In my initial post on leadership, I focused on the quality of understanding as being desirable among leaders. This post was based largely as my own experiences as an employee and administrator. Now, at the end of Leading Change in Digital Learning course, I do believe this is still an important trait, now, I would expand the understanding to include an understanding of change and project processes.
How can I help lead change?
I can help lead change by increasing my awareness of affecting factors and increasing knowledge. I can share my understanding of processes and specific tools for guiding the change or program towards success. Changing districts provides a unique opportunity to share processes and tools from out of district. For example, my current school district is just transitional to MyEd (a provincial student management system). I am looking forward to assisting during this transition.
What can I envision doing in the future?
As I have just started working in a new school district, I am excited by the opportunity to prove my worth as an employee and as a leader among a team. I envision guiding change in the future from a leadership role while considering interactions within a complex system. I hope to develoop the ability to be a leader who empowers others. In a K to 12 system, teachers are often left out of the loop during changes, as our students. For example, in a school system with so many types of users, there is often a lost opportunity to empower students and teachers towards the implementation and training of new technologies.
The change process I was most recently a part of (as was the entire world) was the addition of web conferencing tools, specifically Microsoft Teams and Zoom to our online learning environment. Prior to March 2020, our Distributed Learning (DL) school scraped together tools like Skype and Big Blue Button as there was no district-provided tool. With the shift to global online learning, our district successfully added Zoom and Teams to address how public schools can continue education amidst a global lockdown In the implementation stage group and personalized training was available.
The benefits of this project were, the one-to-one training to address individual needs and skill levels. It seems that there was a lot of leniency from staff, parents and students as everyone was just trying to get by. Similarily, people did not have a choice. In hindsight, it would have been beneficial to slow down the overall process, clearly communicate expectations and processes to staff, and to offer more consistent and persistant training.
The overall goals were communicated broadly by provincial health and education ministers. They were communicated briefly by district and school administrators. I am not aware of a project plan. Therefore this project lacked some of the aspects Watts’ definition of good project management, “Strong planning skills, good communication, ability to implement a project to deliver the product or service while also monitoring for risks and managing the resources will provide an edge toward your success” (Watt, 2014, ch 1) which raises the question of acceptable exceptions for emergency processes.
In exploring the barriers further, this same process would not be as effective today as people’s patience is wearing thin. Also, if this was a decision based on analyzed data (Marsh et al, 2006) it would have been helpful to share this with impacted users. This same mind set was also a barrier as stress meant there was little focus and processing. Similarily, communication was a big challenge. Redesigning how teachers communicate with students at the same time as the tool is being implemented is not an effective plan. Limited skills was also a challenge. There was a marked absence of philosophical and practical background. This led to limited resources such as research and concrete techniques for engaging students. There were a handful of strategies being passed around on social media such as scavenger hunts and virtual field trips, but as the resources were so limited these got old, fast. One of the greatest drawbacks was how the web conferencing tools allowed teachers to connect to students who were already engaged in their learning. It did not work to re-engage inactive students.
In my practice I foresee taking a Frankenstein approach and using portions of a variety of methods. The clear visual aspect of the GANT chart is appealing (Watt, 2014, ch. 1). Gant is highly visual and straight forward. Outlines tasks and timelines.Also, the Project Management Institute (the PMBOK guide) offers ways to delegate and collaborate on a project. “PMBOK is the fundamental knowledge you need for managing a project, categorized into 10 knowledge areas:” (Watt, ch. 4).
While this project met the initial need to continue to offer education in a global lockdown, it does cause us to reflect on the resulting successes and opportunities for growth.Luckily, the use of these tools are ongoing and are now operational but the implementation had a clear start (March 2020) and end time (June 2020).
Based on my experiences within my current organizational context of a BC Distributed Learning (DL) school, interviews with employees among that organization, and the readings, the steps required to successfully complete a change are similar to the CHANGE model (Biech, 2007) as seen in Figure 1 below.
We know from Al-Haddad and Kotnour the importance of being able to adjust change methods according to the unique features of the particular context (2015). Some unique features of this context is that all of the secondary educators are in one room together. This leads to several casual conversations that meet several stages within change theories. Therefore, it is a challenge to identify and assess the success of the change process as several stages are completed through informal conversations. On the other hand this amount of connection means that the educational staff have closely aligned visions and values. According to the interview with colleagues, examples of successful changes within our DL secondary school include implementation of face-to-face tutorials, a blended class, and re-prioritizing of teacher tasks. Currently, we are exploring implementing more proactive approaches to connecting students struggling with mental health to resources.
