Teaching in a Digital School: The Differences and Attributes Needed


Mal Lee


Teaching in schools that have normalised the use of digital technology by all teachers, in all the teaching rooms – schools that have gone digital – is dramatically different to teaching in the traditional paper based school and is on track to become ever more so.

It is a fundamental difference requiring of the teachers a suite of skills and mindset that few teaching institutes, national teaching standards or indeed teacher education organisations recognise as being required, but explore the work of the teachers in the pathfinder schools in the US, UK, NZ or Australia and you’ll see they are rapidly developing a suite of distinct attributes to assist them thrive professionally in the schools of an ever more digital, networked and collaborative world, where that human networking is daily aided by ever more sophisticated network technology.

In 2014 it is both extraordinary and disturbing than one needs to make the above observation, for in virtually every other knowledge profession it has long been accepted the attributes have to be appreciably different. What is of even greater concern is that the vast majority of educational decision makers don’t appear to even recognise the need for the new, let alone to begin work on them.

Globally there is still the all-pervasive sense that schools are the same and will ever more so remain, with the teaching skills also being constant.

Digital schools, operating to the fore of the school evolutionary continuum (http://www.schoolevolutionarystages.net) are already fundamentally different environments to the traditional, are evolving and transforming at pace and in so doing are daily escalating the already considerable school variability.  Where the traditional paper- based school has been characterised by its insularity, focus on the teaching within the physical place called school, its unilateral control of the teaching and by solitary teachers teaching class groups, invariably behind closed doors for X hours a week for Y days a year the schools that have normalised the digital are increasingly socially networked 24/7/365 operations, that have distributed the control of the teaching and learning and are beginning to genuinely collaborate with all the teachers of the young – the parents, grandparents, carers, community organisations and the children themselves – from birth onwards in the provision of an increasingly personalised apposite 21st century holistic education.

Where traditional teaching has for generations been distinguished by its constancy, continuity, risk adverseness and fear of change teaching in the digital schools is dynamic, attractive, often messy and uncertain, conducted in a culture of change, ever evolving, ever more integrated and vitally ever higher order.  The former schooling is strongly shaped by the paper organisational base while the latter by the digital (Digital Operational Base – http://www.schoolevolutionarystages.net).

The traditional is about solitary teachers, working with mass groups of children, moving along a clearly defined linear teaching path while the networked (Lee and Finger, 2010) is working towards ever greater collaboration, marrying the teaching of the school with that of the home, becoming increasingly personalised and understanding that learning and teaching can occur anywhere, anytime 24/7/365 and that much will be non-linear.

Vitally the mindset of the teachers is dramatically different.  Where traditional teaching is inward looking, concerned with only that within the school walls, in the operational hours, often within one’s own silo, where it is a given that the teachers will unilaterally decide what will be taught and assessed and will work only with the resources provided, teacher’s thinking in the digital is socially networked, flexible, outward, seeking to draw upon the apposite local and global community, highly collaborative and yet tightly integrated where the teachers, while playing a lead role understand the benefits of distributing the control of the teaching and learning and genuinely trusting the other teachers of the young (Lee and Ward, 2013).

Teachers thriving in the digital and networked schools

  • possess many of the attributes that have always distinguished good teachers
  • have skills that while always important have taken on a heightened significance
  • are also developing a suite of new attributes essential to thrive in ever-evolving schools.

Conscious of the amount already written on the traditional attributes the focus of this article will be on those of greater importance and new to teaching.  Mishra and Koehler’s work on TPACK (http://www.tpck.org) (Finger and Jamison-Proctor, 2010) succinctly encapsulate the ‘traditional’ attributes that will always be required of good teachers.  They have to know the pertinent content, they require excellent pedagogy and vitally very good people skills. But as the research on the pathfinder schools in the UK, US, NZ and Australia attests they need to adjust the old suite of attributes by adding some and deleting others.

Space precludes elaborating upon each.  That is done in the forthcoming book on Digital Normalisation and School Transformation. Most are largely self-explanatory.

Of interest as you’ll see below many of the new attributes are antithetical to those deemed important in the paper-based mode.

  • Digital teaching base

Every teacher in the school – permanent and casual – needs to have normalised the use of the apposite digital technology in their teaching.  It is not good enough to have 50% or 90% doing so – it needs to be 100%.

  • Empowered professional

The teachers ought to be fully empowered educators possessing the professional wherewithal to contribute meaningfully to the continued evolution of higher order, ever more complex schools.  They can no longer be mere line workers.

  • Macro understanding of school evolution

All – here stressing all – the teachers, and not simply those atop the apex should understand the purpose and macro workings of ever more integrated and networked schools, as well as being expert in their designated area/s of responsibility, and daily to be able to assist the school realise its vision.

