Sustained Evolution or Increasing Stagnation?

Mal Lee

In reflecting on the work done in writing three recent books for ACER Press, that on Leading a Networked School Community, Collaborative Teaching and BYOT and working with the pathfinding schools and education authorities in the UK, US, NZ and Australia I’ve reached the point in studying the evolution of schooling where I’m willing to posit that:

  • schools that continue to operate in the traditional insular paper-based paradigm with its constancy and continuity will never fundamentally change, will increasingly be unable to meet ever-rising societal expectations and will increasingly stagnate


  • only schools that normalise the use of the digital in their everyday teaching and that shift to a digital and networked operational paradigm with its natural on-going evolution and growth will be able to meet society’s ever growing and more sophisticated expectations

All the schools my colleagues and I have researched (Lee and Finger, 2012), (Lee and Ward, 2012, (Lee and Levins, 2012) highlight this stark reality.

The Paper Base

Traditional paper-based schools will continue their stand alone form, operating behind their brick and digital walls with an insular mindset believing only the educational professionals can provide an apposite education, largely oblivious to the immensity of the opportunities made possible when schools normalise the use of the digital while ever they stay with a paper based mode of teaching.

The medium of paper largely dictates the form of the school, the nature of the teaching, the shape of the organisation, and its on-going constancy and continuity.  Paper – and the supporting pens and teaching boards – as passive instructional technologies provide no leeway or incentive to change.

Fifty plus years of concerted costly school change programs by many of the world’s foremost educators have not been able to make a permanent dent let alone a fundamental change to the nature of the traditional school.  Granted many schools have made significant fundamental changes within their walls but the divide from the teaching and learning developments occurring in the real world remains pronounced in those schools making limited or no use of the digital in their teaching.

The Digital Base

In contrast virtually overnight schools where all the teachers in a school have normalised the use of the digital in their everyday teaching recognise the value of collaborating with all the teachers of the young – and in particular the parents – and of pooling the expertise and digital resources of the school and the homes in that teaching. In normalising the use of the digital schools – like all other organisations that go digital – move rapidly from a position of constancy and continuity to one of natural and constant evolution and change – invariably rapid change – in keeping with wider societal developments.

Significantly the basic form and resourcing of those schools is fundamentally evolving as they begin removing their school walls and shifting from the notion that only the professional educator can teach the young.

As the pathfinder schools attest once schools go digital and networked they as organisations strongly impacted by the technology naturally continue to evolve and change as the technology evolves.

They are evolving at a pace at least commensurate with society’s expectations. Students, parents and the wider society expect the digital to be used naturally in all other facets of the school’s operations, as naturally as they do in all facets of their life and work. Most already expect the students to use their own mobile technology in class (Project Tomorrow, 2011), they assume all the teachers will be naturally using the digital in their teaching and administration, and that the school will in its administration and communication use the digital facilities of the day.

Natural Evolution

What particularly hit home in the research was the extent of the natural evolution in the pathfinding schools and astute leaders recognition that in this new environment they needed to let developments grow and evolve, to run their course and to resist over planning.

The three major natural developments that we identified in our research that have flowed naturally from the normalisation of the digital and the collaboration with the homes were the:

  1. adoption of a more collaborative mode of teaching that involved all the teachers of the young from birth onwards working together
  2. shift to the students using their own suite of digital technologies they already use 24/7/365 in the classroom (BYOT)
  3. move from a one size fits all model of school technology support where the ‘ICT experts’ controlled every operation to a model where the individual owners selected, acquired and maintained their own personal technology and the school technology team facilitated its use.

Significantly all three developments work to position the learner – and not the teacher – to the fore.

It is of note that the developments were apparent in all four nations at all levels of schooling, with all types of school, rural and urban, in all types of school building and from the high to low SES.

None of the developments were planned but that said astute leaders had read the trend lines well and had prepared the way for the developments to flourish.

