Digital schools: An evolving ecosystem

It is crucial that schools, like industry, understand that when organisations move to a digital operational base what most impacts on the desired outcomes is the tightly integrated, evolving ecosystem the organisation assembles to realise its shaping vision.

It is the desired totality that matters, not the parts per se.

In examining the digital transformation of the pathfinder schools in the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand and Australia that have normalised the use of the digital, evident in all was the leadership's concern to integrate all the school's operations: educational and administrative, physical and online, in and outside the school walls, and to create an ecology and a culture that enhances student learning.

The same concern to create a tightly integrated ecology is to be found throughout today's business digital transformation literature and most notably in Westerman, Bonnett and McAfee's (2014) seminal study of the global digital masters.

In marked contrast, the vast majority of schools and teachers still appear to concentrate on the parts.

The segmented school

The largely unwitting focus of most school development in recent years has been on segments within the school.

Schools, in particular secondary schools, have for decades been viewed as loosely coupled (Weick, 1976), segmented organisations enhanced by encouraging largely autonomous parts of the organisation to lift their game, believing doing so would naturally enhance the school's overall performance. It is the thinking of an Industrial Age with its division of labour.

One thus saw – as still occurs today – concerted, often largely disparate efforts being made to enhance the curriculum, literacy, numeracy, student testing, teacher quality, pedagogy, school governance, the digital technology, school resourcing and the school's sub-units.

Enhancement of each of those parts has at various points been promoted as the solution to school enhancement. Little is the wonder that one sees globally governments of all persuasion promoting the latest 'silver bullet', be it phonics, teacher standards or giving every child an iPad; somehow imagining that by addressing that part it will magically make the school more effective.

One of the unwitting consequences of focusing on single parts is the seeming failure by many to see the fundamental change occurring outside the school walls; the impact of digital normalisation on the young, their parents and society, and the dramatic transformation that has been occurring in schools operating on a digital base (Lee & Broadie, 2014). For example, by focusing just on the teaching, the natural inclination has been to focus on that occurring within the school walls. This completely misses the reality that teaching, while important, occupies less than 20 per cent of the child's learning and teaching time each year. For the remaining 80 per cent of the time the children and their parents have by default been left to fend for themselves and make greater use of the digital.

That propensity to focus on the parts has largely unwittingly been aided by the school's underpinning technology - paper.

Paper is a limited and inefficient technology that obliges its users to pass information by hand to others, thus largely corralling its use to a physical place. It also helps reinforce the constancy and continuity of the traditional mode of schooling.

Still, good schools and their leaders have for aeons understood the imperative of addressing every facet of the school's operations in their quest to realise the school's vision. However, until the last decade, their efforts were impaired by paper. Slowly but surely the astute school leaders have come to appreciate the importance of the digital operational base.

Digitally-based school ecologies

When all organisations, be they banks, multinational corporations or schools, move to a digital operational base, they assume a new form.

Digital is a constantly changing, powerful and sophisticated technology. Through its digital convergence facility, it will increasingly integrate all operations in and outside the physical place, and in the process will largely end organisational segmentation, diminish the reliance on the physical place, dismantle the old internal and external walls and divisions, and oblige the organisation to rethink all its practices and processes.

It is now apparent that the greatest impact of digital technology comes from its deep-seated infusion and use in every facet of an organisation's operations and the part it plays in facilitating the growth of evolving synergistic, higher order ecologies that can improve productivity. The use of the digital technology by clients, customers, and students, while very important, constitutes but part of a far greater totality.

In the business environment that ecosystem has to provide the desired financial returns and ensure the continued viability of the business. With the school, it is the student learning outcomes and the continued viability of the school.

The expression ‘Digital Darwinism' is being more and more used in digital transformation literature. Few would question the imperative of all businesses competing with the ‘digital masters' (Westerman et al., 2014) to remain viable. Moreover, few would be surprised with Westerman and his colleagues' findings that the ‘digital masters' are appreciably more productive and profitable than their more conservative counterparts (Westerman et al., 2014).

What many educators have yet to see is the carry over to schooling.

The signs globally are that parents and students who have normalised the use of the digital in their everyday lives are increasingly expecting that of their schools. Digital relevance is impacting on school choice. Tellingly, all the schools that have normalised the use of the digital interviewed for the revised forthcoming edition of Bring Your Own Technology (Lee & Levins, 2012) have not only created a tightly integrated school ecosystem, but have experienced a strong demand for student places.

The strong indicators (Lee, 2014) moreover are that the greatest enhancement in student learning will come from digitally-based, tightly integrated, highly education-focused ecologies that consistently address all the variables that impact each child's learning, and not some wee operation therein.

Such integrated ecosystems need to be thoughtfully shaped and orchestrated daily by astute school principals with a clear understanding of the desired totality, the requisite digital acumen and the wherewithal to lead a total school community on an ongoing evolutionary journey.

The research in both business and schooling (Lee, 2014b) underscores the reality that that leadership must come from the top.

‘…executives in every Digital Master steered the transformation through strong top-down leadership: setting direction, building momentum, and ensuring that the company follows through.' (Westerman et al., 2014)

It is an immense challenge requiring special people.

The sooner all associated with schooling understand leading a digital school is fundamentally different to leading a paper-based organisation and that it obliges all to focus primarily on shaping the desired, closely integrated totality, the faster digital schools will grow and enhance learning.

Westerman, Bonnett and McAfee's conclusion in their study of the ‘digital masters' holds equally for all schools: ‘Technology is the biggest story in business today, plain and simple.' (Westerman et al., 2014)


Lee, M. & Levins, M. (2012). Bring Your Own Technology. Melbourne: ACER Press.

Lee, M. (2014a). ‘Leading a Digital School'. Educational Technology Solutions. (58)2014.

Lee, M. (2014b). ‘Digital Technology and Student Learning'. Educational Technology Solutions. Retrieved July 15, 2014.

Lee, M. and Broadie, R. (2014). A Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages. Broulee Australia. Retrieved from

Weick, K. (1976). ‘Educational organisations as loosely coupled systems'. Administrative Science Quarterly. 21(1976).

Westerman, G., Bonnett, D. & McAfee, A. (2014). Leading Digital. Turning Technology into Business Transformation. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Has your school normalised the use of the digital?

Have you found that the digital is present in every facet of school life?