We have all heard that our students need to have a prominent digital footprint to help them highlight their accomplishments and passions. This certainly makes sense as the transition to a digital presence for professional pursuits replaces the traditional paper résumé or portfolio. However, a question that still lingers for me is: Where will students find adults whose lead they can follow? Will the adults who teach our students have an online presence that can serve as models? What role should school administrators play in this process? Is it enough for school principals to simply serve as advocates who expect their teachers to build the necessary digital skill set with students?

In answering the questions above, we must put our students in a comfortable place with their digital repertoire. Educators must be up to speed on the issue of digital literacy in order to support students in this area. While it may be an area foreign to many educators, it is something that will have an incredible impact on our students. Students who can navigate the digital world adeptly have a clear advantage over those who cannot. For school leaders, the only way to teach students the requisite digital skills is to lead by example—we cannot lead from the sideline.

So, where do we start? School leaders should utilize the International Society for Technology in Education Standards for Administrators as a checklist (www.iste.org/standards/standards-for-administrators) to see where the voids are for them and their schools. Let’s take a look at each of the five standards for a quick glance at how administrators can find some entry points into each one.

1. Visionary Leadership. The key part of this standard revolves around leaders facilitating the development of a shared vision around digital resources. Step one for school leaders is to create a Digital Learning Council (DLC) to help create both a short- and long-term plan for the school. This group should consist of all stakeholders (staff, parents, community members, and students). It is critical to the successful establishment of the digital-age learning culture to ensure that each group is given an equal voice in this process.

2. Digital Age Learning Culture. This standard focuses on the creation, promotion, and sustenance of a strong digital learning environment. The biggest priority for discussion will revolve around the school’s philosophy of what and how students learn. Following an agreement on this, you are ready to proceed with a discussion of how technology will support this learning culture. There will also need to be a discussion of what an engaging learning environment looks like and what resources should be accessible to students.

3. Excellence in Professional Practice. This is the area where leaders can really make an impact by modeling best practice and utilizing digital tools to enhance their own work. In addition, school leaders should take every opportunity to promote examples of best practices they see from staff and students. One easy way is to set up a blog or website where best practices can be shared regularly. In our district, we try to share daily examples of learning in our classrooms on our Burlington Public Schools Blog (www.burlingtonblogs.blogspot.com), where we share a post daily from a staff member or student. We also have student help desks at both our middle school and high school that share tools and tips. This helps others learn from our tech-savvy learners and also helps students develop an authentic online presence. (See www.bhshelpdesk.com and www.msmshelpdesk.blogspot.com.)

Another great way to share the excellence happening within Patrick Larkin #EDTECH schools is through a strong social media presence. For example, a schoolwide Twitter hashtag allows any member of the community to share with others and to communicate and collaborate within the school community and beyond. In Burlington Public Schools we utilize #bpschat (www.twitter.com/hashtag/bpschat).

4. Systemic Improvement. This is another standard established by the Digital Learning Council in which step one will play a critical role. To monitor systemic progress of digital learning, create measurable assessment metrics to help establish clear benchmarks and ensure they are being met by staff and students. The connection between these standards is also important, as the importance of “recruiting and retaining quality staff” and the “leveraging of strategic partnerships” are also mentioned in this standard. Fortunately, if there is depth in the prior two standards—creating digital-age learning culture and excellence in professional practice—then it is easier to attract both quality staff and partner organizations that are interested in working with you, because progress is being made toward the creation of a learning environment where digital tools are ubiquitous.

5. Digital Citizenship. This is the area we hear most about when it comes to our students. A key point is that we cannot adequately teach the necessary skill without access. Schools need to first ensure that students and staff have access to the digital tools that they will be utilizing in the real world outside school. If we deny this access, then we cannot provide an authentic learning experience for our students. In addition to access, all adults must “model and facilitate the shared cultural understanding and involvement in global issues through the use of contemporary communication and collaboration tools.” In addition, these understandings need to be shared and modeled for parents, some of whom are foreigners in the digital world. We need to outline clear guidelines for the responsible use of digital tools for research, collaboration, communication, etc.

The most difficult part of adopting a digital culture within our schools is that, just like with individual learners, this is not something that can be established with a one-size-fits-all approach. Each community must engage in a discussion and implementation plan that meets its specific needs. Having said this, the biggest mistake that can be made is to fail to begin the work. Without a plan and a timeline for implementation, the focus on embedding digital learning within your curriculum and creating more relevant learning environments will not occur.

It is normal to feel a bit overwhelmed by all of this. Tap into the knowledge of school leaders who have some experience with moving their schools forward—NASSP’s Digital Principals of the Year—for support. You can find them at www.nassp.org/dpoy.

Patrick Larkin is the assistant superintendent for learning at Burlington Public Schools in Burlington, MA. He was chosen as an NASSP National Digital Principal of the Year in 2012 and is a former Massachusetts Assistant Principal of the Year. He can be found on Twitter @PatrickMLarkin.