Professional learning for school leaders in a digital world

By Madeleine Regan
 
In an interview in February 2015, Michael Fullan, international consultant on educational reform and the role of school leaders, referred to the ‘pull’ factor of the excitement of technology and new pedagogy in schools. He sees a dynamic future with school leaders shaping the focus, with technology making the links between schools, the community and the wider environment. Fullan conducted a series of workshops about leadership for change in Australia in 2014; one module was Effective Leadership in a Digital Age. He referred to the ‘push’ in schools where students are not engaged and he compared it with the pull of the 24/7 digital world where he sees the interactions of three powerful dynamics of technology, pedagogy and change which impact the role of school leaders.
 

Professional Development of the Previous Generation

When a secondary principal was speaking recently about the experience of professional development in the early 1980s, the discussion turned to the scope of programs, events and interstate conferences, and the budget that was available for substantial engagement. The principal recalled that the benefits of attending professional learning events allowed time out from school with peers to absorb research, new knowledge and contemporary ideas about teaching, learning, change and leadership with the goal of improving student outcomes. Leaders were often inspired by conferences to effect changes in their leadership practice through developing collegial partnerships and ongoing conversations.
 

What is the New Professional Learning?

Today, opportunities for school leaders are diverse and allow for unlimited professional learning through the use of technology. A look at websites related to professional learning in education shows that options for teachers and school leaders include references to digital pedagogies and learning, webinars, eLearning, blogs, blended learning and more. Online learning is now synonymous with professional learning and these options will continue to expand with increasing innovative use of technology,  which will include formal and informal opportunities to learn and share knowledge. This new professional focus on acquiring new knowledge and skills as a ‘just-in-time’ approach is a significant shift in the way school leaders think about professional learning.
 
As technology enables access, professional learning will be shared with a wider audience at a more cost-effective price. What was once a traditional face-to-face leadership program can now be delivered online, around the world and at the time that best suits the knowledge consumer. A first-year teacher can enrol in the same online course as a 30+ year veteran educator and interact as ‘equals’ in a virtual collaboration space. This is an example of the democratisation of the ‘new’ professional learning environment.
 

Collaboration through Technology

The use of technology offers school leaders the potential to increase options for professional learning in collaborative online contexts. Online courses can be customised and provide opportunities for interaction and development of communities of learners. One of the great advantages is that the learning can occur at any time and across geographical boundaries with a group of like-minded professionals. As an alternative to finding the time to attend an event or a course in a particular location, online learning is a solution for school leaders to explore research, new perspectives and ideas and to share with peers. The ability to network in a secure environment specific to school leaders is a way to facilitate the just-in-time learning that principals and school leaders require in their roles. These professional learning opportunities in a digital context reflect the pull of technology highlighted by Fullan. He emphasises that school leaders have to take advantage of these opportunities as they participate in the wider world.
 

Applying Technology to Professional Learning Conferences

Principals and school leaders continue to value the professional learning at conferences and events hosted by associations. They have access to inspirational and engaging keynote speakers, presentations on the latest research developments and trends, illustrations of best practice from colleagues and the networking and collaboration with other conference attendees. However, the challenge remains to maximise use of the limited time available while being physically present at the conference. Participants need to prioritise attendance at concurrent workshop sessions, engage with vendors and suppliers during break times and communicate with peers. Through attending conferences, school leaders are broadening professional networks and creating connections for future collaborations, both personally and professionally. It is here that educational technology can provide structure, enrichment and ongoing engagement with the intense conference landscape.
 
A contemporary example of the collaborative use of technology for principals and their professional learning can be demonstrated by the South Australian Secondary Principals Association (SASPA) in relation to their annual conference at the end of August. SASPA and Principals Australia Institute (PAI) are using the capacity of the new PAI professional learning and management ecosystem to enhance the conference experience for secondary school leaders. SASPA and PAI are trialling the use of the online ecosystem to engage with 21st century approaches to professional learning and embody the conference title World Class Learners: What does it take? 
 
The conference planning committee has designed a program to offer attendees early engagement through the online ecosystem by participating in pre-conference webinars. Participating schools will host these and showcase student engagement as world-class learners. Attendees will also participate in online collaboration and discussion spaces featuring early provocations from world leaders in education around the conference themes. There are opportunities for early interactions with workshop presenters to discuss content prior to the conference itself. Sessions and keynote speakers will be recorded and embedded in the space for future reference to provide access to all conference attendees who may miss concurrent sessions. It will be possible to follow up through development and continued engagement with the online ecosystem, allowing for evaluative measures of impact and influence.
 
Much of this interaction is already possible through multiple systems and platforms such as Skype for Business, Google+ and the Scootle Community. However, the integration into one secure dynamic ecosystem allows purposeful, dedicated connections to be built between school leaders to share knowledge, skills, ideas, experiences, articles and research about educational practice in a truly collaborative learning space.
 

The Three Dynamics – Technology, Pedagogy and Change

Learning management systems (LMS) are not new business in schools and, when fully embraced, they provide a collaborative professional learning space to meet the professional learning needs of students. In the case of the LMS being developed for school leaders by PAI, it will provide access to content and resources about leadership and educational research practice and the management of change in schools. It is not driven by compliance, and communities can be formed to enhance their learning and skills and address their specific needs at different career points.
 
The technology of any good LMS for school leaders must provide intuitive engagement with elements such as virtual classrooms, discussion forums, blogs, document storage and ePortfolios to track and evaluate ongoing professional learning and development. These asynchronous interactions can be enriched through blended learning methodologies using mixed-mode, web-based and face-to-face delivery to model pedagogical practice and the power of relationships in leading and learning. The capacity for coaching and mentoring is enhanced as the pool of experienced educators is not restricted by geographical location. This approach to professional learning through using technology will offer principals new opportunities to lead interactions in the school community, engage with pedagogical imperatives, such as implementing the Australian Curriculum, and link to the external community.
 

Transforming Professional Learning in a Digital World

The online learning space is transforming the approach to professional learning for school leaders, but there are challenges in the movement to embrace technology. Yet, if teachers persist in using traditional modes of delivery and engagement in professional learning, the risk is to reduce the scope and efficacy of extensive professional learning and practice in the future. As Fullan says, there are ‘trouble spots’ in integrating the three dynamics of technology, pedagogy and change. However, he also is optimistic about the creative opportunities and advantages for leaders to build collaborative links and networks. The exciting challenges are to accept change, to address the push and the pull, and to facilitate the adoption of technology as widely as possible in the context of school leadership.

 

Madeleine Regan is a writer at Principals Australia Institute.