Students as digital leaders to support technology integration

The need to have a certain level of competence in using technology is nothing new for teachers. There are general expectancies that teachers are confident, knowledgeable and skilled in using a variety of digital tools that can enhance teaching and learning.

We saw in the last few years how the impacts of COVID-19 heightened the demand for teaching with technology in flexible ways and an ongoing need for professional development to support effective technology integration (Dabrowski et al., 2020).

Yet, teachers are often provided only software training with little focus on pedagogy. This training is often led by other educators or specialist providers and usually does not involve students. With the growth in student agency, it is important that students are given experiences on being part of a community, actively working on cooperative school improvement (Leadbeater, 2017).

Research for my PhD thesis sought to understand how teachers’ knowledge and practice with digital technology can be influenced through the involvement of students in professional development and classroom situations.

The students were 15- and 16-year-olds, mixed gender, with an interest in digital technology studying at a government secondary school in suburban South Australia. They trained teachers how to use specialist 3D design software and then provided guidance and advice on effective ways of teaching of learning with this software. Teachers were then offered the chance to have these students assist in their team teaching lessons where the technology was being taught.

What did the research involve?

Initially, I trained a group of 18 Year 10 student digital leaders how to use specialist 3D design software. They were then given opportunities to teach their peers and primary age students how to use this software. By helping these students plan and reflect on their approaches to their teaching, this enabled the student digital leaders to gain experience in effective teaching methods for use with this technology. They also saw how learners responded to their different teaching methods. In other words, it gave these student digital leaders exposure to teaching and learning.

The digital leaders worked with teachers over a term. They provided a software training session involving all the teachers in a guided workshop format; pedagogical discussion sessions that typically lasted about an hour and involved a student in a round table discussion with a small group of teachers; and in-class assistance in lessons over a 2-week period working alongside teachers integrating technology.

A case study approach was used to analyse 16 teachers, their knowledge and practice. From the 16 teachers, 7 became the core participants completing initial surveys on knowledge and confidence with technology plus their views on working with student digital leaders. As the teachers worked with the student digital leaders, observations of their interactions and relationships were made. Reflective, individual interviews were held after the teachers had worked with the digital leaders.

The focus of the research was not on what happened or when. Instead, this was a study looking at if these teachers were influenced by student digital leaders, how that happened – why the knowledge and practice of certain teachers are influenced while those of others are not, and the circumstances that seem to lead to this.

The lens of Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1998) enabled insight into relationships and community formation, teacher identity and practice. The TPACK framework (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) provided a means to consider the application of technology in teaching and the way different aspects of knowledge can be influenced.

What were the findings?

There were some teachers who embraced working with the student leaders more than others. However, it was interesting to see that there were a number of influences and links that heavily influenced this process.

Firstly, there were clear links with teachers’ trajectories and how much they involved themselves with the digital leaders. The clearest of these were seen with most of the teachers who were relatively new to the school opting to focus on developing stronger teacher-student relationships with the students in the class. Conversely, teachers with more experience at the school, tended to work closely with the student digital leaders.

Secondly, the team teaching structures were also influential in the outcomes. Having teacher pairs working in classrooms enabled one teacher to work closely with the digital leaders while the other could take on responsibilities such as classroom management.

Thirdly, alignment was a factor in the degree to which teachers embraced the involvement of student digital leaders. All teachers who worked closely with the digital leaders and developed collaborative ways of working around integrating technology in their classrooms highlighted the culture of the school and leadership’s drive for student agency as significant. These teachers knew there were expectations to empower students and the digital leader program was an extension of the school’s culture and ethos.

Lastly, it could be seen that the influence of student digital leaders on teachers was closely linked to the amount of time teachers spent with them. Teachers who invested time in developing ways of working, discussed and mutually agreed approaches with the digital leaders, were influenced to the greater extent.

Implications for teachers and schools

In my research, the students trained as digital leaders positively influenced teachers trying to integrate technology in their practice. However, there were some key considerations:

  • This study suggests digital leader schemes are likely to have more impact when teachers who are new to a school are given opportunities to first build relationships with students and the school community.
  • Student digital leaders can be part of a culture of student agency if there is the necessary leadership drive.
  • Involving students in assisting teachers with technology does not have to be confined to technical help. Students, given the right exposure, can be part of professional development of teachers extending their pedagogical knowledge.


Dabrowski, A., Nietschke, Y., Taylor-Guy, P., & Chase, A. (2020). Mitigating the impacts of COVID-19: Lessons from Australia in remote education. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Leadbeater, C. (2017). Student agency: Learning to make a difference. Centre for Strategic Education.

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017–1054.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

As a school leader, how confident, knowledgeable and skilled are your staff in the use of existing and emerging technologies? How confident, knowledgeable and skilled are your students? Could engaging students to assist teachers with technology help with professional development? What would you need to consider before trialling this in your school setting?