  • Independent risk taker

Paradoxically they need also be independent thinkers willing and able to lead and to take personal risk to enhance the school’s quest, understanding that at times mistakes are likely to be made. This as you’ll appreciate is antithetical to the traditional approach but the literature on networked organisations attests (Lipnack and Stamps, 1994) it will be increasingly vital.

  • Networked mindset

The having of a networked mindset, of instantly seeking solutions in and for a networked organisation and society rather than simply seeking the answer or resources in-house is one of the attribute that sets the teachers apart from colleagues in traditional schools (Lee and Ward, 2013).  It is mode of thinking that is probably not easily developed and appears primarily to emerge from working in a digitally based and networked culture, where the leadership, the teachers and the wider school community work naturally in a networked paradigm.

  • Networker

Allied is the importance of being able to network, of using one’s networks, contacts and social capital, and while always a vital ‘old’ skill that rarely rated a mention in the traditional teaching standards the ability is vital in ever-evolving networked organisations.

  • Collaborator

While good people skills and the ability to work with moderate needs in teams have always been important the facility to collaborate aptly with all within the school’s community is essential.  As Lee and Ward reveal in their study on Collaboration in learning (2013) teachers are relatively new to genuine collaboration in the workplace and its many finer nuances and have some distance to travel to acquire the sophisticated collaboration found in many other industries (Beyerling and Harris, 2004) (Hansen, 2009)

  • Willing delegator of educational control

Another of the major differences between the teaching in the digital and paper based mode is the teacher’s willingness to distribute the control of the teaching and learning process; in brief to cede some of their traditional power and rely more on their educational leadership. It is a major change that a sizeable number of teachers, even those new to teaching find difficult to make.

  • Preparedness to trust

That delegation of responsibility requires the teachers to work from a position of trust, trust in and respect for the parents, carers, grandparents and community mentors and vitally the children, and the recognition that virtually every parent – regardless of their situation – wants the best educationally for their children.

Interestingly the history of the use of electronic and digital instructional technology in schools over the last century has been characterised by distrust, of the children, their parents and in many instances the teachers (Lee and Winzenried, 2009). The vast majority of schools and teachers in 2014 are still unwilling to trust the children, parents or teachers to choose the apt instructional technology but until they do those schools won’t achieve digital normalisation or the desired school evolution (Lee, July 2012, http://www.byot.me).

  • Lead teacher

All teachers, and not just the experienced need begin playing a lead teacher role from the first day in the school, ensuring they contribute to the on-going evolution of the school’s ecology.

  • Eternal quest for the ideal

This has been evident in good teachers for thousands of years, but is ever more important in ever-evolving, ever higher order schooling.

  • Unerring focus on the desired educational benefits

Linked is the imperative of all teachers focussing in all they do on the realisation of the school’s education vision and the benefits the school is seeking to provide its students.

  • Ease with constant change and evolution

The teachers need to thrive in, to enjoy a culture of on-going evolution and enhancement with all its associated messiness, uncertainty and seeming chaos.  One finds in the teachers of the pathfinder schools a palpable excitement and a driving desire to grasp the emerging opportunities.

  • Flexible

In such an environment, where there are often no maps to show the way teachers have to be highly flexible and willing to take alternative paths.

  • Reflective practitioner

While this attribute has long been expected of school leaders (Schon, 1987) with all staff fully empowered and expected to lead it important all teachers also become reflective practitioners.

  • Networked and connected learner

This ability ties closely with the reflective practitioner for in an ever-evolving scene while the staff does at times need to address personal development collectively it is important all the professionals assume prime responsibility for their on-going enhancement by making astute use of the networked world.

  • Time smart and efficient

Lastly but by no means least is the imperative of teachers in schools awash with information and educational opportunities working smartly and taking advantage of the efficiencies accorded by the digital technology.


These are the attributes that have emerged out of the current research, and as such are not a ‘wish list’.

Vitally they are not intended to be the basis of a ‘silver bullet’, ‘how to succeed in teaching’ solution.

Rather they are the key attributes that have come to the fore in the pathfinder schools in 2013 the UK, US, NZ and Australia and the research undertaken by Nacce (UK) in 2013 in identifying the teaching skills desired in what it terms the 3rd Millennium Award schools.

The list, while extensive is likely not exhaustive. It most assuredly will continue to evolve.

It nonetheless succinctly highlights the many different attributes teachers will need to contribute fully to ever-evolving digital schools.


Beyerling, M.M and Harris, C.L (2004) Guiding the Journey to Collaborative Work Systems San Francisco John Wiley

Finger, G and Jamison-Proctor, R (2010) ‘Teacher readiness: TPACK capabilities and redesigning working conditions’ in Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) 2010 Developing a Networked School Community Melbourne ACER Press

Hansen, M.T (2009) Collaboration Boston Harvard Business Press

Lee, M & Winzenried, A 2009, The use of instructional technology in schools: Lessons to be learned, ACER Press, Melbourne.

Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) 2010 Developing a Networked School Community Melbourne ACER Press

Lee, M and Ward, L (2013) Collaboration in learning: transcending the classroom walls Melbourne ACER Press

Lipnack, J & Stamps, J 1994, The age of the network: Organizing principles for the 21st century, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York.

Schön, D 1987, Educating the reflective practitioner, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.


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Leading a Digital School

Mal Lee

It is ever more apparent that principals are central to the successful on-going evolution of schools, particularly when the school moves to a digital operational base.

Indeed the indicators increasingly suggest school principals, in both the positive and negative sense, are primarily responsible for the current digital divide between schools.  While teachers, bureaucrats, governments, funding, school culture and until recently the technology itself can make the principal’s job very difficult, and at times near impossible ultimately it is only the principal, the school’s chief educational architect and decision maker, its CEO that can lead the school to the digital evolutionary stage and beyond.

In 2008 Professor Mike Gaffney and I published Leading a Digital School, probably the first work that coined the term ‘digital school’ and which specifically examined the role of the principal in a school operating on a digital base.  Since then, in conjunction with colleagues in the UK, US, NZ and Australia I’ve penned a selection of books and plethora of articles (http://www.malleehome.com) that have more fully examined the evolution of schooling and the role of the principal therein.

Indeed I wrote a piece for Educational Technology Solutions only a year ago.

However in researching the forthcoming book on Digital Normalisation and School Transformation where I took the opportunity to build on the earlier work and interview some 70 schools and astute education observers in the four nations on the current situation in schools that had or nearly had normalised the whole school use of the digital technology the importance of the head’s leadership became ever more apparent.

In all the lead role of the principal was paramount, and central to school’s digital normalisation.

Ever higher order, ever more complex and integrated, and ever-evolving school ecologies require astute principals able to conduct increasingly sophisticated world-class ‘orchestras’.

Decades of school effectiveness research, from the pioneering work by the likes of Lightfoot (1983), Sergiovanni (1986), (Goodlad (1986) and Beare, Caldwell and Millikan (1989) onwards have underscored the importance of the principal in what were at that stage relatively simple paper based organisations.

As schools move to a digital operational base, an ever-higher order operational mode, an ever-evolving ecology that increasingly integrates the ‘in and out of school’ teaching and learning all the signs suggest the importance of the principal will be ever greater.  While specific in-depth research has yet to be undertaken on the nature and importance of the principal’s role in such an environment the case study experience – as well as logic – would point to the principal’s contribution to the effectiveness and success of a school escalating.

While some would rightly argue all schools need successful leadership teams and not simply an astute principal the point made by Peter Drucker (2001) of industry equally holds with schools that all organisations ultimately must have a CEO who takes ultimate responsibility for the workings of the organisation.

In any institution there has to be a final authority, that is, a “boss” – someone who can make the final decision and who can expect them to be obeyed (Drucker, 2001, p11)

In the school it is the principal.

Not surprisingly every one of the pathfinder schools had an astute principal who was prepared to play a lead role over a concerted period, often over many years in shaping the desired mode of schooling.

In performing that role they demonstrated the leadership and people skills that have long been associated with successful principals but in addition they all, probably unwittingly, demonstrated a set of skills and a mindset particular to the digital school.

It is the latter that is the focus of this article.

Central role

Ever evolving schools operating on a digital base, experiencing significant natural growth that will have to be constantly shaped to realise the desired benefits require the school principal be the conductor of an ever more sophisticated, ever-larger ‘orchestra’ where in addition to the professional players there may well be sizeable parent, student and community membership, with all the players invariably wanting to constantly perform at the international standard.

It requires the principal as the conductor to understand the total score, the finer nuances therein and when change or retention of the status quo is required.  It requires of the principal, the head teacher, to have a macro understanding of all the school’s workings, a strong educational base and an intimate awareness of all the key school operations and their interrelation.

The contrast with the traditional silo like operation, particularly that of high schools where the principal often has little or no understanding of the work of the siloes is pronounced.

In employing the metaphor of the chief conductor it most assuredly does not mean the principal needs to be the sole conductor or to do the actual playing.

Rather it requires the empowerment of the total ‘orchestra’ and its support staff and constantly monitoring either directly or through delegates the part that all members are playing in the performance.

Attributes of principal operating in digital and networked mode

Many of the attributes required to undertake this kind of whole school conducting are those that have been enunciated in the general leadership and school literature for decades and are to be found in virtually all the education authority publications and standards.  Attributes like a strong educational philosophy, the willingness to lead, the facility to articulate the desired vision, an in-depth understanding of the instructional program, strong people and management skills, the setting of high expectations, political acumen, attention to detail and the capacity to manage the school’s finite resources are as important as ever.  There is no point in reiterating them at this stage.

