Fall 2018

The School Leader’s Quandary: Technology as Disruption

School leaders who make decisions about the use of technology in schools face minefields of conflicting information. One popular book on technology leadership describes technology as disruptive but also finds that many schools have computers not in use1. They claim that education leaders should anticipate two waves of disruptive technology; technology innovation that is disruptive in the present era, and technology that disrupts schools toward more student-centered learning in the future1.

The province of Ontario is presently engaged in public debate over a proposed ban on cell phones in schools. One school featured in the media requires students to lock their phones in pouches that block social media and Wi-Fi access2. Countries differ in approaches: France is banning mobile phones in schools3 while Estonia encourages students to bring their cell phones to school and use them for learning. Estonia reports higher than average tech-supported learning; here the cell phone is gradually replacing desktop and laptop use4. Other schools take the middle ground: permitting cell phones or 1-1 devices for learning but students access Wi-Fi through a central server that blocks social media sites. Here are some additional scenarios that illustrate how technology is disruptive for school leaders.

A principal receives a heated phone call from a parent whose son had his cell phone confiscated at 3 pm on the Friday of a long weekend by a teacher who locked it in their desk before leaving. A student takes covert pictures of fellow students and the teacher, alters them with text and symbols intended to humiliate, and then shares them with a group of friends.
A group of boys secretly “vape” in the senior elementary school washroom, record the event on a phone, and post it to Instagram. Fortunately, the school admin team also has an Instagram account. Parents of a secondary student have no idea she has two social media accounts: one that she shows to them and the other that she shares with friends.
A secondary vice-principal reviews the digital footprint of new students and sees a different kind of student record.  A teacher tries to use the school district logins for a class but the logins are so complicated that the teacher gives up in frustration. 

These scenarios illustrate the wide range of day-to-day encounters with technology in schools where the latest computer application arrives unregulated by privacy policy. Student responses to social media anonymity can be unpredictable and disruptive, resulting in a virtual 21st century version of Lord of the Flies. Students can demonstrate a lack of a mature social presence5 and they can act without the guidance of teachers to regulate their online activities. Because of suddenness and the level of disruption, responses that are reactive (such as cell phone confiscation) can have appeal to school leaders.

Policy responses lag behind these disruptive innovations. In the Ontario context, cyber behaviour has become more regulated and legislated in Ontario through the Safe Schools Act. There have been shifts in legislation that include restorative approaches to wrongdoing6.  Teachers have received cautionary advice from their regulatory body to guide their participation in social media7.

Early disruptive technologies have seen many students ahead of school administrators on the digital learning curve.  Students misappropriate technology for cyber-misbehaviour and teachers’ early attempts to use technology have run into inadequate web connectivity. These elements can explain to some degree the cautious approach of teachers and school administrators to technology despite its wholesale adoption into the out-of-school lives of students. 

In the year 2018, as technology becomes more ubiquitous, these earlier disruptive influences are gradually becoming more manageable through the development of updated safe school policies and standards for acceptable use, some of which are being developed at the school level. As school leaders navigate the one-to-one device per student terrain, new uses of technology have begun to emerge, prompted by innovative teacher practice and supported by school leaders.

Next, technology innovation is predicted to cause a second form of disruption; this time the disruption will be more closely connected to student learning1. In the next section we describe some learning scenarios that illustrate the possibilities offered by the next disruption. 

New disruption and new ways of learning

Thirty years ago, just prior to the advent of the internet, Lauren Resnick spoke passionately about the need for in-school learning to align with the world of work. She wanted learning to be more cooperative, more focused, and provided on a just-in-time basis8. Now, some of her cautions about learning are re-surfacing. Technology is showing a gap between how students learn outside of school and in school. Technology can bridge that gap and provide more personalized learning to groups of students who may not be able to attend regular classes or may not have access to specialized courses1. Here are some representative but authentic scenarios.

