What does edu. leadership & "digital mastery"​ for COVID-education and beyond need to look like?

COVID has thrust education and schools into a world of personalised transformative digital education; like it or not.

New Zealand's post-COVID future relies upon entering the idea-economy. This means, given continued pre-COVID declines in World Innovation rankings, which highlight causes of NZ's 55,000 youth unemployment problem (an opportunity loss of $ 12.9bn+), Education leadership will be called upon to return value from the $ 215bn+ investment in the trans-formative version of NCEA. The credibility of leaders will be measured upon their ability to create environments for the design of highly engaging digital programmes which resolve inequity at the same time as producing highly equipped, motivated, confident, prepared and multi-skilled talent - not just in a streamed few:


For many schools, coping with COVID through 21st Century learning, distant, remote learning systems and or to underpin proper NCEA Digital 2020 adoption - is really ‘education as usual’ - other than a lawful and prolonged period of absenteeism. For others, it’s panic stations.

Overall though - there is a growing "awakening”, that the traditional dogma and barriers, boiler plate “digital skills” schemes, low- grade tech and finger-pointing puffery, from futurist Tabarin, that “the system must change” - actually reinforce the problem and system. Teachers are flummoxed with the futility of trying to retrofit the Victorian “grades based” model into weak digital substitutes, crude tech and online assessment. Educators are tired of the bearing the brunt of parental complaints about receiving packs of "get through" crayons or workbooks and under-investments in digital technology - all which disengage and alienate 80% of learners.

The Idea

Given these challenges - this article puts forward the idea of approaching COVID education, which invites a new digital education paradigm, in terms of three core elements that make up “Digital Mastery” from a leadership standpoint.

First, COVID means schools with deep traditions, belief systems and industrial revolution models of education need to address Digital Mastery as a new strategic and leadership priority. COVID is not going away. Parental expectations have changed from ambivalence towards education. Leadership-heads can no longer be buried in the sand. Given this, in months ahead, the credibility of leaders and schools will be examined upon their recognition of the nostalgic education structures including digital skills approaches, which return an engaged state of learners to 0.7% from the $ 14bn annual education investment. 

Second, therefore, mastering digital education for COVID and post-COVID means the education environment and structural configuration needs to be set up so that digital education can thrive to develop human potential and ideas. This includes creating a digital story which alters a school’s DNA and shifts the bias of learning to the learner. This means ditching "grades" and "assessment" thinking in favour of creating cognitive outcomes, leaner centred digital confidence on real programmes for idea-economy societies. Third, and to achieve this, this means the introduction and development of digital competencies are at the core of implementing and facilitating successful digital mastery - the new inter-school competitive construct.

Digital Mastery

However, how should Digital Mastery be considered?

Digital Mastery is the activation of change that shifts and sustains education towards a genuine, trans-formative, learner focused paradigm and that leverages 247/365 insights, new-education workflows and industrial tools. Digital Mastery does not deliver mass Microsoft Teams classes in a approach supported by kids looking at slides or videos. Digital Mastery is not about provision of google-search tools, iPads and or Chromebooks. These approaches are digital substitution and arguably, not education at all. Digital Mastery is not game-ification or enticement based entertainment gimmicks.

Digital Mastery is where curricula is not even delivered, but is provided in a highly personalised and tailored suited to the 1:1. Digital tools adapt content and does so-on demand in a manner that enables learners to generate ideas, explore, to build creative confidence, develop and show off higher-order systems-design-critical thinking. Digital Mastery enables the learner to generate real solutions for real purposes, leveraging and bringing to life concepts, through top quality and real digital tools.

Digital Mastery is where learners are inspired by educators who facilitate, configure and tune an enriching learning environment that fosters entrepreneurial pursuits, enables a learners ideas to become the currency for their futures and or community development. In this world, educators do not fill in forms. In a world where a school practices Digital Mastery, they are not chased for grades by power-leaders.

In this world - collaboration and ideation are the symbols of a deep connection between empowered front line educators and leaders tasked with genuine learner-development. In this world, a Digital Mastery response to COVID will see schools employ Digital assessment which is paperless and ensures accountability facilitates teaching quality, learner cognition, engagement, curricula outcome, programme effectiveness, barrier-identification/removal and built upon assessment progression/benchmarks. Assessment is real-time not period or end of year. Qualifications, post-COVID, will be gained by building solutions based on subject-matter, to solve community problems and that surpassing quality benchmarks for its fitness for societal regeneration - not passing for remembering a basic fact. Digital Mastery builds schools that builds capability for future societies.