Similar to the CHANGE model (Biech, 2007) the first step is recognizing a need that is to be addressed through a change of processes. Unlike, the CHANGE model, within my organization the need for change is raised by employees who act as change leaders, searching for more effective processes, rather than the school board. In my organization, I’m lucky to be staffed by “change leaders … people with creative visions, ” (Al-Haddad and Kotnour, p.239). The evaluation largely qualitative based on teacher and student experiences. We could benefit from more quantitative evidence to confirm or reject the qualitative evidence. Similar to the six stage of the CHANGE model (Biech, 2007) cyclical pattern that allows for continued growth. As with previous successful changes, colleagues “Recognize that changes take time to implement successfully”. Therefore, our changes are often small in scale and long in duration. Similarly, Judson’s Method is similar to our process through the steps of analyze and plan change, communicate the change, gain acceptance, change to desired state, consolidate and institutionalize (as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour) especially identifying the expected barriers.
Similar to Weiner’s “Organizational Readiness” (2009), the second step is to evaluate existing resources and readiness for change. In my current organization this is presented by the team to the leader during a formal meeting. The leader’s role within this process is critical to the alignment with district policies, collection of resources and focusing on the big picture.While open systems “require ongoing change to adapt to the revolutionary environment and this creates a strategy of continuous learning” (Lalonde, as cited in Al-Haddad and Kotnour, p. 236). Despite this, the current environmental circumstance of a global pandemic has resulted in increased anxiety and workload for colleagues who feel only just now that the organization is ready for more change. In “normal” times there is a continuous system of change only halted at times by new administration or staffing. Frequent staffing changes also causes a lack in long-term planning and data collection at this stage which could affect outcomes and district-wide support for those changes.
The third step is to plan for implementing the change. There is a power hierarchy between our team and the school board as they are not educated on the roles within DL just as Oblinger, Barone and Hawkins recognize the unique challenges as DL has “different organizational structures from those that currently exist in traditional institutions” (2001, p. 21). As my organization has a small staff, these individuals are the foundation of the change and we follow the facilitative strategy of, “a shared responsibility and involvement of everyone in the organization” (Biech, 2007, p. 4). The breadth of contributions from staff also aligns with the participatory action research “as it gathers input from the people undergoing change, making them feel more involved” (Al-Haddad & Kotnour, p. 245). My interview with colleagues also reflects the challenge with administration working at a distance and “lacking a cohesive understanding of processes”.
The fourth step is the implementation or action, as per Anderson and Ackerman Anderson’s third aspect of change strategy (as cited in Al-Haddad & Katnour, 2015). Within the context discussed here, this step is less formal and may include subtle variations to reflect teacher autonomy or skill base. The main barrier is transformation at the district level to allow the flexibility to support a flexible model of learning and to support changes to meet the potential for DL schools (Oblinger, Barone, & Hawkins, 2001, p. 34).
Reflect and Revise
The fifth step is to reflect. The reflection could result in three outcomes. The first, a recognition of a failure in which case we go back to Step 1. Second, is a successful change with some subtle revisions to the plan or process to make the new process more efficient or effective. Third, complete satisfaction with the success and proceed to other changes. Based on the outcome of the reflection, the sixth step is to do nothing or revise goals
While I identified some aspects of an “integrated approach to drive systemic, constructive change” (Al-Haddad & Kotnour, p. 234) within the context of a BC DL secondary school, there is much room for improvement. For example, there is still extreme external pressure and limitations caused by tight budgets and lack of understanding from the school district. Despite committed involvement by employees, we would benefit from more planned check ins and refinements as to provide more support and value towards their efforts. I guess we will continue our continuous change.
Just as there is rapid progress in technologies, so is there progress in change theories and models. According to Al-Haddad and Kotnour (2015) change theories have become more flexible in response to more varied contexts, by extending the focus from an individual to the organization as a whole and even the pressures beyond the organization. In the educational technology field there exists the contradiction of fast paced technology with slow educational procedures which is exacerbated by the conflicting notions of entrenched tools and the need for readiness to implement successful change.
The current context of BC’s public schools is especially unique due to the urgency to adapt to the global pandemic last year. Urgency, the first stage of Koffer’s 8-stage theory of change, as as a motivator towards change. While 2020 was definitely a year for urgent change, this change is not the kind leaders should strive for as it was in response to an emergency with the goal to continue education, not develop any long-lasting educational progress. During this transition, Distributed Learning (DL) schools had a smoother transition, but also teachers and learners were held to pre-covid standards. This resulted in an increase to the unbalance between face-to-face and online schools.
Beyond the emergency response to a pandemic, the context of BC public Distributed Learning high school provides additional challenges such as a heavy reliance on Learning Managment Systems (LMS) and external content such as Western Canada’s Learning Network. I selected key elements of change theories that are most pertinent to this context:
Technology: As technology rapidly changes the whole system needs to change in response (Biech, 2007). Technology is also significant to change as it can cause resistance to change by users who are entrenched in current tools or fear learning new tools or who rely on tools outside of their organization.
Community: A DL school consists of administrators, educators, learners, course developers, IT staff, parents, and students. Paul questions “ the readiness and ability of students to assume the responsibility for their own learning inherent in most of these models” (2003, p. 69). The role of various community members is also recognized by Epstein’s “overlapping spheres of influence” (as cited in Sanders & Epstein, 2005).