What however is important is to discuss are those attributes that emerged out of the work of the pathfinders that are particularly important for principals working in digital and networked schools.

  • Digital acumen

In the research my colleagues and I have conducted over the last five years (Lee and Gaffney, 2008), (Lee and Winzenried, 2009), (Lee and Finger, 2010), (Lee and Levins, 2012), (Lee and Ward, 2013), (Lee and Broadie, 2013) all the principals leading successful schools operating in the digital or networked mode demonstrated a high level of digital acumen.

On first glance that might seem blindingly obvious but in Australia at least that is still not readily evident in the literature or national standards for school principals.  What is the situation with in your school?

Although principals do not have to be a digital technology expert, they do need a macro working understanding of the digital technology with which they will be working.  The digital technology in all its forms is core to all facets of the school’s operations and as the school’s chief educational architect principals have to know how it should be used astutely.

Principals who delegate the technology to a middle manager are in reality abrogating their role as the school’s chief conductor and any hope the school has of going digital.

  • Networked mindset

Another new and vital attribute required is a networked mindset that is constantly scanning the networked community for opportunities to collaborate and to enhance the educational offerings or the school’s resources.

The contrast with the traditional insular outlook of heads is marked.

  • Willingness to take charge

Without labouring the point principals as the school’s chief conductor have to take charge of all facets of the school’s evolution.

The pathfinders have underscored the principal has to be proactive and lead, neither waiting for the ‘system’ to give the green light or delegating the responsibility to other staff.

  • Clear shaping educational vision

While always theoretically important what is apparent as schools evolve is that the imperative of the effective shaping educational vision becomes ever-greater, as does a principal consonant with that vision, intimately aware of the many elements needing attention.

Vitally the principal, the head needs to be able to consistently articulate that vision succinctly and powerfully to all manner of audiences.

  • Instructional leadership

All the aforementioned attributes point very strongly to the CEO of the digital school needing to be an instructional leader, an educator with the deep educational understanding required to take ultimate responsibility for constantly shaping an ever-evolving school ecology.

It is a very substantial challenge, requiring a very capable person with the wherewithal to convert a plethora of forces into a consistently effective school.

  • Commitment to enhanced educational attainment

Along with the clear shaping educational was the drive by all the pathfinder principals, some might say the passion, to have all the students enhance their attainment.

It is appreciated this has been to the fore in all good schools but it appears to be that much more up front in the pathfinders, with most openly expressing the desire to match the schooling they provide with the best internationally.

  • Ability to understand and ride the megatrends

One of the vital skills on track to become ever more important is the facility to read the swelling megatrends, to know when to catch those waves, how to ride them and get the most from them and vitally when to get off and catch the next.

Interestingly while it is undoubtedly a talent many a school principal has had for some time it is an attribute until recent times rarely mentioned in the educational leadership literature, shaped as it has so often been by the sense of constancy and school insularity.

The societal and technological megatrends have had a profound impact on the transformation of schools and are on track to have an ever-greater influence.  Indeed so powerful are many of those developments schools can I’d argue only ever hope to ride them to advantage.

  • Big picture planning

All the pathfinder schools well understood the impact of the megatrends and the constantly, and often rapidly evolving scene and have opted to employ big picture planning strategies that allow the chief conductor to vary the pace of the orchestra’s performance as the situation required.

In an ever more tightly integrated ever-evolving school ecology where all the parts are interrelated there is little place for the traditional segmented five-year development plans where bureaucrats oblige schools to identify the month several years hence when a program will be completed.

  • Thrive on chaos – and change

Principals have not only to have the personal wherewithal to thrive in a world of constant change but to assist create a school wide culture that relishes change, and chaos.

Tom Peters, the management writer identified this need for the business back in 1987 with his Thriving on Chaos.  Twenty-five years on principals need to both appreciate and thrive within that environment.

It is an environment seemingly most within the pathfinder schools have come to relish, to enjoy the excitement, the vibrancy, the ever opening educational opportunities, the professional rewards and generally to thrive.

  • Organisational integration

The onus on, and the need for the principal to constantly ensure all the elements in the ever-evolving ecology are integrated and vitally are directed at realising the desired education is considerable, and growing.

Principals do have to know the total orchestral score, the finer nuances therein and constantly address the desired totality.

Equally they need quickly to decide if a proposed addition to the school’s operations is consonant with the school’s shaping vision and can be readily integrated into the school’s ecology.

Yes all the staff, teaching and professional, do need to support that work but ultimately it has to be the head, the principal who ensures the requisite integration occurs.

