What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media

Edited by Scott McLeod and Chris Lehmann



To Betsy, Isabel, Lucas, and Colin, who put up with my shenanigans and without whom everything would be meaningless.


To my parents, my first and best teachers. To my wife and best friend, Kat. And to the students and teachers of the Science Leadership Academy. You all make the journey so much fun.



Before embarking on the adventure to which the following pages will transport you, it is important to examine the story that has brought us to this place. I use the term story because telling stories is an essential ingredient for successful leadership. In a speech to Pennsylvania superintendents in 2000, cultural anthropologist Jennifer James said that the leaders who incite the transformations in today’s teaching and learning will be those who can tell a compelling new story. Dr. James (2000) suggested that this story should have three parts and should do the following:

The story that brings us here is about a perfect storm, growing from three converging conditions that are forcing us, for the first time in decades, to rethink education and what it means to be educated in a time of rapid change. We are rethinking the classroom and the definition of teacher, making transparent the boundaries that defined traditional education. We are preparing for a new generation of learners within a new information environment for a future that we cannot clearly describe.


Anyone who has been an educator for more than ten years knows that today’s children are different. There is evidence that their brains are physiologically different, elasticity wired in and built from information experiences that are dramatically different from any generation before—experiences that define their culture, which is based on video games, social networking, and a prevailing sense of hyperconnectedness that practically makes the word good-bye obsolete. It is an information experience that carries some unique and compelling qualities:

  • It is fueled by questions—to overcome built-in barriers.
  • It provokes conversation—because it is team-oriented.
  • It refines identity—both real and assumed or virtual.
  • It is rewarded with currency—gold, coin, attention, powers, and permission.
  • It demands personal investment—because there is value.
  • It is guided by safely made mistakes—which always add to the player’s knowledge.

The foundation of each of these qualities is the responsive nature of children’s information experience. Much of what our children do in their outside-the-classroom information experiences is responded to. These responses are often automatic and immediate. But these automatic and immediate responses are not the only form, and perhaps they are not the most powerful. When students are engaged in social networking, the response to their crafted ideas may not come for days or perhaps even weeks after they have posted their thoughts—but when the response comes, it is based on reading what was written, not merely measuring what was written. The essential qualities of both immediate and delayed responses are relevance and authenticity.

Because such communication is responsive, another defining feature of the experience becomes evident. The players’ decisions are constantly being assessed. The report back does not merely identify whether the decision was right (√) or wrong (x). The return is, “It worked” or “It did not work.” Regardless of the response, the learner walks away with a new piece of knowledge.


Since the 1990s, with the introduction and proliferation of personal computers and the Internet, our information environment has become increasingly networked (accessing our information quickly and globally), digital (machine readable and workable), and abundant (overwhelming). However, the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen another shift in the nature of our information landscape. It has become increasingly participatory and the boundaries that separate author from reader—and producer from viewer—have become fluid. According to a 2007 Pew study, 64 percent of U.S. teenagers have engaged in some form of content creation, up from 57 percent in 2004 (Lenhart, Madden, Smith, & Macgill, 2007).

This dynamic and increasingly accessible global library affords new and empowering learning experiences for our students and it significantly alters the role of the teacher. It also demands a new look at basic literacy, something larger that expands out from basic reading, writing, and numeracy. Today’s information landscape requires a wide and exciting range of skills involved in exposing the value of the information we encounter, employing the information by working the numbers that define it, expressing ideas compellingly to produce messages that compete for attention, and habitually considering the ethical implications of our use of information.


By the end of 2010, the amount of information added to the digital universe during the previous four years was more than six times what it was in 2006, from 161 billion gigabytes to 988 billion gigabytes (Gantz, 2007). Information and communication technologies have transitioned from wall-mounted telephones, boom boxes, and bulky television sets to something that we slip in and out of our pockets dozens of times each day. Advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, and circuit miniaturization promise or threaten to alter our world in ways that even the most knowledgeable among us can barely imagine. We have reached a singularity, of sorts, a place where we educators are challenged to prepare our students for a future that we cannot clearly describe. The education dialogue that we and our communities should be having today is, “What do our children need to be learning today to be ready to succeed, prosper, and seize the opportunities of an unpredictable future—and how do they need to be learning it?”

