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Digital Culture Before Digital Textbooks

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By Bob Farrace, Senior Director for Communications and Development at the National Association of Secondary School Principals

There's a lot to unpack in the recently released Digital Textbook Playbook. This joint project of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the and US Department of Education (ED) commissioned a group of industry leaders to devise a blueprint for getting digital textbooks into the hands of every student within five years. The group examined the prospect of digital textbooks from every angle and issued recommendations on broadband infrastructure, device access, device and content interoperability, and so forth. Yet one observation rises above the others:

The most important component of successful digital learning conversions has been strong, collaborative leadership. Some initially successful conversions have failed after their leaders moved on. While individual leadership is important, collaborative leadership provides the opportunity to build a collective vision and commitment that enhances continuity.

You can replace digital learning in the quote above with just about any other topic--from college-and-career-ready standards to the bell schedule. The kind of collaborative leadership described above is a mainstay of NASSP's Breaking Ranks framework, and an essential element of any school improvement initiative. The collaborative leadership that the group observes, however, is actually the means to a larger condition: a culture that allows for meaningful change. In a recent Kappan article, Karen Seashore Louis and Kyla Wahlstrom draw on Wallace Foundation research to explain that by including others in decision making, principals increase trust, which builds a positive culture. To paraphrase Breaking Ranks, transformation on the order of a "digital conversion" will not take place until the culture allows it—and no long-term significant change can take place without creating a culture to sustain that change.

Sadly, we still see countless negative examples: Schools that failed to examine the culture before initiating change, schools that changed one dimension of the school without considering the implications on other dimensions, and schools whose leaders went about change alone. Those experiences can be discouraging for everyone in the school. Fortunately, we also see countless examples of positive cultural change in the MetLife Foundation-NASSP Breakthrough Schools. Each of these high-poverty, high-achieving schools has a story of transformation that begins with a close examination and frank, transparent discussion about the school's shared beliefs and values.

To see examples of Breaking Ranks change in the context of a digital conversion, one need look no further than the stories from the 2012 NASSP Digital Principals, who were announced the same day the Digital Textbook Playbook was released. One Digital Principal, Patrick Larkin of Burlington (MA) High School, led his school to the adoption of 1:1 iPads. But the destination is not nearly as interesting as the journey. Burlington's story begins with gathering information and building consensus among the faculty that the school could and should be doing more to prepare its students for life after high school. From there, experience upon experience of trust-building collaboration involved not just teachers but also parents and students. Fortunately for everyone considering such a conversion, Patrick captured the complete journey on his blog for all to see (speaking of transparency).

We see other examples of digital acculturation in Dodge City, KS, with principal Mike King's Digital Backpack initiative and Halliburton Project. In Eric Sheninger's leadership for the bring-your-own-device initiative at New Milford (NJ) High School. Those models of successful implementation did begin with strong, collaborative leadership, but the efforts led to a larger, more comprehensive condition that allowed the initiative to proceed. If ED and the FCC want to realize their dream of digital textbook conversion, they'll need to focus on fostering a schoolwide digital culture first.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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