  • Empowerment and trust

The willingness and facility of the principal to trust and empower the total school community, and in particular the professional staff in a networked organisation is critical. Lipnack and Stamps (1994) in their work on networked organisations speak of the need for leaders at multiple levels and allowing staff the autonomy, the independence to lead the change.  That was apparent in all the pathfinders.

  • Focussing on the priorities

School principals have always theoretically had to set the school’s priorities.

In rapidly evolving, ever changing schools where potential opportunities are being opened virtually each week, where staff highly enthusiastic and committed are pushing the boundaries and where governments, their agencies and society in general have seemingly growing expectations of what should be tackled by the school, the pathfinder principals have increasingly had to identify the priorities apposite to the school realising its educational vision and let the less important go through to the keeper or be accorded minimal attention.

That skill drew upon the head’s understanding of the total score and their political acumen.

While principals have always had to protect the staff from the extraneous the further the schools move along the evolutionary the more important becomes the need.

  • Controlling the pace

The school’s chief conductor has to control the pace of the evolution, carefully monitoring the load on each staff member, allowing the natural growth to run its course and if needed be to slow the tempo for a time.

The contrast with many of the traditional paper schools where inertia is often the norm and teachers have to be energised is dramatic.

The pathfinders comment on the very real issue of slowing down highly committed teachers anxious to grasp every opportunity for their students, of ensuring senior staff constantly monitor for signs of stress, applying due stress relief measures and when apposite applying the brakes.

It is new art for principals to learn.


For Australia to have every one of its 10,000 schools operating on a digital base, ever evolving, and ever providing an apposite international standard for the digital and networked world it requires 10,000 principals capable of leading a digital school.

Is that too much to expect?


  • Beare, H, Caldwell, B and Milliken, R  (1989) London Routledge


  • Drucker, P (2001) Management Challenges for the 21st Century NY Collins Business


  • Goodlad, J (1984) A Place Called School NY McGraw-Hill
  • Lightfoot, S (1983) The Good High School NY Basic Books
  • Lee, M and Gaffney, M eds, (2008) Leading a Digital School Melbourne ACER Press
  • Lee, M and Winzenried, A (2009) The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools, Melbourne ACER Press
  • Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) (2010) Developing a Networked School Community, Melbourne ACER Press
  • Lee, M and Levins, M (2012) Bring Your Own Technology Melbourne ACER Press
  • Lee, M and Ward, L (2013) Collaboration in learning: transcending the classroom walls, Melbourne ACER Press
  • Lee, M and Broadie, R (in press) The Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages
  • Peters, T (1987) Thriving on Chaos NY Alfred A. Knopf
  • Sergiovanni, T (1986) The Principalship Boston Allyn and Bacon

Leading a Digital School



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Schools take charge of evolution and technology

Mal Lee


There are pleasing signs globally and across Australia that evermore schools are recognising they have to take charge of their own evolutionary development and the digital technology they employ to achieve that sustained development.

Evermore are recognising they have to be the prime unit of change, and as such they, and not the government of the day or their local education authority, are responsible for successfully addressing the plethora of variables that will allow them to evolve at pace and achieve the desired digital normalisation and provide an apposite 21st century education.

They are long past waiting for government or the system to provide the answers and funding for the way forward.  Yes, they will most assuredly use any apposite support provided by external agencies but they understand they have to take control of their own destiny.

The stark reality is that while in some fortunate situations the ‘system’ is providing apposite support most central offices are currently demonstrating little appreciation of what is occurring with the pathfinders, of the evolutionary continuum or how the continuum can assist individual schools in their journey. Many are adding little value to the teaching in the schools and simply frustrating the school’s evolution.

In many respects it matters not to the individual school what the Federal Government of the day is, whether it be the Greens, Labor or Liberal or indeed who wins the next election.

While governments of all persuasion globally, and not simply in Australia, like to project the profound impact they have upon the running and performance of the nation’s schools, and imagine that by the end of their term in office all ‘their’ schools will naturally have embraced and benefitted from the government’s policies the reality is that most government’s have limited impact on the school’s culture and operations.

The power lies primarily within the school.

To read the full article click here - Schools Take Charge of Evolution

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Melbourne presentation – Collaboration in learning

Attached is a presentation given in Melbourne – as part of the Leading a Digital School conference – in August 2013.Collaboration in learning – blog version

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School Websites as Indicators of School’s Evolutionary Position

Mal Lee

Every school’s website provides a telling insight into where it sits on the international school evolutionary continuum.

Within minutes those conversant with the school evolutionary stage indicators – as discussed in the last edition – can obtain an insight into the school’s current position.

Possibly unwittingly your website invariably provides all interested a window to the school’s workings, that is in many respects greater than that provided by the Australian Government’s My School site.

Vitally it also provides an excellent insight into the school’s leadership’s thinking.

Have you looked lately at the message – intended and unintended – your school website communicates?