Grade 12 students in a BYOD classroom decide that they want to investigate how First Nations Metis Inuit awareness is understood in other secondary schools. The students send emails to curriculum chairs in neighbouring schools asking about their participation prior to consulting with the principal. The culmination of the project is a seminar on indigenous cultures attended by interested students from 4 secondary schools and joined by an esteemed researcher who visits via a Google hangout from Mexico. As a result, the students gain significant understanding of issues that exist for marginalized populations, such as clean water scarcities. They tweet their learning in real time. Preservice teachers in an online class share critical incidents involving equity that they encounter during field experience. Working together, they identify and investigate equity issues, locate resources, policies, and potential solutions, and prepare an equity scenario for their peers using multi-media. The instructor participates as a resource but the inquiry follows a fully student-driven model. Following a lively online discussion, the preservice teachers reflect on what they have been learning and how they have been learning. Most express gratitude for having equity resources readily available to use with future classes. Others express an interest in leading digital learning for future students.   
The 8th grade uses an app for record-keeping. Each student has an account and a digital work portfolio to file photographs of their work and records of their assignments. Parents have access to their own child’s account to see the learning expectations for the assignment, the grade earned, and the teacher’s comments about the assignment relative to the learning skills. Parents can offer comments. The principal is supportive but cautions the teacher not to use 3rd party apps but only the apps approved by the school district, in order to protect students’ digital privacy. In a program designed to help college students bridge their work experience and college diploma for credit, a university offers a fully-online Baccalaureate. The adult students who enrol have competing priorities and busy lives. They log into their “live” classes that are offered at different times of the day (e.g., lunch hour, evenings). They come to class using any device that has an internet connection. It is not unusual for students to come into class online using tablets when they are on a break at work, or using cell phones when they are on public transit. 

Disruptive technology in these examples allows learning to become more individualized and more student-driven. Students will use some of the same skills they use outside of school to search, retrieve, and communicate information.

Moving Forward with Big Tech Ideas for School Leaders

Principals and vice-principals are leading schools during this period of intense social media popularity and technological innovation. We offer a few “big ideas” for school leaders to consider.

  1. In a landscape of trial and error, technology practices will shift without warning and might be disruptive. Policies will lag.
  2. Technology will allow more equitable access to schooling both for marginalized populations and schools with limited course or program offerings.
  3. One-to-one technology will continue but the safety of the school learning space and the climate will be instrumental. 
  4. Prompts for tech-enhanced learning are more likely to emerge from around and below and not necessarily from above (e.g., curriculum directives).
  5. New apps and techniques will leapfrog over earlier assistive technologies (e.g., speech-to-text technology) and will provide more efficient ways for all students to learn9.

We acknowledge that technology innovation has had disruptive effects on schools, and school leaders understandably want to put on the brakes sometimes. But as education becomes less about the hardware and the physical classroom, technology-supported learning has great potential to provide more equitable access to learning. School leaders who anticipate different types of technology disruptions will likely be better poised to meet these challenges.

Christensen, C. M., Johnson, C. W., & Horn, M. B. (2010). Disrupting class. McGraw-Hill.
Yousef, N. (2018 September 3).Tackling tech: how some Ontario teachers are attempting to limit students’ cell phone use. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-tackling-tech-how-some-ontario-teachers-are-attempting-to-limit/
Anderson, J. (2017 December 12). France is banning mobile phones in schools. World Economic Forum Agenda. Retrieved @ https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/12/france-is-banning-mobile-phones-in-schools
European School Net (2011): ICT Use in Schools: Country report – Estonia. Retrieved @ http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/newsroom/image/document/2018-3/estonia_country_profile_2F919E74-C9DB-21E3-98C4B99583966946_49434.pdf
Rettie, R. (2003). Connectedness, awareness and social presence. Retrieved @ http://eprints.kingston.ac.uk/2106/1/Rettie.pdf
Corrigan, L. & Robertson, L. (2015). Standing on the edge: How school leaders apply restorative practices in response to cyberbullying and online aggression. International Journal for Digital Society (IJDS), Volume 6, Issue 3, 1061-1070. ISSN: 2040 2570.
Ontario College of Teachers. (2011). Professional advisory: Use of electronic communication and social media. Retrieved @ https://www.oct.ca/resources/advisories/use-of-electronic-communication-and-social-media
Resnick, L. B. (1987). The 1987 presidential address: Learning in school and out. Educational researcher, 16(9), 13-54.
White, D.H. & Robertson, L. (2015). Implementing assistive technologies: A study on co-learning in the Canadian elementary school context. Computers in Human Behavior. (51), 1268-1275.


Dr. Lorayne Robertson is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. She is a former Superintendent of Education and Ontario principal.

Laurie Corrigan is the Superintendent of Learning/ Innovation Technologies for the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland Clarington Catholic District School Board. She has experience harnessing digital devices in support of deep learning inquiry using BYOD and 1:1 learning.

Kim Robertson is the Principal of Jeanne Sauvé French immersion school in the Thames Valley District School Board with an interest in using technology as a universal support to improve student learning and build teacher capacity.

Sean Heuchert is the Manager of Information Technology with the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland Clarington Catholic District School Board. He supports schools in e-learning and all forms of technology implementation.

Gerard Winn is the Principal of St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Lindsay, Ontario, which includes an e-learning program and 1-1 laptop learning programs.

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