Here are three keys to effective digital transformation in schools and classrooms
(Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series about how school systems can build on the progress and leverage the investments they’ve made in technology during the pandemic to achieve true digital transformation. Part 1 looks at how K-12 leaders can build an effective blueprint for redesigning education in a way that’s more equitable, meaningful, and learner-centered. Part 2 will explore how leaders can obtain stakeholder buy-in and support for their vision, and Part 3 will examine what professional development should look like to turn this vision into action.)
COVID-19 arguably produced the biggest shift in education since the invention of the printing press. Nearly overnight, teaching and learning moved from classrooms to online environments. School systems invested thousands of dollars in Chromebooks, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other technologies. Educators spent countless hours working to ensure that students could learn from home uninterrupted.
Yet, aside from where the learning occurred, what else actually changed?
For the most part, teachers applied the same practices they used in their classrooms to remote instruction. This is understandable; after all, educators have faced enormous challenges during the pandemic, from ensuring continuity of learning to caring for students’ social-emotional needs. It makes sense they would stick with techniques they were already comfortable with in moving to online instruction.
Should we really be surprised, then, that simply replicating in-person teaching and learning experiences in an online environment hasn’t been more successful?
Data from Project Tomorrow’s annual Speak Up survey indicate that students were no less engaged during remote learning than they were before the pandemic. But what this really reveals is that a considerable number of students haven’t been well served by their education system all along.
Prior to the pandemic, only 54 percent of students in grades 6-8 and 47 percent of high school students agreed with the statement: “I am engaged in what I am learning at school most of the time.” In 2020-21, those numbers were 49 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
Time for a new approach
As school systems have resumed in-person instruction, K-12 leaders may be strongly tempted to return to their pre-pandemic concept of “normalcy.” However, we’re at a critical inflection point in education, and it would be a shame to move backwards instead of forwards.
For years, most edtech implementations have consisted of tinkering around the edges, making minor changes to classroom practices—like having students create a Google Slides presentation instead of writing a book report. The pandemic has provided schools with a unique opportunity to achieve true digital transformation by reinventing education so that it works for all students more effectively, fully engaging them in deeper learning that’s relevant to their lives and successfully prepares them for the future.
The pandemic has demonstrated that school systems can mobilize and make widespread changes if the will to change exists. It has proven that learning can take place beyond the traditional constructs of our educational systems, as long as students are given the tools and support necessary for success. It has prompted school systems to invest in the edtech infrastructure required to support meaningful changes to pedagogy and practice, such as implementing highly personalized, collaborative, and student-centered learning.
To take full advantage of this opportunity, K-12 leaders must change how they think about edtech adoption. Too often, leaders are focused on technical questions and solutions, and we’ve seen this in the way many schools have responded to the pandemic. What is needed is a movement from a technical to an adaptive way of thinking that can lead to real, substantive change.
A technical mindset is consistent with a managerial approach to leadership: “We’re going to allocate 5,000 laptops across these five schools within this period of time.” Conversely, an adaptive mindset leads to transformational leadership. It requires creativity, innovation, and coming up with new models that might not have existed before.
Adaptive thinking is a riskier approach, because it often involves steering school systems into uncharted waters. It’s also harder to evaluate success. School systems generally default to technical approaches, because it’s much easier to count devices than it is to measure real transformation.
However, adaptive thinking leads to new possibilities—and it’s critical if K-12 leaders are going to reimagine education so that it meets the needs of today’s learners more effectively.
Keys to success
Here are three keys to developing an adaptive mindset that can help K-12 leaders redesign education in a way that’s more meaningful and relevant for students:
Reframe the question.
A technical approach is driven by tactical questions, such as what devices to buy and how to deploy them. But true digital transformation isn’t about the technology itself, it’s about the learning outcomes you hope to achieve—and what instruction should look like to in order to attain them. By reframing the problem or challenge around these questions, school systems can design innovative, outside-the-box approaches that meet students where they are and enable each child to succeed.
For example, the River East Transcona School Division in Winnipeg found itself overwhelmed with help desk support tickets from teachers early in the pandemic. Teachers had all sorts of technical questions, such as how to share documents with students online, and these issues were interfering with the delivery of remote instruction.
We helped River East Transcona leaders shift the conversation from these technical questions to the pedagogy they hoped to see, and together we designed an Educator Support Center that developed teacher competency in delivering high-quality online instruction. Teachers became proficient in skills such as uploading documents in a cloud environment, but they did so in the larger context of how to facilitate student creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking online—leading to much richer learning.
Bring together IT and curriculum.
In many school systems, there is a lack of cohesion between the IT and curriculum departments, with employees often working independently in silos. This division acts as a barrier to transformation.
Instructional and IT departments must work together to develop and implement a shared vision and goals for transforming instruction with the help of technology. Bridging these silos requires strong collaboration between curriculum and IT staff, and this begins at the leadership level. The chief academic and technology officers must be co-leaders in planning initiatives, working together to support better student outcomes.
Use diversity, equity, and inclusion as a lens.
The pandemic has revealed widespread disparities in access to resources among students from various social-economic groups. But even before the pandemic, educators knew that no two students were alike and that students’ home circumstances played a key role in their education. A one-size-fits-all approach to education that doesn’t account for differences in student needs and access to resources won’t be successful.
By using diversity, equity, and inclusion as a basis for all decision making, K-12 leaders can re-envision instruction in a way that meets all students’ needs more effectively. For instance, is remote learning only a response to the pandemic, or could this be offered to students generally? Are there students who would be better served by this model going forward? What school structures and instructional practices would best support all students’ interests, schedules, and learning requirements?
The experience of schools over the last 18 months supports what edtech experts have been saying for years: Simply giving students a digital device by itself won’t lead to improved outcomes. Inspired instruction that results in deeper learning and better student outcomes requires systemic change across all levels of an organization.
K-12 leaders should take advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by the pandemic to bring about digital transformation moving forward—and this requires an adaptive approach by curriculum and IT leadership teams working together to effect real change for the benefit of students.