Leadership in a Digital Learning Environment
Lead by example and lead from behind. If I had an ethos to briefly describe my leadership style, that is how I would summarize my approach. Through motivation and inspiration, I strive to foster autonomy and innovation from the teams I work with. Often saying “I trust your judgment,” as I push a team member out of the nest and offer support and assistance on their flight(s).
To develop my leadership style, I have spent a considerable amount of time making mistakes and reflecting upon those mistakes, adapting my approach, and making more mistakes before realizing that leadership evolves. Leaders must continue to adapt and evolve to be effective.
Important Attributes of a Leader
An adaptive leadership style is especially important for education leaders working in digital learning environments. The digital learning environment is ever evolving and archaic leadership practices and traditional thinking could stagnate an organization, not allowing growth or evolution (Castelli, 2016).
As an education leader, my goal with team members is to curate curiosity and creativity through fostering autonomy and independence. I appreciate that this seems like a grandiose statement with more fluff than substance. It is, however, rooted in fact. I lead my team in the manner in which I like to be led. When I look to those leaders I admire or refer to as mentors, the traits that stand out the most with them are the same traits that I try to emulate. Inspiration and motivation, constantly asking why we are teaching the way we teach. Reassessing our processes against our goals and mission and asking how we could improve the student experience, not for convention, but rather to improve student success.
As a team member, I work best when given a defined goal and the autonomy to complete the project without micromanagement. This is the same approach I take with my leadership – provide team members with attainable goals and the support and encouragement to complete each goal. I have found that this approach produces favourable results while empowering team members to be innovative and forward thinking. Great ideas that I would not have thought of have come from this approach. It is reassuring to read academics such as Hughes (2015) and Castelli (2008) support my leadership approach in their published research.
My approach to leadership in a digital learning environment has been fairly simple:
- Be open to change and encourage change.
- Explore tools to make the tasks enjoyable and easier to manage.
- Know the tools that team members and students are using and adapt to use these tools to their full potential.
Being open to change has always been easy for me, especially with improving technology or popular culture trends. Accepting that some individuals adapt more slowly to change was more challenging for me. As most students and educators adopted smartphones and apps as part of their everyday life, some educators held firmly onto their flip phones. Spending time with these individuals, exploring their motivations, concerns, and helping them adapt was laborious, but it was worth it. To now see these individuals bring forth a new app to trial, or return from a conference with a new way of thinking is rewarding for our entire team and subsequently the students.
As students use their smartphones more and more, I feel we must continue to try to integrate them into our classrooms. It seems hubris to attempt a ban on this evolving technology or an understanding of the driving forces of current technology when the educator distances or excludes themselves from the trends. I feel that to understand a venue such as social media, you need to be involved in social media or study it extensively through academic research. Can social media be used for education, and can we increase our engagement with students in these environments? Adopt it, try it, and find out first hand. We have had continued success integrating technology using this approach and adapting to evolving student trends.
It should be noted that although I now adopt change with a purpose, it was sometimes easy to get caught in the excitement and try to adopt the next big thing into the curriculum. Now, purpose shadows convention and apps or technology are adopted with defined goals and objectives and after trial periods with smaller groups providing feedback throughout. By adopting the Bates (2016) SECTIONS approach and carefully exploring new technology before incorporation, we continue to have great success. (The SECTIONS model will be explored in greater detail in a separate blog post.)
Impact of Digital Technology
Digital technologies have made a tremendous impact on how I lead and how I perform within my teams. Our digital tools, such as smartphones and tablets with apps including, but not limited to, Slack, Trello, Wunderlist, and our learning management system have not only made our tasks more enjoyable and easier, they have also brought our teams closer together.
These apps are almost intuitive with their project sharing tools. Threaded messaging, file sharing, common calendars, and task managers have been great assets to help ensure project completion. These tools are great; however, are secondary to the inclusive community afforded by these apps. Educators previously unable to attend regular meetings and offer input or feedback are now able to be part of the ongoing conversations. Ideas are easily shared, distance bridged, and all educators have easy access to the shared resources these apps provide. This helps ensure every team member is given equal opportunity to be part of all projects and to use their creativity to continue to move the student experience forward.
To conclude this blog post I will reference a quote from Steve Jobs that succinctly summarizes my approach to leadership: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Bates, T. (2016). Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004
Castelli, P. A. (2008). The leader as motivator: coach and self‐esteem builder. Management Research News, 31(10), 717–728. https://doi.org/10.1108/01409170810908471
Castelli, P. A. (2016). Reflective leadership review: a framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217–236. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMD-08-2015-0112
Hughes, R., Ginnett, R., & Curphy, G. (2015). Leadership : Enhancing the lessons of experience (Eighth edition. ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Schwantes, M. (2017, October 17). Steve Jobs Once Gave Some Brilliant Management Advice on Hiring Top People. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/this-classic-quote-from-steve-jobs-about-hiring-employees-describes-what-great-leadership-looks-like.html
Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for Designing Teaching and Learning by Tony Bates is available for free at https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/
Thank you for taking some time out of your day. What are your thoughts on leadership? What is your approach to leadership? Please comment below.
Enjoy the rest of your day!
Image “Steve Jobs Action Figure” by Sip Khoon Tan is licensed under CC BY 4.0 (CC BY-SA 2.0 license).