There is the view among some in education that the way we have always done it is the best way. There are many reasons why we tend to fall back on what we are comfortable with—methods or tradition. However, comfort tends to be the enemy of growth. Fear of failure or the unknown can derail us from taking the risks needed to implement new and better ideas. Change can be hard, confusing, scary, and unpredictable, but none of these reasons should stop anyone from doing what’s best for students.

The need for digital leadership is more urgent than a few years ago. Our learners will need to thrive and survive in a world that is almost impossible to predict thanks to exponential advances in technology. Automation and robotics are already disrupting the world of work as we know it. The Internet of Things (IoT) impacts virtually all of us. IoT is a network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity that enable these objects to connect and exchange data.

Society is now in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Personalized and blended learning pathways have been proclaimed to be the future of education. More schools have gone 1:1 thanks to the cost-effectiveness of the Chromebook and cloud-based tools. Makerspaces have moved from fringe initiatives to vibrant components of school culture. Emerging technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, open education resources, coding, and adaptive learning tools are moving more into the mainstream in some schools. Twitter chats have increased from a handful of participants to now millions on a weekly basis.

Expectations are also changing in a knowledge- and information-based society in which information can easily be accessed from virtually anywhere. The World Wide Web has transformed how we access, consume, create, and share knowledge. Providing pertinent information in a timely fashion helps to build powerful relationships and is a more substantial component of working smarter, not harder.

Innovation in education is, in many cases, not an entirely new idea. Each of the seven pillars of digital leadership (see image above) are either embedded components of school culture or an element of professional practice that leaders already focus on.

Student Engagement, Learning, and Outcomes

We cannot expect to see increases in achievement if students are not learning or engaged in their learning. As technology changes, so must pedagogy, especially assessment and feedback. Educators and leaders should always be looking to improve instructional design and establish accountability protocols to ensure efficacy in digital learning and innovation. Schools should reflect real life and allow learners the opportunity to use real-world tools to do real-world work. Don’t prepare learners for something; prepare them for anything!

Action items:

  1. Work with educators to scaffold questions and tasks to ensure learners are being empowered to think and apply their thinking in relevant ways.
  2. Focus on improving and building pedagogical capacity first before investing in it—or implement both digital tools and innovative ideas.
  3. Provide job-embedded and ongoing professional learning support so teachers have the confidence to use technology effectively in the classroom. This is vital for school leaders as well, so they know what to look for and so they can provide teachers with meaningful feedback for growth.

Innovative Learning Spaces and Environments

Research has shown the positive impact that innovative spaces can have on learning outcomes. Educators and leaders must begin to establish a vision and strategic plan to create classrooms and buildings that are more reflective of the real world. This empowers learners to use technology in powerful ways through either personalized or blended strategies and increased access to “bring your own” devices or 1:1. However, when it is all said and done, flexible spaces must lead to flexible learning.

Action items:

  1. Make learning spaces a priority by working flexible furniture and mobile technology into the budget.
  2. Prior to making any purchases (furniture or technology), develop a plan for how pedagogy will change to take advantage of these resources.
  3. Include students, teachers, and parents in the planning process.

Professional Learning

Research continues to show that job-embedded, ongoing professional development improves learning outcomes. Prioritize this. Digital leadership compels educators to create more personalized learning pathways for students and adults during the school day and year.

Action items:

  1. Determine the learning needs of your staff by polling and eliciting input from them.
  2. Work with your central office to secure professional development or Title funds to provide meaningful learning opportunities that are job-embedded, ongoing, and aligned to research. Give educators an opportunity to apply what has been learned.
  3. Make the time to create or improve your professional learning network by connecting with other school leaders through tools such as Twitter, edWeb, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Facebook.


Effective leaders are effective communicators. Leaders can now provide relevant information in real time through a variety of devices—newsletters and websites no longer suffice. Communicate using various tools and simple implementation strategies to create a more transparent culture.

Action items:

  1. Meet your stakeholders where they are by employing a multifaceted, hybrid communications strategy that blends traditional methods with social media.
  2. Pick one or two tools and be consistent in sharing important information on a daily basis.
  3. Engage with your stakeholders when the opportunity arises. It is “social” media, after all.

Public Relations

If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Leaders need to become the storyteller-in-chief. Use free social media tools to form a positive public relations platform and to become the de facto news source for your school or district. Share all the positives that happen in school every day to create a much-needed level of transparency in an age of negative rhetoric toward education.

Action items:

  1. Actively pitch original thinking and innovative ideas to local and national news outlets.
  2. Create and share stories on social media using a combination of text, hyperlinks, images, and video.
  3. Empower students, teachers, and communities to share their stories with you to amplify your message.


Branding defines your school or district. It is not something that you want to leave up to others. School leaders can leverage social media to create a positive brand presence that emphasizes the positive aspects of school culture, increases community pride, and helps to attract and retain families. Tell your story, build powerful relationships in the process, and empower learning with a branded mindset.

Action items:

  1. Conduct a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analysis annually with a committee to continually build a positive brand presence.
  2. Consistently use social media and public relations communications to organically create your brand.
  3. Develop a hashtag, and use it across all social media.


Leaders must consistently seek out ways to improve existing programs, resources, and professional learning opportunities. It requires a commitment to leverage connections made through technology—the other six pillars connect and work together to bring about unprecedented opportunities that would otherwise be impossible, such as securing donations, resources, authentic learning experiences for students, and mutually beneficial partnerships.

Action items:

  1. Continually evaluate programs and resources to ensure the learning culture is meeting the needs and interests of all students.
  2. Connect with alumni and local businesses around innovative work taking place at your school, and form partnerships. These can lead to authentic off-campus experiences, internships, and donations.

As you think about change, always remember why you do what you do and who you serve. All kids have greatness hidden inside them. It’s the job of educators to help them find and unleash this greatness. When it is all said and done, the interconnectedness of the pillars of digital leadership work to create a culture grounded in relationships. Without trust there is no relationship, and without relationships no real learning occurs.

Eric Sheninger is a senior fellow and thought leader on digital leadership for the International Center for Leadership in Education and co-author of BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning.