As a Digital Education Leader, my mission is to ensure that the ways in which we implement and use technology is inclusive of all populations and promotes safe and confident technology use in ways that reduce barriers for users while encouraging independence and confidence in the creation of safe, supportive digital environments that provide grace for users who struggle while pursuing excellence for all users. Doing so requires developing technology use systems that work in harmony with users’ values and overall mental and physical health. The focus on harmony, inclusion, grace and agency shapes a framework of digital leadership that supports and promotes best practices in technology implementation and use for all elements of the school community.
Harmony occurs when complexity unifies: voices or instruments blend to create one unified sound, the stories of the gospel are woven together to create a coherent story, or diverse aspects of a society join to create a peaceful whole (as in “racial harmony”). In all of variations of harmony, the intentional, balanced combination of different facets create a whole that is greater than any element alone.
The human mind is a wonderous thing, and can best be described as “the essence of every emotion you feel, every thought you have, every sensation you experience, every decision you make, every move you take, every word you utter, every memory you store and recall … in the truest sense, it is who you are” (Gazzaley, 2016, p. 11). As we move toward a post-digital future, our mind and our technology are not separate elements to be balanced, but elements of a greater, complex whole. It becomes essential to find ways to weave them together and create a harmonious existence that minimizes the tension and chaos we sometimes feel when facing digital reality.
In planning for and implementing digital education programs, it is essential to create spaces and structures that respect and encourage a harmonious relationship between technology use and overall well-being for users. Doing so requires acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of technology solutions in ensuring that users are helped more than harmed when accessing and using technology
While I initially was drawn to the mission of finding balance between screen time and real-world time, this conception of technology and humanity overlooks the way in which technology use permeates our culture and lives making the dichotomy of Technology vs. Non-technology less useful than it was in the past. The concept of harmony more accurately represents my mission as a digital technology leader.
This harmony can be difficult to maintain at a time when some aspects of the digital and physical environment can easily be overwhelming. This concern that is often voiced by parents and educators as we navigate the mostly digital environment of crisis online teaching. An over-abundance of screen time can lead to mental and physical declines in well-being. Being mindful of the need to find harmony and to work toward maintaining and improving the harmony in the structures of educational institutions is one way in which we can behave responsibly as digital education technology leaders.
As I consider my values as a digital education leader, Inclusion and equity rise to the top of mind because there are many ways in which technology in education can both erect barriers to access and remove them. Inclusion is “about welcoming and embracing diversity because of the benefits that it brings, [and amplifying] marginalized voices or ideas” (Hammerlink, 2018). Inclusion involves insuring that historically under-represented and under-served communities are fully included in decision-making and access to education and technology. Doing so requires removing barriers and providing accommodations to ensure that all aspects of learning are fully accessible to all communities and that everyone has a place at the table where decisions are made.
In classroom terms, inclusion means that students who are historically marginalized are fully included in all aspects of classroom learning and decision-making. This differentiates from diversity, where students’ presence in the classroom is enough; and integration, where historically marginalized learners are in the present but are not fully included in classroom activities and culture.
Technology provides a voice to previously under-heard and underserved populations (literally in the form of AAC devices and figuratively in the ways in which digital communication allows multiple means of expression and removes some gatekeeping). It is immensely important that we carefully choose education technology and train educators in the use of technology so that these populations will benefit from its introduction rather than find themselves excluded even more. Examining the acquisition and deployment of educational technology tools through the lens of inclusion for under-served populations such as people of color, immigrant and ELL students, LGBTQIA students, students with disabilities, and students living in poverty, can help ensure that technology works as a tool of inclusion and provides equitable access.
Even with technology that supports these communities, there are often situations in which the challenges students, families, and schools face are great enough that a measure of grace is essential in ensuring student success. Even in situations where all students and families are affected, the hardships tend to fall disproportionately on populations that have historically been excluded from equal access to education, and it is essential for digital leaders to be mindful of this disparity. For example, specific populations are affected to a greater degree by the COVID-19 crisis and its fallout according to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2020).
A practical understanding of the disparate needs of student populations is essential to engaging in practices that promote inclusion. For example, not all students can attend google meet classes or Zooms. Our school allows students to attend class via live class meeting or asynchronously via google classroom.
Theorist Roger Silverstone observes that a central tenant of digital learning is that the “distance between ourselves and others is standardized online; neighbors and strangers are at an equal distance from us, which alters and widens our spheres of responsibility” (James, p 12). As this sphere widens it the need to provide kindness to others in a non-transactional way. In short, to provide grace. Grace occurs when we show kindness to others without consideration of their merit “because God is love, grace is a gift of love that invites us into relationship with God, the source of our existence. When we speak of loving more or less, we don’t refer to quantities but to the quality and strength of our relationships” (Kohlhaas, 2018).