There is little doubt that at least part of the answer to these questions will be found in the tools and practices that our children have embraced and sometimes have invented for an information landscape that seems set to ignore barriers and empower accomplishment. The following chapters will explore how today’s prevailing information environment is already being harnessed to affect the learning experiences that our children need and deserve.

August 2011

David Warlick

Raleigh, North Carolina


Gantz, J. (2007, March). A forecast of worldwide information growth through 2010. Retrieved from

James, J. (2000). Thinking in the future tense: Leadership for a new age. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., & Macgill, A. (2007, December 19). Teens and social media. Pew Internet. Retrieved from


Glance at any story about education reform or look over the offerings at most education conferences and you are likely to run across one of the following terms: Web 2.0, twenty-first-century skills, or educational technology. There is near-universal agreement that schools must find ways to transform older teaching practices in order to harness the tools that students have at their disposal today. But for many administrators, trying to figure out the difference among Twitter and Flickr and Moodle and Drupal can leave them wondering where to even begin.

Don’t panic. It is nowhere near as hard as you think.

This book, with chapters written by some of the leading experts in the world on educational technology, is meant to introduce you to many of the most useful tools and concepts for an education setting so that you can decide, along with teachers and students and parents, which ones make the most sense for your school.

The contributors hope that this text helps you figure out the often confusing world of social media tools but, more than that, we hope it also serves as an introduction to a set of tools and ideas that have transformed our collective practice as educators. The tools described within, when combined with thoughtful and deliberate pedagogical practice, can create a transformative experience for students and educators alike, and we can no longer imagine teaching without them.

Whether it is the expansion of social networking technologies, the power of digital media creation tools, or the ability to publish to the world instantly, our students and teachers have access to more information than ever before. We all possess the ability to interact with learning networks much wider than at any other time in history. We all now have the unprecedented ability to create powerful artifacts of learning. It is an exciting time to be a teacher and a learner.

We hope this book helps you to enjoy the journey.

The hashtag for this book is #edtechlead

Visit for additional resources, interviews with chapter authors, and more!


Kristin Hokanson and Christian Long

What if all teachers and students described their classroom experiences like this (Warlick, 2007)?

[My students] see themselves as part of a global community—a community that shares. . . . This international audience gives my students a purpose and they are motivated to do their best writing.

Kathy Cassidy, Teacher, Moose Jaw, Canada

I worried about making my students’ developing language skills available to a wider audience—but I needn’t have. They are developing their own voice and with it a greater degree of responsibility and confidence.

Paul Harrington, Teacher, Blackwood, United Kingdom

We have an authentic global audience for the events that happen in our school. . . . [W]e have a real purpose for writing to inform, to educate, to connect.

—Teacher from New Zealand

These comments from educators using Class Blogmeister, a classroom blogging tool developed by David Warlick, show the positive impact that blogs can have on student engagement and performance. What are blogs and why should educators use them? What does a fully developed blogging project look like and require? Where can educators find blogging resources? These are some of the questions that educational leaders are asking in order to support twenty-first-century teachers and students.


In simple terms, blogs are web-based logs or journals (web log shortened to blog). The basic concept behind blogging is not new. Social interaction in teaching and learning is a keystone of educational theory. When teachers and students blog, they are able to actively engage audiences outside the usual classroom time boundaries.

Individuals and groups are drawn to blogs for the following reasons:

  • They are simple to set up, edit, and publish; no computer language is needed.
  • Topics can be as formal or personal as deemed appropriate by the writer.
  • Recent entries (posts) are easily located as blogs are published in reverse chronological order.
  • There are easy ways to subscribe (see Chapter Four).
  • Comments from an audience are a standard part of the process, thus creating two-way conversations.

So what are the implications for blogging as pedagogy and what is their potential impact on student engagement?