1.   Leadership Priority

Today though and for COVID - one of the urgent priorities, therefore, requires schools to promptly establish or employ student-digital experience leaders (as a priority). This is because schools need a point of contact, close to change and transformation - to avoid much compliant and discontent from parents. They are highly visible (digitally and remotely of course) leaders who show, promote and deliver key community messages that they have ascertained the needs and are positioned (have positioned) to execute a quality digital education learner experience (in the lens of the learner). This is also critical for a decent quality response in the same manner as providing confidence, to the community and the country, any plan will become pervasive and develop well beyond post-COVID. Traditional education, clearly, will no longer cut it.

In practice, these new roles accepts, with care, feedback from empowered front-line leaders to enable rapid anticipation or execution of the most optimum digital technology settings for maximum student-centred learner experience. These settings may include the following examples:

  • Top quality device choice for maximum learner digital development (cognitive and skill)

  • Curricula: Content, work provision and management

  • Learning engagement and lapse sequencing

  • Learner progress, feedback methods and responsiveness/timing.

  • Cognitive and competency development

To make this occur - fundamentally, the role (or several) deliberately erodes the traditional barriers or, often, the divide between school “IT” and education. Responsive and strong connections between “need” and “technology” are needed. Given this, school IT is not outsourced as the connection will between important high-quality digital education need will never be met by 3rd parties vendors with profitability drivers and likely will not offer the technologies needed to address any of the above. Investment criteria and choices are reshaped towards a race-to-the-top mentality.

 The narrative and Structural Change

Most (not all) school management models are set up to churn assessment and results. Digital is often a nice to have. COVID forces schools to establish an organisation, team or body within a school to focus on digital mastery. This unit has an objective to reconfigure and mature the education model. This is so that the shift away from assessments to only student-centred experiences and outcomes can only be made possible by the use of information and digital technology. This sets tone. The Digital Experience Leaders deliver the tone.

They establish a digital narrative that clearly articulates the critical nature and or priority of digital education. The narrative is the cultural change mechanism that outlines why the school is pursuing a shift towards student-centred education. Ideally, the narrative is created with input from entire school; as such abrupt change and disruption, requiring a major and probably unplanned change to student-centred education, means everyone must have a voice and contribution to create new belief systems, deliver successful change and establish agency.

Given this, hierarchy, control and power silos fade away as merely conversational difficulties that “held us all back for years”. Quality digital education narratives are powerful, crisp and can be recited by all players. They reflect and embrace the educator’s passions for genuine leader development, not assessments and churn. Expectations of transformation are set that all educators begin a digital mastery journey.

  • Each school really needs its own digital narrative, but system wide – quality narratives share some common attributes.

  • Transformative

  • Student-centred

  • Integrated and developmental

  • Champions the educator

Principals, Executives, Digital experience Leaders and digital champions set brilliant examples of digital mastery and enact the narrative. With COVID likely to be present in society for the long haul, with uncertainties and challenges; it’s not enough to parcel off the responsibilities for driving a digital response to COVID to front line educators – thinking it’s all a temporary endeavour. Quality Digital Mastery leaders take responsibility for driving the co-created strong digital narrative. Indeed - in this world, responsible and emergent leaders can prove their own digital mastery and personally demonstrate the digitally mastery behaviors they expect from their community, leader-peers and educators. Everyone grabs an oar.

One classic example about a digital education response to COVID is to ditch the annual planning and or annual plan model that may or may not espouse token digital efforts, but really is about trying to surpass last years results. Preparing schools for remote or distant learning means leaders need to work proactively, by scale, iteratively and responsively - in the moment - for the learners of the day and tomorrow.

As a result, listening not dictating are new and different behaviours. As such, the emergence of Agile and Kanban ways of working, in prepared schools, are key signals digital mastery is in play or on the way – as failing fast and well to adapt with precision for the unknown – are key successes in themselves. For these to work, new digital education platforms are required and these are touched upon later. 