Economics: In public schools, Theory E, or theory of economics (as defined by Al-Haddad & Kotnour) is relevant as ministry funding regulates the ability for change. The school budget is truly the bottom line. However, the role of economics is limited to higher level leaders and is rarely involved in discussions at the educator level where there is a more perceived focus on Theory O and softer theories. If the funding models were altered, public schools could move more effectively to participatory action research (Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 245).
Time: With a lack of contract language for BC’s DL schools, teachers are often overwhelmed with a large number of classes and students. Weiner (2009) recongized time’s influence on change efficacy. The availability of time to effect change is also important when considering the outcomes. In order to provide measures of the change, time is further reduced.
As we continue to value the significance of context and the individuals in that context, I hope that individual experiences and strengths are continued to be included through change. I also wish to see that rather than rushing towards change we allow some time for rest and mastery. I predict that educators will feel exhausted by our recent rapid changes which lack the time to required to improve new skills. Amidst our global pandemic there is also an underlying crisis of increasing mental illness. I hope to see more integration of community services in schools to ensure the well-being of the whole child (Sanders & Epstein, 2005) and would welcome psychological well-being being intentionally considered in any change theory.
It is not as simple as it would seem to narrowly define key attributes of a leader in a digital learning environment. The context alone requires a breadth of technical, social, and organization skills. Therefore, I aimed to find one attribute that would encompass key values and roles within digital learning organizations. Understanding encompasses several traits required to fulfill the role of a leader.
Understanding, defined as comprehension (Oxford dictionary) is a broad enough quality to include the knowledge required to fulfill the role of a leader. This aligns with Group B’s first value, “competent” (2021, Beeby, Grymaloski, Koval, Norum, & Stoesz). To be a skilled leader, one requires an understanding of the overall processes, tools, resources, and roles. Having an understanding is considered necessary by Sheninger in order to make effective improvements to the culture and achievement (2014). I would include that demonstrating an understanding also makes a leader more effective in dealing with or supporting other employees. For example, if an employee is requesting more resources, a leader with an understanding of that employee’s role, tasks, and processes will make a more informed and therefore more effective decision.
Beyond having comprehension, being understanding also means being “sympathetically aware of other people’s feelings” (Oxford). Aside from having understanding, being understanding can inspire others to perform optimally. This then aligns with Team B’s (2021) second and third ranked values, supportive and caring. Being sympathetic allows a leader to anticipate changes or struggles and thereby address these sooner and with greater effectiveness (Sheninger, 2014). While, Sheninger claims trust is the foundational quality of current digital leaders, trust is developed through communication, openness and sympathy. Additionally, while being able to adapt to change is important, especially in this time of the pandemic, the pandemic has also shown us that we cannot plan for each possible scenario. In most scenarios, being understanding can be used to recognize where the problems lie and to outline careful and thoughtful solutions (Khan, 2017). Khan goes on to consider the importance of leaders to recognize their followers values, struggles and responsibilities when including them in processes.
Both definitions of understanding are relevant beyond the western perspective too. An understanding of previous experiences and ingrained behaviours towards minorities (Batliwala, 2010) allows an empathetic approach to leadership. By acknowledging the past we enable greater capacity for value-driven growth and justice. A leader with understanding will be better able to take on differing perspectives (Barton, T. as cited in in Batliwala, 2010). Raising other up also follows “transformational leadership” as described by Batliwala (2010). The idea of instilling leadership in others is also recognized by Huggins et al. (2017) through distributed leadership. These lawered levels of leadership are evident in my current environment within the formal titles of Superintendent of schools to the Instructional team leader to those informal leaders that spark change or growth. For a leader to lead successfully they must use understanding to encourage leadership from others.
Effective leaders are understanding of processes, tools and are empathetic to all members of the digital education environment. This image of a leader is best described by a metaphor of the unobservable current in water. The leader guides others through obstacles towards a common goal. A leader with thorough understanding will be better at using an effective amount of pressure to suite the people and the context.
Beeby, K., Grymaloski, W., Koval, D. Norum, S., & Stoesz, R. (2021, February 3). Team Forums [Discussion post]. Royal Roads University, Moodle. https://moodle.royalroads.ca/moodle/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=733512
Huggins, K., Klar, H., Hammonds, H., & Buskey, F. (2017). Developing leadership capacity in others: An examination of high school principals’ personal capacities for fostering leadership. International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership, 12(1). 1–15. https://doi.org/10.22230/ijepl.2017v12n1a670.
Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or Transactional Leadership in Current Higher Education: A brief comparison. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(3). 178–182. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294
Oxford Dictionary. 2021. www.oed.com.
Sheninger, E. (2014). Pillars of digital leadership. International Center for Leadership in Education. 1–4.