We no longer live in the industrialized print-based society that many of us grew up in.  Technology has become increasingly pervasive and connected to everything we do.  Our grade 4 students have never lived without the iPhone, yet just 10 years ago, we didn’t even think of taking pictures with phones.  In fact, we often made it through an entire day without taking a picture of anything!

Today, Google is paying employees $20.00 per hour to sit in the passenger seat of self-driving cars and document the car’s performance. Twenty-somethings straighten their own teeth with 3D printed plastic aligners.  It is predicted that the “Internet of Things” will connect more than 50 billion objects by 2020. And by 2019, Canada will be short 182,000 positions that require Information and Computer Technology (ICT) skills.  The World Economic Forum reports that 5.1 million jobs could be lost worldwide over the next five years, due primarily to automation.   

Our students are at the centre of dynamic, exponential change. The competencies required to thrive and succeed in a rapidly changing digital economy are very different from those needed for success in our physical world, and more and more, these two worlds are inseparable.  Learning how to learn, to navigate the web, to manage online identities, all become essential skills.  Students who don’t have the opportunity to become digitally literate and digitally intelligent become seriously disadvantaged.

What does it mean to be literate in 2016?   In the past, knowing the Dewey Decimal System was the key to finding information. Today we need to understand search engines, hashtags and digital platforms.  Since anyone can post anything online,  more than at any time in the past, our students now need to be able to think critically about everything they read and hear, verifying sources and triangulating information.  Our concept of what it means to be literate shifts as technology becomes more pervasive.  Our connected children now have access to the information and learning opportunities they need, when they need them.  Assistive technologies like voice-to-text and text-to-voice are used by everyone, not just those with speacial learning needs.  When children attend a school, their experiences are no longer limited by the knowledge and skills of just the adults in that building.   The educators, as digitally literate, connected professionals, can facilitate the linking of their children to almost anyone, anywhere in the world.

But with unlimited access also comes exposure to risk.  A recent study of the role of Canadian Principals shows that cyberbullying (including policy issues related to social media) is the number two concern among school leaders across the country.  According to CBC Radio, in 2013 there were 260,000,000 porn websites, mostly unrestricted, free, and downloadable. The web offers unlimited learning, but students need to know how to protect themselves and navigate the dangers. While policy-makers try to keep up, how can Principals lead a school environment where all students are respected, safe and thriving in both physical and digital spaces?

Digital Citizenship is not just a subject to be taught in schools.  It is a way of being, a condition that changes every time we are given a new tool with which to interact with others online.  How we behave online, create and manage our identities, participate with others and contribute to digital spaces is part of who we are every single day.  Social media is everywhere, and the speed at which information travels across these platforms makes it very challenging to control our digital footprints. With our online identites so intricately intertwined with who we are, have we considered the mental health impacts of online interactions?  How can we empower our students to build a positive online identity for themselves, rather than being defined by what others build for them?

In our schools, Digital Leaders can act as models for positive online activity. Principals can create the conditions for students to practice contributing in online spaces, under supervised conditions, where they are supported in learning how to build a positive digital footprint.  For example, allowing students to run the school Instagram account can teach them guidelines for building a positive identity, while allowing the opportunity to make mistakes safely (inappropriate posts can be deleted by an educator) and learn from unwise choices.  We know our students will be “Googled” many times, by people who can impact their life trajectories. Our young people need support and guidance to ensure they have created a positive online identity.

Leaders who use technology to make learning a seamless part of their own daily lives understand the importance of their students’ access to the same digital tools for learning.  When a thinking, networked, collaborative educator knows how to use technology to personalize learning and engage students, the life trajectory of a child can be changed. Technology allows students to work on solving relevant, complex problems, building not only their competencies in collaboration, communication and critical thinking, but also their tenacity and resilience.  When students have the opportunity to apply design thinking and integrative thinking in the classroom, to build knowledge together, and to develop their abilities in computational thinking and coding, they are better prepared for the opportunities they will encounter.

If we want to build innovative schools and systems in education that help prepare our students for new realities, our leaders must be connected to the best ideas. Participating in open online professional learning networks gives great ideas the opportunity to spread.  “Crowd-Accelerated Innovation” is a concept explained by Chris Anderson in his TED Talk.  If everyone shares their ideas openly online, we can rapidly increase the spread of good ideas throughout the world.  Participating in open networks as a contributor, and a learner, gives Principals the opportunity to make their learning visible, and to learn from other educators around the world, without ever leaving the school.  

It is a privilege to be living at a time with the greatest exponential technological change that humanity has ever seen.  Ensuring our students can take advantage of the opportunities that will be available to them at a time when nearly all standardized work, from assembly line production to report writing, can be done by robots, is a complex and challenging responsibility. As school leaders, we can leverage the power of connection through professional learning networks to support each other in creating the schools and communities of learning that will help our young people to thrive in their world.



Featured Image by Rami Al-Zayat on Unsplash



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