However, in broad terms, to embed learned behaviours for a digital paradigm, automation and new insight are embedded directly in the very core of traditional school operations. This ensures all academic workflows, control systems (that reinforce status quo and power silos), performance indicators, reward systems, policies and budgets no longer hamper an effective digital education response to COVID – and mastery.

Examples include:

  1. Digital Mastery supports and encourages digital education-led tech choices. Finance, admin and or IT are no longer core power-cells that run (or ruin) schools.

  2. Education performance includes digital mastery as core outcome not assessment grades

  3. Education jobs provide time for on-the-job learning

  4. Education performance metrics “are” an expression of digital mastery

  5. Change management plans are co-created with educators.

  6. Executive command models are scrapped. Authority lines flattened or become matrix

Digital technology approaches are designed to devolve traditional or calcified admin processes that anchor the school to the old.

3. Digital Mastery Competencies

Many schools operate organised power models which shadow teachers along year with a view to deliver assessment “grades” into systems. This “method” applies a certain exposure an individuals performance regardless of the heavy non-education workload, forced on educators, that really is the cause of any ‘grade’ decline. In the new-digital paradigm workflows become the centre of attention. Digital reduces workload with automated workflow. Digital experience leaders focus on workflow effectiveness, maximising data points at many stages of workflow to create quality insights for leaner engagement, content provision and or real-time assessment.

This enables a highly objective, two-way and highly collaborative model, between “leaders” and “front line” educators where learnings can be shared, celebrated and or improved upon with wider group contributions.

These are the features of new-digital competencies for collaborative ways of working.

Senior leaders play roles in creating the environment that generates digital mastery. Leaders empower working iteratively, they inspire only student-centric perspectives and collaboration. They remove barriers to iterative design thinking. They increase decision making to be as close to student-outcomes as possible. Senior leaders are facilitators themselves, not sole or core decision makers. They do this by building model of decision factors or principles, that is applied at the coal face, that creates an immediacy for high impact to outcome practice. Old-school Long and lengthy up-the-chain approval structures erode. This is really COVID education action item 1.

The key competencies for this include: Systems-design-critical thinking, commercial acumen, agility, political pragmatism and collaboration. They rely on experience-based learning. They ensure all digital systems portray objectives, education development and indicators that drive digital mastery behaviours (rather than churning retrospective assessment data that has no meaning to relevance to current learning).

New competencies embrace and demonstrate the use of digital technologies which drive mastery in the education staff. With a particular emphasis, for COVID, on digital distant or remote learning, this means assessment management systems no longer fit much purpose (if they ever did).

New platforms, referencing the capabilities of Office 365, Adobe Connect, Azure and Teacher-Dashboard as high quality examples, enable educators to engage and respond to garner parental input; while being able deliver and manage personalised, 1:1, distant and or new-paradigm on-premise education. Key, and different, information systems provide, as examples, measures of:

  • Engagement Level & Quality

  • Learning Lapse notification and management

  • Effort; Cognitive Development, Outcome progress, competency attainment and or improvement

  • Numeracy & Literacy Development

  • Work authenticity

  • Topic Content areas accessed, sustained and or abandoned.

  • Pedagogy / Practice Type

  • Content Matching/Learning style

  • Content Consumed vs. outcome(s) and application.

What does the education leadership model mean COVID and a new era of digital education mastery?

Importantly, the education change forced by COVID compels schools to define a particular response (if not done already) that fundamentally examines the belief systems, mindsets and emotional maturity of schools. It is now more important than ever that ideology is dispensed with. It is crucial that the moral obligation of education of or to prepare and equip learners with the thinking, creativity and digital traits, needed to develop ideas for the Post-COVID idea economy - is mastered and tested. Economic recovery and their futures will rely upon this.

Schools that will succeed with this contribution will pursue digital mastery as an expression of being open and willing to embrace technology’s potential. They will adapt with iterative and collaborative processes, adopt strong technologies and ditch the gimmicks. They will reshape school data-systems and attract staff willing to take risks and make a real difference; that being to operate COVID education with a genuine interest to re-calibrate education back to the learner interest.

Society now relies upon education to transform to produce talent who are creative, who set up for their own digital mastery and can regenerate industries and come up with new ones. 

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