future of all student learning. A vision that is developed through collaboration with the greater school community by talking with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the business community, will become your beacon during times of uncertainty. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology stresses the importance of setting a clear vision and purpose with a school community:

“It is important for your digital learning leadership team to establish a set of straightforward, attainable goals. These goals should be rooted in sound learning principles and developed iteratively based on your school system or school objectives, data, and the needs of your community. These goals can be shared publicly for feedback from key stakeholders, and they should inform investments in digital tools, supporting digital infrastructure, training, and resources.”

Moreover, the Department of Education emphasizes that leaders should consider “how digital learning can strengthen students’ learning experiences, empower and engage students and teachers, and promote mastery and critical thinking and personalized learning. Also consider the access from school and from home that teachers and students have for digital teaching, learning, and assessment.”

In the end, getting to the “why” of a new digital learning initiative requires engagement with many school community members and careful consideration of what students want and need to learn and grow in the long term.

Motivation matters

Leaders are instrumental in creating an environment that allows people to motivate themselves. They can clearly tie “what’s in it for me?” to the desired change in practice and how that change impacts students’ learning outcomes. Absent a compelling reason, and a rationale that all relevant stakeholders determine, it is difficult to sustain the motivation required for long-term, transformational change.

Effective leaders also recognize that any change cannot be dictated from above. Rather, a shared commitment emerges by including many school community members in establishing the goals and purposes for a digital learning program. Members of the community must feel vested in a particular initiative and will feel more motivated to see it succeed through support and action. 

When the broader school community is included in establishing an initiative’s purpose, they learn to trust school leadership and come to enable rather than block new, innovative ideas that school leaders may recommend.

As noted by psychology expert Beata Souders, it is essential to remember that people are motivated to pursue or accept change when their concerns, well-being, personal growth, and sense of purpose are taken into account. 

When a school community’s energy is harnessed to reach a shared vision and goal, there is a motivation for change and opportunities to innovate, even if there was initial resistance or hesitation at the outset.

Tactical approaches

Setting the purpose, or the “why,” for an online learning initiative may take a lot of time, but that is okay because the time spent to bring a school community together to craft a shared vision will only increase buy-in and motivation for it to succeed.

Implementing system-wide change is easier said than done, but if school leaders are deliberate in their approach to identifying the purpose for change that matters to a school community, chances of success rise. 

When thinking about tactical approaches, it’s crucial to distinguish consensus, where the goal is the agreement of everyone, from developing a shared vision, which involves negotiation, compromise, and mutual buy-in among possible competing priorities.  

Developing a shared vision requires careful planning and dedicating a significant amount of time talking with as many relevant school community members as possible. This could mean conducting informal interviews and focus groups with administrators, staff, teachers, students, parents, and even local businesses.

As noted by the State Educational Technology Directors Association’s Guide to Implementing Digital Learning, achieving a shared vision requires the use of clear language throughout the process in addition to having “carefully defined target audiences, goals, methods, timelines, responsibilities and outcomes.” 

School leaders, thus, need to rely on the following tactical skills to best get to understanding the “why”:

  • Listening
  • Negotiation
  • Diplomacy
  • Organization
  • Record-keeping
  • Clear and transparent communication

Ultimately, in order to get to the underlying purposes of enacting an online learning initiative, school leaders need to assess who within the broader school community needs to be consulted, work with them to learn more about their perspectives, and find ways to include those stakeholders in articulating and communicating the “why” that will serve as the throughline for when the initiative is carried out.

Looking ahead

The next blog in this School Leader Insights series will examine the interplay between curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Many roadblocks can emerge without a clear understanding of how these three elements relate when enacting a vision and purpose for a digital learning initiative.

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

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.

Tracy Gieseking

Tracy Gieseking’s role as a senior research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute provides a unique opportunity to collaborate with Michigan’s education community. As online and blended learning reach an increasing number of K-12 students in Michigan, there is greater opportunity to learn from practitioners, research what’s fueling success and share best practices. Tracy enjoys collaborating with others to provide solutions and build capacity. She holds a bachelor’s in business leadership and much of her professional life has been with education-focused organizations.

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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