«VIRTUAL K-12 LEADERSHIP: A POSTMODERN PARADIGM by Tommy N. Tucker A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of The College of Education In Partial ...»
The work of an intellectual is not to mold the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play). (Foucault, 1989, pp. 305-306) The purpose of this study has been to answer the question “Is virtual K-12 leadership the same as traditional K-12 leadership?” Through the mechanisms of a modified Delphi procedure and targeted interviews, teachers and leaders of virtual K-12 programs and researchers engaged in research of virtual K-12 schools were asked a variety of questions to probe the similarities and differences between leadership in these domains. In other words, are the qualities, characteristics, and necessary skillsets of good leaders always the same, regardless of context?
These questions are important. As virtual K-12 education continues to grow and occupy a larger position in the K-12 educational landscape, the question of leadership competencies for virtual leaders becomes increasingly relevant. Diamond and Pisapia (2009) suggest that virtual K-12 leaders “must be informed and prepared with strategic plans equal to the foreseeable challenges they will encounter” (p. 12).
If “leadership is leadership,” then the pool of candidates for virtual leadership is the same pool of leaders available for traditional K-12 service. On the other hand, if the contextual differences of virtual K-12 education require a unique skillset and mindset for successful leadership, then identifying those unique qualities is critical to preparing and recruiting successful leaders for virtual schools.
Virtual K-12 Leadership Today This study provides insight into the similarities and differences between traditional K-12 leadership and virtual K-12 leadership, as it is currently practiced. Some research on the possible efficacy of transformational leadership practices in combination with instructional leadership practices was presented. The actual efficacy of these practices in the virtual context is left to future research to examine.
This study has revealed comparative aspects of virtual K-12 leadership as it is today. Using a Delphi survey, a semantic differential survey, and practitioner interviews, a number of differences and similarities with traditional K-12 leadership were revealed.
Table 4.14 gives a summary of these findings from the three rounds of this study, organized by research question.
Limitations The most significant limitation of this study is that the rapid pace of development in the area of virtual K-12 education creates a greater likelihood that recent innovative research and practices may have been omitted and, therefore, not considered. Another significant limitation encountered was that varied organizational structures, job responsibilities, and inconsistent titles may have affected the consistency of the virtual Kleader sample. Other potential limitations concerning the Delphi-implementation and the postmodern search for dissensus (enumerated in chapter three) are thought to be less significant to the findings of the study.
Ten Rules of Virtual Leadership The role of virtual K-12 education leadership is currently defined largely in terms of the traditional K-12 educational paradigm. As noted in the researcher participant interview, there is certainly some degree of overlap in the expected skillsets and inclinations of leaders in both settings. The following ten “rules” of virtual leadership reflect the current expectations and observations reported by participants in this study.
1. Virtual leadership requires skillful, proactive communication.
2. Virtual leadership demands superior technological proficiency.
3. Virtual leadership must be innovative.
4. Virtual leadership requires flexibility.
5. Virtual leadership must accept the authenticity of virtual relationships.
6. Virtual leadership demands a virtual presence.
7. Virtual leadership is a collaborative endeavor.
8. Virtual leadership understands the contextual differences of working virtually.
9. Virtual leadership must promote & participate in continual professional
10. Virtual leadership requires virtual work experience.
Context is the Key Context is a multi-layered concept in this study. There are some obvious contextual differences leading in the online digital domain versus the traditional schoolhouse. In many cases, virtual teachers and leaders are not co-located, with teachers working from remote locations such as home-based offices or traditional classrooms during afterschool hours. This lack of physical proximity limits face-to-face contact between coworkers or direct contact with leadership to periodic (and often infrequent) meetings. The asynchronous nature of most virtual classes creates another barrier to communication, since leaders’ and teachers’ working hours may not overlap. This lack of face-to-face communication was the most mentioned issue differentiating leadership in the virtual domain.
There are contextual differences associated with school sponsorship. District virtual schools are organized and operated by the traditional school districts, and are typically populated with teachers and leaders drawn from other parts of the district, usually from traditional classrooms and schools. These leaders often reference the deficiencies of virtual K-12 compared to the traditional alternative. Charter virtual schools are often more entrepreneurial in nature, and typically draw their leadership from business or less traditional educational circles. These leaders are typically more driven by the business side of the enterprise, struggling to maintain enrollments. State virtual schools are also different, often operating as consultancies and content providers for other virtual schools, usually drawing from a larger candidate pool when establishing leadership.
There are also contextual differences in the way students experience virtual education. There are students that take their online classes from home and other remote locations, as independent learners. Maintaining adequate oversight and engagement with these students presents unique challenges for virtual leaders. Other students take their classes in a school-based computer lab, with or without the assistance of a supervisory adult. Coordinating student oversight with the host schools and monitoring these students offers a different set of challenges for virtual leaders. Still other students take courses in a blended fashion, mixing periodic online instruction with periodic onsite classroom instruction. In these cases, the activities of traditional teachers and administrators as well as virtual teachers must be coordinated.
There are a variety of contextual differences in leadership experienced between traditional and virtual leaders, as well as those differences occurring for virtual leaders based on sponsoring institution and delivery setting. As mentioned in chapter two, “context not only matters but also is a part of the construct being studied” (Avolio & Kahai, 2003b, p. 53). The data from this study confirms that these differing contexts create complexities requiring a different skillset for successful virtual K-12 leaders than their traditional counterparts.