Forsyth County in Georgia USA did not for example plan its move to BYOT, even though today it probably leads the way globally.  It recognised the natural development, provided its schools significant support but then left it to each school to adopt the form of BYOT appropriate.

As one would expect all three developments are naturally evolving near simultaneously, each impacting upon the other.

The likely reality is that there will be other natural developments occurring that have not as yet been researched and identified.

Networked mindset

Evident in each of the case study schools and the Forsyth County central office was the mindset change, with all recognising the limitations schools impose upon themselves by operating in an artificial world behind the school walls and all increasingly appreciating the immense opportunities opened when they collaborate with all the teachers of the young in the teaching and learning.

All had moved from the traditional insular to an ever more networked mindset.

In normalising the use of the digital the schools have adopted a more open thinking where the teachers are willing to genuinely collaborate with their student’s homes, to respect the contribution the homes make to the teaching of the young from birth onwards and to recognise the opportunities opened when the schools and the homes pool their expertise and resources in the teaching of the young.

Home-school collaboration

Historically this willingness to collaborate with the homes is a dramatic change, for despite the rhetoric there has in reality been only tokenistic home-school collaboration by most schools in the Western world (Mackenzie, 2010). The occasional parent teacher night, a few parents on a school council, parents acting as taxi drivers for the school and the school telling the parents what they have to do to with the homework are not examples of genuine collaboration.

Why the normalisation brings the change, and if the normalisation of the digital the only way to achieve genuine collaboration are two questions the research has yet to address.

What is however is clear achieve normalised use, add to the mix a principal willing to lead and you’ll soon have all parties willing to collaborate in the enhancement of the children’s education.

The missing element has always been the teachers and the school leadership.  The parents and students have always been willing to collaborate. It has been the professional educators willing to cede some of their educational power and to recognise the value of all parties working together that has been absent.

Until one secures the genuine willingness of all parties to collaborate schools can’t hope to employ a mode of schooling that makes astute 24/7/365 use of the school and home technology in the provision of a holistic education for the C21.

Achieve that and the plethora of educational, social, organisational, technological, economic and political opportunities identified in the three aforementioned books are all readily achievable.

What is apparent even at this very early stage are the very considerable, and often unintended dividends flowing from the greater home-school collaboration, the potential for many more and the difficulty of ascertaining whether many of the developments are the result of the technology, the change of mindset, the collaboration or the interplay of each with wider societal developments.

Suffice it say the experience of the case study situations is that home-school collaboration is shaping as one of the key developmental variables in a networked world.  Without it one cannot hope to maximise the potential of collaborative teaching (Lee and Ward, in press), BYOT (Lee and Levins, in press) or the 24/7/365 educational use of the digital technology (Lee and Finger, in press).

Attempts by schools and education authorities to coerce a digitally aware and empowered student and parent population will generally fail. Some elite schools might get away with it for a time, but most parents, like you or I when told what they have to do with their own technology will object.  Cooperation is the way forward.

In studying the BYOT initiatives Martin Levins, Chris Hubbard, Terry Freedman and I noted numerous schools and education authorities approaching its introduction from the traditional insular educators ‘we know best’ mindset, believing they can impose its successful use.

It is already clear from the case study experience if the teachers aren’t using the digital astutely in their everyday teaching the kids won’t bother bringing their gear to that class.

Normalisation of the digital

To achieve 100% normalised student of BYOT one must have 100% normalised teacher use.

For the school and the home to collaborate 24/7/365 in the teaching of the young the parents, the children and the teachers have all to be naturally using the digital.

Its use has to be as all pervasive and in time as invisible as have been the pen and paper.

In a start up situation when schools have a critical mass of the teachers – 80%upwards – using the digital everyday in their teaching they are well on the way becoming a digital organisation able to evolve at pace, ready to work more collaboratively with your homes and well placed to make the astute 24/7/365 use of both the school and home technology.

School leadership.

The achievement of a critical mass will allow the school to work more collaboratively with its homes provided – and this is a major proviso – they have a principal willing and able to lead in a school in a networked mode.  Sadly as the case studies revealed there are school principals unwilling to leave the traditional form who will stymy, at least for a time the natural evolution of the school.

