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Digital Age Teaching & Leadership

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Education writers frequently toss off phrases like "in a digital age" and "for the digital age." (I'm certainly not immune.) Three new books tackle what leadership and teaching can look like in — yes — a digital age.

Educators as "Digital Leaders"

In Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times (Corwin, 2014), principal Eric Sheninger argues that "digital leadership" requires a fundamental change of mindset. He offers his own school, New Milford High School in Bergen County, N.J., as an example of how strategic thinking and planning around technology can effect significant change in schools.

Simultaneously, he stresses that "digital leadership" has many qualities in common with school leadership as broadly understood: "Digital leadership is not an add-on, but a complement to everything that I do as a principal. It is not a time sap, either; instead, it is a different way of leading that is richer, more effective, more efficient, and better informed." Sheninger's signature "Pillars of Digital Leadership" are grounded in broadly accepted principles of school leadership. Digital leadership is still about leading schools, only better.

An early chapter lists some basic and widely known categories of "technology" — such as interactive whiteboards, tablets, cloud computing, Web 2.0 applications, and OpenCourseWare — to catch readers up on the last five years or so. Sheninger writes, "Leaders need to be aware of the changing educational landscape, which includes societal shifts in technology use, advances in education technology, and a new type of learner." Avoiding too much emphasis on specific tools and technologies is key, he says.

Sheninger attempts to define a "new type of learner," a composite of theories about learning styles, multiple intelligences, and what he calls "Millennials, or active learners." He disavows the "digital natives" construct, arguing instead that teaching "digital citizenship" — the responsible and socially acceptable use of technology — falls within the domain of educators.

Outreach is a key element in Sheninger's digital leadership. Separate chapters devoted to communications, public relations, and branding identify best practices in the use of social tools for each. Another chapter suggests looking for partnership opportunities with universities, businesses, community organizations, other districts, and even hospitals. These partnerships don't always deal directly with technological matters, but it is implied that any resources obtained through cooperation with outside organizations must form part of a cohesive plan with implications for ed-tech. And of course, using social media to form and publicize partnerships is an essential element of Sheninger's vision.

Educators as "TechnoTeachers"

Julie M. Wood and Nicole Ponsford propose "TechnoTeachers" as counterparts to today's "digital learners." In TechnoTeaching: Taking Practice to the Next Level in a Digital World (Harvard Education Press, 2014), they describe TechnoTeachers as quick to adapt, open to change, strong leaders, and "guided by professional and curriculum standards," i.e. NETS and the Common Core. Comfortably working with and thinking about technology are key, as are curiosity and a critical approach to new technology. Technology without a plan and a plan without the right tools are equally ineffective, the authors argue.

The book traces a path to TechnoTeaching through three invented characters: a relative newcomer to educational technology, an unfocused early adopter, and an exemplar of the TechnoTeaching attitude. Self-assessments, discussion questions, and templates for planning activities and "technology goals" at every stage of the road to TechnoTeaching make this title as much workbook as treatise.

Educators as "Learning Engineers"

The central conceit of Rick Hess and Bror Saxberg's new book, Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using Learning Science to Reboot Schooling (Corwin, 2014), is that educators must "start thinking more like 'learning engineers' " to make the changes they want in school design. The authors frame everything from classroom furniture to books to social media to the Socratic method as "learning tools" or "learning technology" — rather than solutions — and propose to explain "how learning works and how that knowledge can inform [school and system leaders'] approach to technology."

While the book does not define "learning science" in a convincing way, it offers plenty of common-sense ideas. Remove "learning science" and "learning engineer," and one is left with a book about efficiency, practicality, and weighing technology-related decisions as carefully as any other.

Hess and Saxberg disparage schools where "new solutions are ladled over what's already in place." However, they seem to have written a book about school leadership and management that does not require a construct like "learning science" to stand on its own. Indeed, they indirectly caution readers drawn to this Digital Age title: "Technology can be a powerful lever for rethinking schools and systems. But it's the rethinking that should occupy the spotlight."

Follow @awickner on Twitter for more K-12 books, libraries, and literacy news.

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