EDUCATIONAL RATIONALE FOR BLOGGING, a site set up to help promote an understanding of the benefits of educational blogging, suggests that “one of the great educational benefits of the read/write web, and blogging particularly, is the opportunity for the student to become a ‘teacher’ by presenting material to an audience. When we teach, we learn” (Hargadon, 2009).

In the past, when a student wrote in class for a single teacher who provided grade-based criticism, student audience was minimal. When student writing was shared or published outside the classroom, feedback also was limited to local, rather than global, area connections.

With the rapid growth of the read-write web, it is as easy to create and exchange content as it is to consume it. Likewise, it is increasingly easy to build an interactive network. With a single click of the mouse, classes can engage in conversations with people from around the world and get authentic feedback. Different than simply keeping a notebook or diary of writing for a single audience, blogs can be public, commented on, and safely moderated before comments are published. This means that educators can provide authentic opportunities for their students to simultaneously analyze, evaluate, and create content that is immediately published for a global audience. Blogging provides new opportunities to receive feedback and see things in a different way. When put to use in education, blogging can have a profound effect on learners.


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” [asked Alice]

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865/2008)

In fall 2009, educator Christian Long’s Alice Project (2009) challenged sixty tenth-grade high school students to answer the following questions:

  • How can we make Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland come alive for us?
  • More important, how can we create something together that would give an audience outside our classroom its own version of Alice’s unexpected journey through Wonderland?
  • Can we become the world’s most passionate authorities on Carroll’s story in the process?
  • And how would we create and nurture an equally passionate audience in just two short months?

On a traditional level, the challenges were simple:

  • Read a richly annotated version of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
  • Write rigorously about what caught one’s eye along the way, balancing playful curiosity with line-by-line analysis.
  • Make it interesting for others.

The last challenge, as much as anything else, became the heart of this project.

Students were excited to share their ideas with and get insight from people around the world. The blog was the right “tool” to provide a balance between traditional writing and global conversation. Beyond these questions, the students were required to collaborate on project guidelines, craft and nurture an audience over time, and engage professional judges from around the world to evaluate their individual efforts and teamwork.


The story of Alice is simple enough for a ten-year-old child to appreciate. However, the seemingly limitless intellectual word games and social innuendos in Carroll’s work invite a rethink about how students could analyze Wonderland. It demands a more public, question-filled, and debate-centered, writing-as-exploration process. The question was not if blogging could work but how it should be done to ensure the richest experience possible for students.

It seemed logical to create a series of team-managed blogs to frame student analysis. Additionally, the blog entries were to create ongoing conversations while simultaneously engaging a global audience from day one.

To truly mirror the upside-down experience of young Alice, the students were challenged to be very public about their emerging insights and wrong turns alike. This was not about perfection. It was about fostering conversation. And it was about extending the four walls of the classroom in ways impossible traditionally.


The first step was creating a teacher-managed home blog to serve as collective archive and one-stop map for visitors. Then a unique Alice Project blog was established for each team to design, compose, edit, and publish. Although there were many free platforms (e.g., or that could have been used, the Alice Project used, a free and easy-to-manage blogging system. Nothing was made permanently public until each team’s editor had read over posts and comments, followed by the teacher’s own review. This allowed classroom flexibility along with appropriate checks and balances.

To establish an audience, thirty-five judges from four continents were brought together to evaluate student work from day one. The judges were assigned specific teams to evaluate in terms of the quality of writing and technology use. Twitter was used to share student progress to thousands of educators around the world. This led to regular blog visitors and comments. Student grades also were based on the quantity and quality of blog posts and comments left on their peers’ blogs. Comments from around the world acted as regular criticism and advice to student writers. Feedback was constant and authentic at all points.


Here are some of the students’ reflections on the Alice Project:

At first when this project was assigned I thought, “Mr. Long is crazy!!!” . . . I now see that one would have to put in the amount of time and effort to truly experience what this project was about.

Throughout the length of the Alice Project . . . I spent more and more time . . . refining my entries and making them valuable to myself, my group, and the rest of the world.