In researching the evolution of schooling in the UK, US, NZ and Australia over the last 5-6 years, in exploring the impact of digital normalisation on school transformation I’ve had occasion to examine many, many school websites.

It has become increasingly apparent, particularly now the first schools are moving into the Digital Normalisation stage that astute educators and parents globally – current and prospective – can and do increasingly use the school website as a quick and valid indicator of the evolutionary stage the school is at and if it is a school where one wants to send the children.

For more

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Digital Normalisation: Key Variables

Key Variables Evidenced in the Pathfinders

Allied to the post on the evolutionary stages of schooling is this that lists the near 50 key variables addressed by all the schools studied that have or nearly have normalised the use of the digital in the everyday operations of the school and its community.

The list highlights the many interrelated variables schools wanting reach the digital normalisation stage in their evolution will need to address in their quest to create the desired school specific ecology.

Digital Normalisation – Key Variables

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The Evolutionary Stages of Schooling

The Evolutionary Stages of Schooling

Key Indicators 

A Discussion Paper

Mal Lee

June 14, 2013 version

This paper emerged out of an analysis of that as yet rare cadre of schools in the UK, US, NZ and Australia that have or nearly have succeeded in normalising the use of the digital in all their operations, educational and administrative.

The research was undertaken as part of the preparations for a forthcoming publication on Digital Normalisation and School Transformation I’m writing.

The belief was that the work had so many implications for schooling globally, and it would be beneficial to place the thoughts on the evolutionary stages online and allow all interested to read, reflect and if they wish to comment.

Indeed I’ve partnered with Roger Broadie in the UK in creating a Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages, a work that will provide schools globally an international measure, with easily used benchmarks to identify where they are at on the evolutionary continuum and to readily identify the path ahead.

That work will be published as an e-book in the near future.

If you would like to provide me a comment please do at – mallee@mac.com

The Evolutionary Stages

At this point in the evolution of schooling I’ve identified six main development stages.

The transformative Digital Normalisation stage has only come on to the radar this year, even though there were strong signs in 2012 of its emergence.

The stages are a construct designed to assist schools with their planning and development. They have emerged after noting the remarkably similar journeys of all the pathfinders studied. The indicators within each of the stages are intended as guide, full well recognising that in different situations a particular development might come earlier or later.

The crucial variables at each stage are italicised.

In considering the stages it is important to appreciate all the schools displayed an excellent understanding of organisational change, with all throughout the stages being highly proactive, consciously seeking to foster a culture of change and understanding the imperative of the leadership being politically astute.

To secure a PDF of the full stages click here.

Evolutionary Stages

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Review of Bring Your Own Technology


Today’s School a new series on Channel 31 in Melbourne Australia has done the below review of Bring Your Own Technology by Martin Levin’s and myself.

It is well worth checking out not only because it is highly laudatory, but also because it is a very different way of doing a book review.

The review also strongly differentiates between BYOT and BYOD


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The Principal and the Digital School


Leader or Dead Hand?

Mal Lee

Australia has principals on par with the best in the world, showing the way internationally on what is required to lead a successful, ever-evolving digital school.

Sadly Australia also has too many ‘dead hand’ principals seemingly content to maintain the status quo, operating in an Industrial Age mindset, lacking the desire or possibly even the wherewithal to create and lead a digital school.  The ‘dead hand’ they are laying upon their school’s evolution is admittedly not helped by bureaucrats preoccupation with micro-managing the everyday workings of the schools.

In recent months Australia’s Prime Minister has expressed the desire for Australia’s schools to be ranked within the top five internationally.

Bureaucratic micro management of school principals will most assuredly never bring about that lofty global standing. As Britain’s peak business council in its November 2012 report on UK schooling noted in its criticism of the UK’s micro management

At the moment, inspirational headteachers still tend to be mavericks – rebelling against the system to do what is best – rather than the norm (CBI, 2012, 46).

All school principals have to have the same lofty educational expectations as those pathfinders, be given the same kind of professional freedom as the mavericks have ‘taken’, be expected to perform at the international level, be given the apposite support and to openly account and be held responsible for their performance if Australia is realistically to compete internationally.

It is time society and governments recognised it is the principal who determines the international standing of the school, not some external bureaucratic process.

The Principal’s Leadership

Without an astute principal with the wherewithal to lead a digital school the school is destined to stay in its present mode, tinkering with the technology falling ever further behind and failing to meet the parents’, students’ and indeed societies ever-rising expectations (Lee, 2012).

If Australia is to successfully educate its young for the C21 and a digital and networked world and compete internationally with ever strongly and more focussed opposition it must appoint principals who can lead schools apposite for that world, able to compete with the world’s best.

It needs leaders and most assuredly not acquiescent managers.

What hit home in recent interviews with pathfinding schools internationally were the principals’ awareness of the leadership role they were playing in a global ‘competition’.