Showing grace to students provides those experiencing adverse childhood events a measure of calm and respite from the worry they experience and the chaos of their lives. It allows children to complete work in the ways they are able–which is often radically different from how learning traditionally looks. Showing grace to our children can be the difference between their success and failure.
One measure of this grace is to adapt a “lens of trauma” when approaching student behavior online or in person. As WestED explains, a hallmark of teaching children experiencing trauma is viewing their academic struggles and challenging behaviors through the lens of the trauma they experience rather than seeing them as inherent to the child (2020).
Trauma informed teaching philosophies and strategies are the methods by which educational institutions can show grace to students who have undergone traumatic experiences while simultaneously educating students who have not. While not all students have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACE), the number is high enough to make it highly likely that trauma informed strategies and a measure of grace would be effective in every classroom. A fact sheet by the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative shows that nationwide over half of secondary education students have experienced at least one ACE in their lifetime, and just under one third have experienced two or more ACEs (CAHMI, 2017). Providing grace when approaching all elements of digital education is one way in which we can educate these children who make up such a large part of our classrooms.
Digital education technology leaders are in a unique position that allows them to ensure that the technology-based practices and programs provide a measure of grace for students and families as they operate within environments that bring new and existing challenges. Doing so provides a space for learners and their families to thrive and works toward their strengths as individuals and within groups.
Agency occurs when individuals take ownership of their environment or learning and is an essential part of learning and a healthy part of child development. According to Will Richardson at Educational Leadership “creative freedom, or “agency,” is a key aspect of almost every deep learning experience that we have in life” (2019). Providing students avenues by which to have agency over the technology they use, and their own learning is one way that we can be more effective educators.
Students interact with technology in active ways where that is possible, and work to gain independence and agency by using technology. It is important to consider them as active users and adaptors of technology tools when planning for the use of that technology in the district and classroom, otherwise engagement will drop as is evidenced in their non-scholastic technology use.
For example, teen entrepreneurs quickly realized that sites and apps designed only for selling goods were ineffective for their demographic, and quickly left platforms such as Offerup and Poshmark. According to an article in Input Magazine they turned their Instagram into thrift stores, where they adapted the non-sales tools to meet their needs “though apps intended for e-commerce have more of the right features, Instagram sellers have figured out how to use, say, Story highlights as an FAQ page.” (Sato, 2020).
This quick rejection of tools that do not meet their needs and adaptation of other tools to do so is an example of students adapting and using technology in the way that best fits them. A challenge for educators is to first ensure that there are measures in place to allow students to personalize technology, and then to guide students in using technology for civic engagement and to be change agents in their communities.
One important aspect of agency in technology is providing students and families with the agency to alter their digital environment to craft a space that promotes their digital well-being. Maintaining healthy behaviors in an environment in which digital media is an essential part of education and life can prove difficult for children and adults. These healthy behaviors can be summarized in the phrase digital well-being, which “refers to the (lack) of balance that we may experience in relation to mobile connectivity” (Vanden Abeele, 2020).
As with the value of harmony, developing agency among students and families requires a holistic solution that requires digital education leaders to examine challenges from a myriad of perspectives to ensure that the multi-faceted needs of our disparate student populations are met in ways that allow them to be independent and engage in substantive change. It requires digital leaders to treat each student and their family as unique with their own specific strengths and challenges.
Abdul-Adil, J., Et al. (2020). The impact of developmental trauma in communities of color during the pandemic [Webinar]. National Child Trauma Stress Network. https://learn.nctsn.org/course/view.phpid=545
Gazzaley, A., Rosen, L. (2016). The distracted mind: ancient brains in a high-tech world. The MIT Press. Retrieved from https://spu.instructure.com/courses/44699/files?preview=2203613.
Hammerlinck, J. (2018, May 10) Diversity vs. inclusion. Leading Differently. https://leadingdifferently.com/2018/05/10/diversity-vs-inclusion/.
Pate, C. (2020). Strategies for trauma-informed distance learning. Center to Improve Social Emotional Learning and School Safety, WestEd. from https://selcenter.wested.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/05/SEL_Center_Strategies_for_Trauma_Informed_Distance_Learning_Brief.pdf
Sato, M. (2020, February 12). Teens are hacking Instagram into a modern-day eBay. Input. https://www.inputmag.com/features/teens-are-turning-instagram-into-their-own-ebay-thrift-shop.
Vanden Abeele, M. (October 17, 2020). Digital wellbeing as a dynamic construct, Communication Theory. https://doi.org/10.1093/ct/qtaa024