Discussion Is virtual K-12 leadership the same as traditional K-12 leadership? As with many questions in life, the answer seen depends upon the vantage point of the observer. The degree of similarities and differences noted between these leaders in this study varies, based on the context within which the leader serves, as noted in the previous section.
From the vantage point of the researcher, the data collected for this study does not support finding any difference in leadership between traditional and virtual K-12 leadership, as leadership is typically understood. Table 4.13 summarizes the skillsets, attributes, and dispositions that differ and those shared, based on the data collected.
It is clear that the old narrative of “how school is done” has been carried forward into the virtual domain, particularly in the district-sponsored schools. “Students” still occupy “classrooms.” Administrators do “virtual classroom walkthroughs.” Classes still group students by “grade levels”, which are still organized by age groups. As Lyotard (1979) noted, decision makers in the traditional (modern) system of education attempt to manage educational systems in a manner that consolidates their power, optimizing the overall system’s performance, supporting the familiar “grand narratives”, while marginalizing local differences and peculiarities. This is the antithesis of Lyotard’s (1979) definition of postmodernity, which he defines as “incredulity toward metanarratives” (p. xxiv). In Lyotard’s (1979) vision of the future, these metanarratives are broken into smaller narratives, giving rise to smaller institutions and local determinism.
It is also clear from the data some programs have been commandeered by corporate interests and technologists. “Pass/fail” rates are the paramount concern for some of these programs. Student achievement has taken a backseat to program enrollments.
In the absence of effective leadership, the promise of virtual education has failed to materialize so far. The dominant discourses of traditional K-12 education and corporate capitalism have left little room for an effective narrative to develop around virtual K-12 education. The power of the hegemonic narrative developed over more than 130 years of public K-12 education in this country has not yet been overcome. As seen through the lens of postmodernism, there is an overarching narrative that attempts to explain all of K-12 education, leaving little or no room for alternative visions of the future of virtual K-12 education.
In this “carried forward” environment, we may only speculate as to a postmodern vision of virtual K-12 leadership based on Lyotard’s (1979) warnings of the consolidation of power which marginalizes dissensus or local differences. One possibility for real change to emerge in virtual education is to focus on context as a constituent aspect rather than as external variables of technology alone. Leadership is mediated by technology and virtual K-12 infrastructures such that new and creative ideas emerge inside or out from the dominant paradigms controlled by those in power (e.g., state and district decisionmakers who conduct business with corporations such as Pearson and K12, Inc.).
Evidence for such possibilities are beyond the empirical findings from this study. This new virtual leadership promise will now be presented metaphorically and then as virtual leadership by design.
A New Metaphor for Virtual Leadership The story of Apple Computer’s evolution provides a useful metaphor for transforming the practice of virtual education. It also provides a new, postmodern model for leadership to guide virtual education into its full potential as an innovative 21st century educational environment.
The Apple story is one of strategic paradigm shifting. Steven Jobs, the co-founder and driving force behind Apple Computers until his death in 2011, was often credited with many of the critical design decisions that led to Apple’s success. One of his most shrewd and successful traits was the ability to shift paradigms. Creating the iPod and iTunes in the face of massive resistance from the established music industry was one such move. Redefining the role and nature of mobile phones with the iPhone was another.
Finally, when Apple seemed destined to lose the war for market share in the PC business, Jobs changed the paradigm again, creating the iPad and redefining the nature of personal computing.
But there was an earlier time, in the initial days of Apple, when Jobs made an even more fundamental contribution. In 1984, Jobs introduced the first mass-marketed computer with a Graphical User Interface (GUI) – the MacIntosh (Shelly et al., 2006, p.
50). In this new digital realm, common visual metaphors were used to make the strange world of computers more familiar to the uninitiated. Tabbed manila folders were used as the visual metaphor for grouping a collection of data files. A picture of a trashcan became the symbolic resting place for deleted files. Text files were constructed in software that portrayed the environment as a notepad. Beveled and shadowed “buttons” were used to actuate various functions within software programs. Each of these visual cues served a purpose of making the unfamiliar digital landscape more familiar, using representations of familiar physical objects to serve as cues.
None of these concepts were invented by Jobs. Most of the early conceptual work on GUIs was done by scientists for the XEROX corporation at their Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) lab (Hartman, 2011). Jobs was simply an early adopter and techevangelist that saw the potential of this graphical interface to bring computing to the masses of potential users. It was this concept of a graphical, metaphorical interface for users that created the successful company that Apple has become.
Fast-forward to 2013. In the post-Jobs era, Apple has made the conscious and well-publicized decision to move in another direction, away from the heavy reliance on real-world ornamentation for their digital domain. This discussion in the media has surfaced the concept of skeuomorphism as a central talking point. The term skeuomorph was originally coined to refer to an ornamental design derived from the structure of an earlier form of an object (March, 1890). In the world of physical objects it represents an element or aspect of an object that is now ornamental in nature, though in some earlier iteration of the object served a functional purpose. The term was co-opted in the world of computers to indicate visual metaphors or ornamentation used to create a sense of familiarity within the digital domain for software constructs that do not require the ornamentation as a matter of functionality. The extreme to which skeuomorphism was taken at Apple was seen in the depictions of leather trim on the iCal calendar application, or the green-felt table surface depicted in their game center application. This was the apex of a transitional stage in computer operating system methodology.