This was really out of my comfort zone, as in types of schoolwork. I don’t want an A just because I participated, but because I actually immersed myself into it and gave it my best shot, even though I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

The attention [our blog] drew really shocked me and allowed me to realize that we made an impact on [an] intellectual society. . . . Also, the quality of work and skill shown by my teammates surprised me. The difference between hearing them speak and seeing what they wrote was incredible. I was humbled by the extent of language skill they had. (Long, 2009)

By the time six weeks had passed, the sixty students collectively had produced 335,000 words and 779 multiparagraph blog entries, wrote 1,200 comments to each other, and received evaluative feedback from a global audience. (See the whole project at

Most tellingly, the students asked their teacher on the project’s completion, “How do we go back and do normal school now?”


Obviously not all blogging projects need to have the depth or complexity of the Alice Project, but any opportunities for blogging can be engaging and motivating. Blogs can facilitate inquiry and differentiated instruction by allowing students to explore and contribute to topics that interest them. Blogs support reflection in a public forum while students begin to consider issues such as audience, purpose, bias, and the reliability of information in the digital age.

There are many reasons to engage in blogging in a school setting. Here are some examples of educators’ blogging experiences:

  • Maria Knee, a kindergarten teacher at Deerfield Community School in Deerfield, New Hampshire, and winner of the 2008 Kay L. Bitter Vision Award for Excellence in Technology-Based PK–2 Education, uses a blog as an interactive showcase of her students’ work (
  • Dan Meyer, a high school math teacher and Google Fellow currently studying at Stanford University on a doctoral fellowship, uses his blog to bring transparency to his teaching practice (
  • Jim Gates, a retired Pennsylvania educator, uses his “Tipline” to share ways technology can enhance teaching and learning and examine the real purpose of schools (
  • Anne Smith, an English teacher from Arapahoe High School in Colorado, uses her class blog to post homework assignments, key events, and discussion questions ( This allows other teachers and administrators to visit her classroom to learn from and participate in her lessons. She has created a number of transparent learning experiences using blogs (, including inviting Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind (2006), to collaborate on a live blogging project.
  • Many instructional leaders are sharing their ideas and thoughts about education in a collaborative group blog by school leaders for school leaders. Hosted by Education Week, the LeaderTalk blog ( expresses the voice of the administrator and provides a great example of best practices by instructional leaders.


Although blogging comes with many educational benefits, it is not free from its share of issues, including legal concerns that may arise from students facing the public, educators’ sharing of their thoughts and practices, copyright issues, and exposure to or interactions with external actors. Many district acceptable use policies (AUPs) have not caught up with the tools that are being used in schools, so it is important that guidelines are clearly set and modeled. Here are some places that you can start to look for resources.

In 2005 Bud Hunt, an instructional technologist for the St. Vrain Valley School District in northern Colorado, started a wiki to provide educators with a collaborative forum for developing guidelines for their blogging practices ( The space includes sample AUPs that can be revised for different levels. Many blogging educators use Arapahoe (Colorado) High School’s blogging policy (, which describes safe and responsible blogging as well as the traits of successful bloggers to help define general guidelines for the use of blogs. In addition, David Warlick offers an impressive collection of resources for developing schoolwide AUPs ( It is important to remember that rules and regulations in online communications are just as important as classroom rules and procedures.


Many teachers have discovered the value of classroom blogging as a way to engage students and demonstrate learning in new and transparent ways. Leading in the twenty-first century requires an understanding of the benefits and risks of tools such as blogs. Supporting blogging is one way to provide students with the guidance necessary to use these tools safely, effectively, and ethically.


Carroll, L. (2008). Alice’s adventures in wonderland (p. 33). (Original work published 1865) Retrieved from–pdf.pdf

Hargadon, S. (2009, August 14). Support blogging! Retrieved from

Long, C. (2009, December 8). Alice project blogs. Retrieved from

Pink, D. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York: Riverhead Books.

Warlick, D. (2007, June 20). Warlick’s colearners. Retrieved from