Eric Sheninger is the principal at New Milford High School, N.J., where he is working to advance learning in the digital age and create a model that shows teachers and school administrations how to better leverage technology in and out of the classroom. He is the author of Digital Leadership, which includes his “Pillars of Digital Leadership” framework for educators to transform schools. His main focus is the use of social media and web 2.0 technology as tools to engage students.

What are the 7 Pillars of Digital Leadership and how did you come up with them?

They are the essential elements that all leaders have to address in their respective positions. When I embraced social media, I discovered ways I could become more effective and efficient at what I already do. The pillars are the foundational elements: Communication, public relations, branding, professional growth, student learning and achievement, learning spaces and environments, and opportunity.

As I was figuring out social media, I realized that the outcomes were much more profound when I used the tools of the digital age to do tasks that align with the pillars.

Take communication, for instance. No one’s going to websites. Newsletters don’t have an impact. Social media, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all allow us to get out information in real time and meet our stakeholders where they’re at.

Public relations:  I’ve become the storyteller-in-chief. There are so many tools that allow us to perform that role: blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram. Social media allows us to become our own PR agents and we can tell an accurate story of what’s happening and of student achievements—all those issues that the mainstream media doesn’t pay much attention to.

Branding: When you use social media to form a foundation for positive PR, you create a brand presence. It encapsulates your vision, your mission, and your values—and all of that resonates with your stakeholders. When people visit our school, they know we’re about innovation—innovative practices, interesting extracurricular activities—because that’s what the brand now conveys.

Professional growth: Social media lets us connect with anyone, anytime, anywhere, and engage in conversations that ultimately lead to improvement of our professional practice. The ideas I’ve implemented at New Milford are ideas I’ve come across via social media. We’re no longer a silo of information on this isolated island. We’ve learned that we must make education relevant, meaningful, applicable, and authentic for our students. Over the past five years, this pillar has driven us to transform teaching and learning practices.

Student learning and achievement: Once we have the foundation, we ask what tool might be used to enhance the learning outcome. The technology is not meant to drive instruction, it is meant to support and enhance learning. By giving students choice and ownership, we’ve created a school that works better for our kids.

Environment: We’ve created a school that functions like the real world. We want students to feel like they’re walking into a Starbucks, or the mall, where they go into our “maker space” and tinker, where there are charging stations in all common areas. We were among the first schools in New Jersey to go BYOD four years ago. Before, there was a disconnect when students entered school [because students couldn’t use their devices]. It’s the opposite of the real world. We’ve tried to create a school that mirrors the real world as much as possible while giving students opportunities to learn.

Opportunities: When you start sharing your stories on social media, people take notice. Our brand attracts stakeholder groups from all over the country who want to partner with us. It’s been an unprecedented opportunity for our kids—free technology, learning experiences that cost us nothing. We’ve been focused on the same outcomes as every other school. The pillars let us enhance the outcomes.

We’re raising a generation of kids who grew up with social media. How is that going to change the business world when they become employees?

It’s going to be a nightmare if we don’t teach students how to be responsible and to leave positive digital footprints. Our schools are failing students by not educating them on how to use social media to enhance learning, increase productivity, and conduct better research.

We have to prepare students for a world where social media has become an embedded component of almost every business model. They will need diverse skill sets to be successful in jobs that haven’t even been created yet.

As a school, we need to give the kids a conceptual framework for how they can harness and leverage social media, not just as students, but as adults who are components of society. There’s a big difference between using social media and using it effectively to do real-world work. We’re empowering kids to make great choices and showcase what they can do with these tools, so when they interview or get that job they’ll be successful.

What changes do you think we should make in public education to better prepare kids for the workforce?

We need to stop focusing on standardization. The workforce is not standardized. There are no standardized tests that determine the success of employees. From the ground up, we need to give our kids the essential skills that will allow them to not only be successful, but to outperform their peers in every other country around the globe.

We need to be developing schools that focus on creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem solving, digital media literacy, global awareness, digital citizenship/responsibility, and entrepreneurship. If kids are mastering those skills, they will not only succeed at every standardized test thrown at them, they will also succeed on the most difficult test they will ever take, which is life.

Students need to have unique abilities that are going to prepare them for a frenetic world where there are no real rules, no framework or map. Schools are so scripted, so based on compliancy. We are still working to sustain a century-old model that prepares students for a world that no longer exists. We need to flip that and create a messy, creative learning environment where kids are allowed to fail. The lesson they learn from failure is how to arrive at the right answer, how to solve that problem, how to deal with pressure, how to collaborate/communicate with their peers to solve real-world problems.

That’s where the biggest change has to happen. Let’s create schools that mirror the real world. If we can do that, then we’ll be doing a service to our kids. 

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