Concepts and Practices in a Digital Age, Charles Sturt University, Scholarly Book Review Assessment, originally published on my CSU Thinkspace Blog
Review of Digital Leadership - Changing Paradigms for Changing Times by Eric Sheninger
Integration of digital technology into education has come to the forefront this century and it has become clear that educators of all levels need to adapt to serve learners in this new digital age. Change is required and Eric Sheninger explores in Digital Leadership - Changing Paradigms for Changing Times how educators can successfully and practically use technology to transform school cultures and create sustainable change. In Digital Leadership he shares personal experience, insights and examples of how educators have harnessed the power of technology to transform schools, and he establishes a framework to guide educators in becoming digital leaders. This review will focus on Digital Leadership’s role in providing a compelling argument and methods to initiate sustainable change, simultaneously acknowledging trends in information and knowledge environments that are created by social and technological changes in the digital age.
Eric Sheninger is a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education. At time of publication of this book he was Principal of New Milford High School, New Jersey, where he had extensive experience in developing and implementing innovative practices with tremendous success. The practical examples lends to the authenticity and strength of the book. The book is aimed at school leaders, however the framework can be applied to classroom teachers too. It is broken up into two distinctive parts; the first part focuses on why a change is required, whilst in the second part he shares his ‘Seven Pillars of Digital Leadership’ in separate chapters. They are: communication, public relations, branding, professional growth and development, increasing student engagement and enhancing learning, rethinking learning environments and spaces, and discovering opportunity. These pillars are aligned to the 2009 International Society of Technology in Education’s (ISTE) National Educational Standard for Administrators and provide the framework for technological changes in the digital age.
Sheninger believes that school leaders need to acknowledge that modern learners are ‘wired’ differently, and their learning styles are in conflict with traditional teaching methods (2014, p. 15). There has been a societal shift in technology use, with social media, mobile devices and online communication driving a new knowledge ecosystem (O’Connell, 2015). This is supported by research from the PEW Research Center's Internet & American Life Project that finds, “92% of teens report going online daily — including 24% who say they go online almost constantly” and that the internet is a central and indispensable part in the lives of American teens and young adults (Lenhart, 2015). He utilises research from Childwise, Bloomberg, Strategy Analytics, mobiThinking, MacArthur Foundation, and others to explain the changing dynamics in accessing technology.
A new culture of learning is developing, where information is networked and where participation is reshaping the way individuals learn (Thomas & Brown, 2011). Technology is driving this change, and this is why Sheninger believes it is so important to create learning experiences that are flexible, adaptable and that creates new skills in students for the twenty-first century. The Digital Media and Learning Hub supports this with their model of connected learning; which contends that connected learning involves an equal, social and participatory culture (Connectedlearning.tv, 2015). Sheninger explains that understanding how learners in the twenty-first century use technology is key to developing a school culture that will best meet the needs of students. Patricia Collarbone (2009), in Creating Tomorrow, supports the view that managing and leading the modernisation is required through an effective process for substantial, beneficial and sustainable change. Sheninger’s message here is about laying a foundation for students to become critical consumers of content, develop digital citizenship, and promote the ability to create, analyse and interpret media (2014, p. 35). Professor Yong Zhao (2012) also acknowledges in his book, World Class Learners, similar skills for students, the skills are effective communication, curiosity, and critical thinking.
Eric Sheninger reviews how the education landscape has changed, and the importance of school leaders taking charge in leading change management; highlighted with these quotes, “leaders must be the pillars of their respective institutions and focus on solutions rather than problems” (2014, p. 31) and “it is our duty to be agents of change” (2014, p. 36). Using examples from Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, Ian Jukes, Pam Moran, and Michael Fullard he highlights some of the reasons for change and why embracing digital leadership is key. Leaders need to join online conversations and take responsibility for the actions and education of future leaders, the students (Ahlquist, 2014). Sheninger blends into Chapter 4 the work of Michael Fullan (2008), a change expert, and discusses Fullan’s ‘Six Secrets of Change’ and how they are applied to Digital Leadership principles. Alongside this he deals effortlessly with obstacles that many schools face, and ways that they could be overcome with various strategies. Obstacles such as Wi-Fi, networks, budget cuts, government regulations and others are great concerns for many, and is an area that could be explored further. Each school situation is different, and Sheninger (2014) does make a point that “Each school is an autonomous body with distinct dynamics that make it unique. It's the small changes over time that will eventually leave a lasting impact.” (p. 70). The constant message is that it is a shift in mindset that is required for schools. Scott Klososky points out that education leaders today are becoming transitional leaders, “who are responsible for managing the transition to teaching and learning in a different way, preparing very different students to go into a very different world” (O'Brien, 2015). As part of the transformation process, Sheninger highlights the importance of students having their voices heard in transforming school cultures, and this is an area of strength for the book.
