School Leadership & Educational Trail Blazing

UnPlug’d 2011 brought together Canadian educational change agents to share their first-hand experiences and to collectively consider modern approaches to learning. The summit culminated with the release of a publication that communicates a vision for the future of K-12 education in Canada.

More than any other group, I hope that school leaders will take the time to read the collected stories and review the videos that highlight the experiences of these trail blazers that use technology to support the development of global citizens.

Why Social Justice Matters: A Story Shared by Shelley Wright from unplugd on Vimeo.

Why Sharing Our Stories Matters: Story by Bryan Jackson from unplugd on Vimeo.

Not captured in their stories and video are the challenges they faced and the obstacles that school leaders often placed in front of the them as they attempted to empower their students to become technologically literate, global citizens.

While getting to know the Unplu'd participants during meals, relaxing by the lake or hanging out at the dock, it became apparent that intertwined with the stories of innovative teaching and learning were disheartening examples of principals and superintendents interceding to pull these trail blazers back into the confines of the status quo. Instead of empowering these explorers to be technology stewards that are charged with clearing a path for others to follow, they often felt alone and vulnerable in a jungle of technological fear and policy sink holes.

Now, more than ever, it is essential that school leaders move beyond traditional and rigid notions of school leadership to embrace leadership practices that empower others to be leaders and trail blazers. Instead of needing to captain every ship, school leader should see themselves as the nobel leaders that funded and equipped the explorers that charted the course to the new world. Confident leaders realize that regardless of who first sets foot on a new territory, we can all benefit from the discovery.

While technology can be of great assistance to distribute leadership, technological resources are not necessary to foster leadership practices that are collaborative, open and dynamic, that in the end will empower educational trail blazers.

Why Tech-Enabled Leadership Matters
With the exception of E-mail, the toolbox of resources available to school leaders has remained virtually unchanged for the last twenty-five years. Despite the previously slow pace of change, a new generation of leadership tools that include blogs, wikis, and RSS feeds, appear to have the potential to significantly alter the who and how of leadership practice, and rapidly disrupt previous notions of school leadership.

These new leadership resources, that are often labelled ‘social media’, have already demonstrated that they are capable of disrupting traditional patterns of knowledge management and information distribution. One needs to only look to the impact of Wikipedia and blogs on the information and news industries to grasp the disruptive nature of these resources.

When harnessed as a leadership tool, these social media resources may have the potential to disrupt the traditional distribution of leadership and how leaders influence followers. Just as recent technological advances have changed traditional notions of the workplace and collaboration by creating a flat world where telecommuting across time zones and collaborating across continents is possible, technology-enabled leadership has the potential to alter school leadership to the point that it warrants the label “leadership 2.0.”

The designation 2.0 is generally associated with web applications that afford greater levels of user interaction, collaboration, and engagement than the static, pre-millennium internet. It is also commonly used by computer programmers to highlight an incremental improvement in software code that is built on the strengths of a previous version. Consequently, leadership 2.0 can be considered a new iteration of leadership practice that goes beyond traditional models of rigid leadership that were often opaque and hierarchical to facilitate leadership practices that are open, collaborative and dynamic in nature.

Photo by Stephen Poff

Mobile Learning in the 21st Century Classroom

The Challenge
Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat notes that cheap and ubiquitous technological resources have reshaped our geopolitical and economic realities, by providing individuals with almost instant access to the collective knowledge of humankind. It is this quick and easy access to information that has caused many corporations and governmental bodies to re-think how they interact with and support their stakeholders, causing them to flatten their hierarchies and distribute information and control more evenly. In contrast, traditional educational organizations have yet to fully embrace the flattening of their organizational structures and distribute teaching learning so that the learning process can take place anywhere and at any time.

Despite the technological advances that have taken place in the 21st century, most classroom practices are still rooted in the 20th century (Christensen et al, 2008). As a result, students report that “Whenever I go into class, I have to power down (Puttnam, 2007).” To capitalize on the technological capabilities of the digital generation, educators need to become more skilled at incorporating the technological resources that have become an integral part of the lives of today's students into the classroom.

Unfortunately, teacher training and professional development have been slow to incorporate the latest technological resources into their training programs. While there may be many factors that have contributed to this dire situation, the greatest obstacle is a lack of access to latest technological resources that can be used to support teaching and learning. Consequently, current and even future generations of teachers continue to be trained in a manner that simply replicates traditional classroom practice. Increasing access to 21st century teaching tools, will not only better prepare current and new teachers to thrive in technologically enriched classrooms, it may also provide them with greater insight into future possibilities and thus limit resistance when these possibilities become reality.

The Possibilities
To support anywhere, anytime learning, it is essential that the learning resources required to support 21st century teaching and learning are highly portable and mobile. This will allow students to engage in the learning process both inside and outside of the classroom.

While not currently available, a student friendly smartphone should serve as the central learning resource in the 21st century classroom. These devices would include a scientific/graphing calculator, digital/video camera, audio recorder, as well as pre-installed learning resources such as applications that can be used to access their schools' learning management or online learning resources (i.e. Blackboard, Moodle, WebCT), e-book reader, classroom response system (clickers), dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, etc. Supplying students with unlocked phones that are wi-fi accessible, would allow students to tap into the resources of cloud computing while they are at school and have access to wi-fi, but would also allow them the option of adding a pay-as-you-go phone and data plan should they desire.

The results of the 2010 Speak Up survey, which polled 294,399 students and 42,267 parents about student access to various electronic devices, found that “67 percent of parents said they would purchase a mobile device for their child to use for schoolwork if the school allowed it, and 61 percent said they liked the idea of students using mobile devices to access online textbooks (Project Tomorrow, 2011).”

The survey also noted that both student and parents believe that mobile devices can be used to extend learning beyond the classroom and school day (Project Tomorrow, 2011). This is a clear indication that education consumers are ready for the change that education providers have been slow to deliver.

Christensen, C.; Johnson C.W.; Horn, M.B. (2008). Disrupting class. How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Friedman, T.L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farr, Straus and Giroux.

Project Tomorrow (2011). The new 3 E's of education: Enabled, engaged, empowered – How today's students are leveraging emerging technologies for learning. Irvine: CA. Retrieved from

Puttnam, D. (2007, May 8). In class, I have to power down. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Photo by Johan Larsson