Digital Learning Leadership: Choosing Actions for Impact

Photo credit: Jehyun Song

By Elizabeth LeBlanc and Dr. Christopher Harrington

Research by the Institute for Teaching and Leading into digital learning programs across the country looked at how K-12 superintendents, district-level leaders, principals, assistant principals and school leaders are implementing personalized/customized learning programs. To help understand how district and building-level administrators can successfully manage the change process, i4tl researchers looked at which actions most strongly correlated to positive impact in the effective implementation of a personalized/customized learning environment. Our team also examined the effect of district-level actions on the empowerment, mindset, motivation, and self-efficacy of other administrators, teachers, instructional staff, and students during the change process. It was clear from the data gathered that effective leadership is at the heart of introducing and driving any sustained shift to a transformative learning environment. 

Supporting Stakeholders during Digital Learning Implementation

Leaders involved in transformative digital learning initiatives in their districts are often engaged in managing change at scale, shifting “education as usual” for all school stakeholders as they implement their digital learning model. For our study, the actions of school and district leadership were examined for their level of  impact on the empowerment, self-efficacy, mindset, and motivation of other stakeholders. In short, were the actions indicated supporting meaningful organizational change in the transition to digital learning?

  • Motivation: Key Actions - Communication, Innovation, Accountability

Our survey respondents indicated that district-level leaders providing frequent and meaningful communication to all district stakeholders (students, teachers, administrators, families, and the community, in general) was the single most important action as far as having a positive effect on motivation among building level leaders and teachers. When district leaders took this action, growth occurred in all areas, but particularly in the motivation of building-level leaders and teachers. Other actions impacting motivation of stakeholders were the support of innovation and risk-taking as well as systems that supported accountability for growth and improvement. 

  • Self-Efficacy: Key Actions - Accountability, Communication, Growth Opportunities 

In general, across the actions and areas studied, impacting self-efficacy of stakeholder groups was the hardest place for school leadership to “move the needle.” The impact of district leadership was perceived to be least in the area of building self-efficacy in their school administrators and teachers, with only 34.38% of respondents starting that district leadership actions had a “great” impact on this area. However, when district leaders reported the implementation of structures that ensured accountability for growth and success at all levels - from students to teachers to administration - reported levels of self-efficacy increased by 23.75%. Also correlating positively with increased self-efficacy were communication and having opportunities for growth. 

  • Empowerment: Key Actions - Communication, Strategic Planning, Vision

 In i4tl’s study, 76.5% of respondents felt that actions by leadership affected their sense of professional empowerment to a “great” extent. Again, the importance of frequent, meaningful communication by district leadership throughout the change process was indicated; this action occurred in a variety of formats among the districts studied. Newsletters, parent classes and training nights, open community meetings, posting videos and documents explaining their digital learning initiatives, and monthly open house days were a few examples given. Involving building level leaders and teachers in both the development of the district vision for teaching and learning as well as in the strategic planning of how to execute towards that vision also resulted in higher levels of empowerment in all stakeholder groups studied. 

  • Mindset: Key Actions - Growth Opportunities, Innovation, Vision

Other notable actions by district leaders include supporting or providing specific opportunities to increase the growth mindset of building level leaders through leadership coaching, mentorships, or professional development; this had a positive correlation to school leadership’s reported feeling of satisfaction in their work. When district-level administrators encouraged their school leadership to implement innovative processes and procedures and gave them the autonomy to do so, the mindset of teachers and their overall orientation towards change also increased significantly. Finally, as seen above, including stakeholders in the development of the vision for how digital learning will transform the district learning model correlated positive with increased growth mindset of all stakeholder groups studied. 

Matching Actions with Impact

For district leaders looking to get strategic about the actions they take and how they hope to impact the motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset of stakeholders as they work to implement transformational digital learning programs, more information and exemplars are available in the resulting report, The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning. The chart below gives an overview of our findings in each category; percentages shown represent the number of respondents who indicated “great” or “moderate” impact in both areas. Overall, accountability measures that foster growth at all stakeholder levels, frequent and ongoing communication, and a culture of risk-taking and innovation had the most impact on stakeholders.


***Note: The research study The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning was published by Institute for Teaching and Leading in partnership with Edgenuity, Inc. and EdSurge, Inc

About the Authors: 

Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading. She also serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning for Taos Academy Charter School, an innovative blended learning school in northern New Mexico. Elizabeth has 15 years of experience in the design and implementation of high-quality, effective programming. With an MA in Educational Technology and Curriculum Design, Elizabeth works to coach and support teachers engaging in digital and personalized learning. Elizabeth was recently named to the NM Secretary of Education’s Teacher Advisory and was awarded the 2019 NMSTE “Making IT Happen!” award. Elizabeth has co-authored several education research projects, contributed book chapters, and written articles on brain science, whole child instruction and blended learning. 

Dr. Christopher Harrington, the founder of the Institute for Teaching and Leading, has long served on the forefront of innovative education. Currently an adjunct professor at Immaculata University, Chris specializes in assembling and inspiring great work from great teams. In his previous positions as President of eLearn Institute and CEO of Harrington Education Associates, Dr. Harrington assisted dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended and online learning programs, including the nationally recognized Quakertown Community School District where he served as Director of Virtual Education Services. Chris works with multiple state and national groups in the field of education, including iNACOL and the Colorado Department of Education. Dr. Harrington recently joined the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute team as their Director.