In leading into the Seven Pillars, he shares some of the key areas of change at his school, New Milford, and his own personal journey. Points raised centre on how connectedness acted as a catalyst for change, importance of sharing a vision, supporting and empowering staff, establishing the value in changes and allowing students to be part of the process.. The driving question according to Sheninger is how we should use the technology that is available to us to improve what we do, instead of why we should use it to improve what we do (Sheninger, 2014). Chapters 5-11 explore this through explanations, how to accomplish it and showcases examples of educators that have paved the way. Social Media tools play an important role in almost every single pillar, along with the idea of ‘Connectedness’ being the conduit for supporting each of the pillars.
Communication, Public Relations and Branding are the first three pillars and they can be considered to be interdependent upon one another. Sheninger (2014, p. 86) says, “Educators must be experts in effective communication techniques, especially when it comes to parents and other key stakeholders”. Communication at the same time needs to be a two-way form, not a static one-way transmission, and social media allows this to take place. He uses examples from how to use Facebook and Twitter to communicate, plus discussions of Joe Mazza’s ‘eFace’ concept where technology is used to support Family and Community Engagement initiatives. Ribble and Miller (2013) also agree that technology and social networks provide a tremendous avenue for communication and building relationships. This is also noted by Bouffard (2015) that communication is at the heart of family–school relationships.
Communication is seen in both the next two pillars, Public Relations and Branding. Using the story of Van Meter Community School District under the leadership of John Carver, he explains how they used social media tools to establish a global footprint and craft their own message. This showcases the powerful message that, “If we do not tell our story, someone else will.” (Sheninger, 2014, p. 99). Digital Leadership allows schools to create a solid foundation for positive public relations using social media that complements communication efforts (Sheninger, 2014, p. 99). Branding allows educators to leverage social media and other digital tools to establish their professional brands in education. This is done through building connections, sharing, trust, and relationships with students, parents, teachers and stakeholders. These three boil down to establishing a schools message, communicating it and building a positive identity for the school. Sheninger mentions that communication is the most important thing he does every day (2014, p.89).
In the Pillar for Professional Growth and Development, Sheninger discusses the power of creating a Personal Learning Network (PLN) and how to do this. He uses research from Alec Couros to showcase how an online PLN is crucial for modern educators. One of the key reasons why online PLN’s are so powerful for learning is that “Knowledge is shared, and not just taken” (2014, p. 119). Connectedness is becoming the standard for teaching professionals to grow, and “Digital leadership require connectedness as an essential component to cultivate innovative practices and lead sustainable change” (Sheninger, 2014, p. 122). The learning model of ‘Connectivism’ acknowledges the shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity, but rather deriving competence from forming connections (Siemens, 2004). Educators can now learn anytime, anywhere, and with anyone through leveraging the power of social media networks.
Increasing Student Engagement and Enhancing Learning Pillar ties together how leaders can support learners in developing knowledge, skills, and confidence to be successful in the twenty-first century. The key concept that Sheninger (2014, p.134) shares is that this new learning requires a constructivist, heutagogical approach to teaching and learning. Jackie Gerstein (2013) also explains that teachers, learners, networks, connections, media, resources and tools are creating a unique entity that has the potential to meet individual needs. Students want their learning to be authentic and meaningful. Students need to be at the centre of decision-making, and the strength in this book is how Sheninger constantly refers to utilising students’ voice to support the change. Students become educated on digital citizenship, responsibility and creating positive digital footprints; something that many schools are failing at. Students have a wide-ranging set of technology skills, this is changing teaching methods, as well as when and how students learn and many schools are integrating digital citizenship training as part of their school improvement efforts (Ribble & Miller, 2013). He often refers to pedagogy first and tools second in creating sustainable change, making it clear that devices and technology always come second.
Learning environments and spaces pillar links in well with creating learning areas that are flexible, foster creativity and facilitate learning. He demonstrates this with the Gahana Jefferson District example of how they re-imagined spaces and how they could be utilised. The issue of school redesign he believes should be part of any educational reform process. Discovering opportunity rounds up the Seven Pillars, and once again he links the pillars together and summarises how they are interdependent on one another. Through working on the first six pillars it will allow leaders to find innovative solutions, share their stories and model digital leadership. This will then result in countless opportunities for schools, educators and students to open up.
Connect, collaborate, share, create and communicate are cornerstones for the 21st century educators and through Digital Leadership - Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, Sheninger provides an informative and practical guide on how to initiate the change. He addresses the paradigm shift that is taking place due to connectedness, ubiquitous nature of information and accelerated changes in technology. Through his own story, that of other innovative educators, and supported with various external sources, he showcases how they have responded to the change. He acknowledges that at the heart of digital leadership, the human interactions will always remain the key component in changing education (Sheninger, 2014, p. 191). For school leaders there is no longer a debate on whether or not to be a digital leader, Eric Sheninger successfully provides a clear framework on why and how to initiate the change.
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