It is a competitive awareness rarely expressed by Australian principals or indeed sought by Australia’s political leaders.

Australia is very happy to set those expectations of its athletes and to laud the achievements of its team captains. The same kind of expectation needs to be set of the school’s ‘captain’ – its principal – for even more than team sport within the digital and networked mode that position determines the school’s on-going evolution and success.

As ever more schools go digital and experience the fundamental organisational transformation that comes, as industry found 15-20 years ago (Thorp, 1998), with the normalised use of the digital Australia must have principals who can successfully lead rapidly evolving, ever more tightly integrated, ever more complex organisations.

It is vital all appreciate the growing complexity and the ever-changing nature of schooling as it moves from an era of constancy to a period of on-going organisational transformation and rapid evolution.

Digital convergence naturally promotes ever closer integration of operations in and outside the organisation, tightens the interrelatedness of all the parts and opens the way for genuine synergy but at the same time positions the organisation’s CEO – the school’s principal – as the only person who can ultimately decide how all the myriad of parts can best be fused and directed to the on-going realisation of the school’s educational vision.

It requires a special kind of person not only to understand the interconnectedness of the parts in a networked organisation but also to ensure in a time of rapid, invariably spasmodic change all the variables, in and outside the organisation impacting on the school’s performance are constantly attuned to providing the desired education.

The more we research schools working within the networked mode the more we recognise the critical importance of and central role played by the principal, and the impact of his/her appointment and performance on the on-going success of the school.

The importance of the principal in a traditional paper-based school was, as the research attests, considerable.

Our research is suggesting that importance markedly escalates once a school goes digital and in particular networked.

The importance is as great, if not more so, as that of the CEO of a modern corporation.

Like a CEO principals alone can’t ensure the organisation’s success.

Principals alone can however most assuredly stultify a school’s development by laying on the ‘dead hand’.

Newly appointed principals can most definitely destroy years of hard developmental effort by the school and its community.

The research undertaken with colleagues over the last five years (Lee and Gaffney, 2008, Lee and Winzenried, 2009, Lee and Finger, 2010, Lee and Levins, 2012, Lee and Ward, 2013) affirms success in the digital and networked mode is always dependent on the leadership of astute principals. Whether it is

  • adopting an apposite shaping educational vision
  • the choice of the desired staff
  • the empowerment of all staff
  • cultivating a culture that accepts change as a natural part of the developmental process
  • ensuring a tight nexus between the educational vision and the use of the technology
  • providing all staff the requisite digital tools
  • expecting all teachers to normalise the use of the digital in their teaching
  • ensuring every teaching room has the requisite connectivity and technology
  • genuinely collaborating with the parents in the teaching of the young
  • the dismantling of internal and external school walls
  • pooling the resources of the school and its homes
  • the move to BYOT
  • the measurement and optimization of the benefits to be realised

ultimately it is the principal who determines the success or otherwise of those moves.

One can add many more.

Many of the principals whose work we examined, working as they are so often in unchartered territory, openly admitted to making wrong calls and needing to take an alternative route but all understood that after the listening they alone had to make the final decision.

Digital Acumen

In our research over the last five years all the principals leading successful schools operating in the digital or networked mode demonstrated a high level of digital acumen.

On first glance that might seem blindingly obvious.

If today I were in my old position as a director of schools or chair of the principal selection panel I’d not appoint a principal unless she/he had demonstrated that acumen.

Again that would appear to be obvious but in Australia today that is still not readily evident in the literature or the policies of the national or state governments.

In 2008 Professor Michael Gaffney and I writing in Leading a Digital School (Lee and Gaffney, 2008) stressed that although principals did not have to be an expert they did need a macro working understanding of the digital technology with which they would be working.  The digital in all its forms is core to all facets of the school’s operations and as the school’s chief educational architect they have to know how it should be used astutely.

Principals who delegate the technology to a middle manager are abrogating their role as the school’s chief educational architect and any hope the school has of going digital.

As the school’s ultimate decision maker the principal requires a level of digital acumen to see through ever more sophisticated technology sales pitches, keep ‘under control’ enthusiastic staff and technology specialists, ensure the apposite technology only is acquired, waste is avoided and the technology deployment is tightly linked to realising the desired educational benefits.

In the years since that imperative has become ever greater, and importantly will continue to do so as the digital moves from the periphery to being core.

So too has the importance of the principal working with a networked mindset, a mindset that emerges out of the understanding acquired in the normalised whole school use of the digital and networked technology.  As Thorp identified in 1998 in those businesses that had gone digital and networked (Thorp, 1998) the CEOs had to abandon their Industrial Age thinking and bridge the then considerable lag between the capability of the technology and the thinking of the organisation’s leadership if the organisation was to use the ever more sophisticated technology astutely.

The same has to occur with all school principals.