Interestingly in talking with the leadership of the case study schools and very much that at Forsyth County all commented on the immense difficulty they have explaining their developments to colleagues operating in the traditional paper based operation.

They have few problems discussing the developments with the kids or most of the parents but major difficulties with other teachers and educational leaders.

The problem – the gap between the mindset of the pathfinders and the paper- based schools – is growing larger daily.  The paper based school and it’s thinking is ever more out of touch with the rest of society.

When one has schools and teachers still using blackboards and chalk, as I do nearby, one not only has little chance of a meaningful dialogue, those schools have no chance of keeping pace with society’s rising expectations.

Sadly those schools – despite all the now very considerable monies being provided and the immense efforts made to lift their test results – unless they make the shift are going to become ever more dated, stagnant and places the young and parents will not patronise.

Organisational change

In this brief reflective the focus has been on very recent developments.

Suffice it to say that in all the case study situations the many other well- documented elements of successful organisational change have been to the fore, be it the nurturing of a culture of change, the setting of high – expectations, attention to detail, enhancing efficiency and productivity, the importance of astute leaders, the empowering of all the staff or the tight integration of developments in and outside the school walls. All are as vital as ever.


The simple desire with this article has been to lay on the table for all to see and consider the proposition that only those schools that successfully normalise the whole school use of the digital will be able to continue to evolve, and to evolve at a rate that meet society’s ever-greater expectations.

Schools where the principal opts  – consciously or unwittingly – to continue to run a traditional paper based organisation, where a sizeable proportion of the teachers use the pen, paper and the board in their everyday teaching will not only be unable to naturally evolve but will become increasingly stagnant.

Their option is to normalise the use of the digital or ultimately to close.

As a group our reading of the research might prove in time to be too pessimistic but if I was leading a school today that had not gone digital I’d be concerned about the ever-increasing problems that come with stagnation.


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

Lee, M and Finger, G (Eds) (in press) Leading a Networked School Community Melbourne ACER Press

Lee, M and Levins, M (In press) BYOT Melbourne ACER Press

Lee, M and Ward, L (in press) Collaborative Teaching Melbourne ACER Press

Mackenzie, J (2010) Family Learning: Engagements with Parents Edinburgh Dunedin

Project Tomorrow (2011) The New Three E’s of Education: Enabled, Engaged and Empowered Speak Up 2010 National Findings Project Tomorrow 2011




About Mal Lee

Mal Lee is an educational consultant and author specializing in the evolution of teaching and schooling from the traditional paper based mode to one that is digital, and in turn networked, and the impact of the technology on that evolution. Mal’s is a macro focus examining all the elements associated with the development, leadership and operation of schools operating within a digital, and increasingly as networked school communities. Most importantly his is a positive approach that envisions how educators and school communities might best use the ever-evolving, ever more pervasive technology in the home, on the move and in the classroom to provide an ever better schooling for the full range of students. Mal is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and a member of the Mayer Committee that identified the Key Competencies for Australia’s schools. A Fellow of the Australian Council for Educational Administration (FACEA) Mal has been closely associated with the use of digital technology in schooling, particularly by the school leadership for the last two decades. A historian by training Mal has written extensively, particularly in the Practising Administrator, the Australian Educational Leaders and Access, Educational Technology Guide on the astute use of technology in the development of schoolings. Mal has released four publications with ACER Press. In 2008 Mal and Professor Michael Gaffney edited and had published Leading a Digital School. In 2009 he co-authored with Dr Arthur Winzenried The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools – Lessons to be Learned, and with Chris Betcher, The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution – Teaching with IWBs. In 2010 Mal joined with Associate Professor Glenn Finger (Griffith University) in the writing of his most significant work yet for ACER Press on Developing Networked School Communities: a guide to realizing the vision – on the next phase of schooling. Copies of the books can be obtained from the ACER Press website at -
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