Those lacking that mindset and associated digital acumen will almost inevitably curtail the school’s effective use of the technology or botch its use, in both cases impairing the school’s development and the education it provides.

So too do unwittingly do the Australian National Professional Standards Principals issued by AITSL in July 2011. While the Standards contain much that is laudable and should rightly be expected of all principals they express what Sergiovanni (1987) was expecting of principals 25 years ago.

The all-pervasive sense in those Standards is that schools and the role of the principal will largely remain the same as we have known.

The use of technology, let alone digital technology is not mentioned once, nor is the notion of schooling undergoing a fundamental organizational transformation or they requiring principals able to lead rapidly changing, ever evolving, ever more integrated and complex organizations.

If Australia’s governments and education employers regard those as the standards that will enable Australia’s principals to compete internationally the Australia is already well behind the competitors.

One of the great shortcomings of the Standards is that the methodology used to identify them ensures they are an expression of the current expectations of those at the middle of the bell curve, most of whom are still leading paper based schools.

They don’t express in any way the requirements of the global pathfinders.

In contrast our research focuses on their cutting edge work and experience and uses that analysis as a guide for others following.

Principal’s Selection Criteria

If you want to appoint a principal with the wherewithal to lead an ever-evolving digital school able to compete with the best internationally you must plan the appointment as meticulously as any high stakes education initiative.

The appointment can’t be left to chance or the dumping of a compulsory transferee.

The selection criteria must express the expectations of the school, and specify the digital acumen and high-level awareness of and skill in leading highly complex, ever-evolving, tightly integrated and complex organisations required.


The emerging reality is that the quality of the principal will determine the success of all the school’s offerings and the students’ attainment such is the importance of the principal in a digital school.

If Australia genuinely wants to continually enhance the nature and standard of its schooling and move to the fore internationally it is imperative it advocate the appointment at schools small and large of principals who can successfully lead ever-evolving digital schools operating increasingly in the networked mode.

What does one do with the current ‘dead hand’ lot?


CBI (2012) First Steps: A new approach for our schools November 2012

Lee, M (2012) ‘Sustained Evolution or Increasing Stagnation?’ The Australian Educational Leader Vol 4, 2012

Lee, M and Gaffney, M (eds) (2008) Leading a Digital School Melbourne ACER Press

Lee, M and Winzenried, A (2009) The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools Melbourne ACER Press

Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) (2010) Developing a Networked School Community Melbourne ACER Press

Lee M and Levins, M (2012) Bring Your Own Technology Melbourne ACER Press

Lee, M and Ward, L (2013) Collaboration in learning: Transcending the schools walls Melbourne ACER Press

Sergiovanni. T (1987) The Principalship, Boston  Allyn and Bacon

Thorp, J (1998) The Information Paradox Toronto McGraw-Hill

Posted in Digital normalisation and school transformation, Digital Schooling, Leading digital schools, School principals and digital school | 2 Comments

Digital Normalisation and School Transformation


Search for Apt Folk to Interview

I’ve embarked on the writing a major work on the impact of the normalised use of the digital, in and out of the school, on the nature of schooling in the developed world.

The work will focus on the fundamental transformation of schooling that has occurred in those pathfinding schools which have gone digital in the last decade and moved away from the traditional paper based operational mode, the impact of the normalised use of the digital in those schools today and from that analysis identify the likely major trends and issues all schools will have to address.

The study will make use of the research undertaken in writing seven previous works in this general area, but conscious very little has as yet been written on the impact of digital normalisation, particularly on schools I’ve embarked on interviewing a cross section of some 50 -60 folk in the UK, US, Canada, HK, NZ and Australia who have played a leading role in those schools or who have observed the impact of digital normalisation on schooling, particularly over the last decade.

I particularly want to talk with the leaders of that as yet rare group of schools that have normalised, or near normalised the whole school, indeed whole school community, use of the digital.

I’m talking about schools not simply with the digital technology in every teaching room but where the digital is being used naturally in the everyday teaching by all the teachers.

I’m not looking for anything written.

I’d simply like the chance to garner the observations in a Skype interview.

To guide the thinking I’ll provide an overview of the areas I’d like to cover, as the desire is to address all facets of the school’s operations, thinking and relationships, not simply the teaching and learning.

If yours is a school that has either normalised the use of the digital or you know well the work and thinking of such schools and are happy to give of your time and thoughts I’d like to hear from you and then arrange a time in the coming months when we can talk.

Email me at – mallee@mac.com

Mal Lee

Posted in 24/7/365 teaching and learning, Benefits of school technology, BYOT, Collaborative Teaching, Digital normalisation and school transformation, Digital Schooling, Evolution of Schooling, Normalised use of the digital in schools, teachers and the digital, Use of Instructional Technology in Schools | Leave a comment