«VIRTUAL K-12 LEADERSHIP: A POSTMODERN PARADIGM by Tommy N. Tucker A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of The College of Education In Partial ...»
Lessons for virtual leadership can be found in Apple’s recent transformation.
Under the current leadership of chief designer Jony Ive, a newer, postmodern aesthetic is
emerging. In an interview with USA Today (2013), Ive said:
When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn't need physical buttons, they understood the benefits, so there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way.
There is a lesson in Apple’s story for those leading virtual K-12 education. This study finds virtual educators at a similar transitional stage as Apple in the post-Jobs era.
Many of the paradigms and metaphors used in talking about virtual K-12 education are based on physical features found in the traditional K-12 environment. Classrooms, desks, blackboards, whiteboards, even textbooks, libraries, and principals are metaphors that may serve to constrain virtual K-12 education to conformity with norms and paradigms that limit it. These skeuomorphic elements of virtual education may fail to recognize the capacity of this generation of students, who have grown up as digital natives, to accept virtual K-12 education as an authentic experience, uniquely digital, with no need for the traditional brick and mortar metaphors which may only serve to limit it from reaching its full potential.
The current paradigm of K-12 education is more than 130 years old and drawn from the factory paradigm of the 19th century. It is struggling to maintain relevance in the 21st century. Teachers and administrators are searching for ways to remain relevant and effective for today’s students. The postmodern imperative for smaller, locally relevant narratives that meet students’ educational needs demands a change in the educational status quo (Jenkins, 2007; Zigurs, 2003). It seems ineffective at best to drag those concepts and paradigms into the digital domain of virtual K-12 education simply to retain a sense of familiarity within the new environment (Fishman, 2010; Levy, 1997).
For the first generation of leaders and teachers, this might have been a necessary concession to assist their transition to the digital environment. Virtual K-12 education is largely an asynchronous process, creating a facsimile of one-on-one connection between the instructor and each student. Interaction between students can be accommodated on a global scale. The concept of organizing classes, with specific students assigned to specific teachers for a specific period of time is an unnecessarily restrictive organizational structure. Current learning management system (LMS) platforms continue to promote this traditional organizational paradigm, stifling the opportunities for newer, more creative options. As the virtual educational landscape matures and becomes a more accepted part of the educational landscape, perhaps it makes more sense to break with tradition and conventional wisdom and create newer, more relevant paradigms. This is the current challenge at hand for virtual educational leadership.
It was posited earlier that if virtual leadership is a new beginning or a discontinuity of existing theory then it suggests the need for new theories of leadership for virtual education rather than attempting to force the old theories of traditional K-12 to explain new and different phenomena. It is clear that many of the hegemonic narratives of leadership are still informing the practice of leadership within the context of virtual education. Old habits and mindsets are alive and well. There is also some recognition among virtual educators that smaller, local narratives are providing alternatives to these older leadership paradigms. It is up to the next generation of virtual leaders, educational researchers, and colleges of education to develop new theories of virtual leadership that will empower virtual leaders to successfully lead virtual educators in the twenty-first century.
Emerging Virtual Leadership The current cast of virtual leaders and teachers are largely drawn from the pool of traditional school leaders and teachers. They continue to see the educational process in terms of their traditional K-12 experiences. It may require another generation of leaders and teachers, born and raised as digital natives, untainted by prior experience in the traditional school paradigm, to realize the full potential of virtual K-12 education.
Diamond and Pisapia (2009) note “leaders of a virtual high school must focus on influencing people, changing mindsets, and maneuvering the economic, political, and ethical minefields associated with spearheading this technology innovation” (p. 11).
Based on the findings of this study, this leadership is most likely to be found within the state virtual schools. These schools are less bound to traditional educational paradigms than district virtual schools. Since their origins are in virtual K-12 education, they have less institutional inertia binding them to the traditional paradigms. They also appear to be better situated for this role than many charter virtual schools, which often find themselves preoccupied with maintaining enrollments and struggling to remain financially viable, due to their funding model. Though charter school leaders are more generally focused on the technological infrastructure than leaders of the other school types, it will take more than superior technological focus to make this radical, postmodern paradigm shift.
Postmodern Virtual Leadership by Design The most consistent theme in the study data is the need for technological proficiency in virtual K-12 leadership. If virtual K-12 education is to reach its potential and create a new postmodern platform for education in the 21st century, it will require leadership with the same type of talents and mindset as Apple’s Jony Ive. Design-based research offers a means to “engineer innovative educational environments” (Brown, 1992). This research is done using design-based methodologies in which researchers work closely with teachers and students to design, develop, implement, and evaluate an innovation in its natural setting (Brown, 1992).
Virtual K-12 education is built largely on a web-based digital infrastructure. The design details of these complex systems are critical to the work and success of students, teachers, and administrators. This infrastructure is the primary contextual factor that determines how all of the participants interact, how instruction occurs, and how these interactions are observed and monitored. The design of this environment and its functionality is both a technical task and an application of methodology and pedagogy (McLeod, 2011). If it is to adequately meet the needs of all of the virtual constituents, it requires the intimate involvement of virtual K-12 leadership in both its design and implementation. Zigurs (2003) notes “Virtual teams need better software tools that provide seamless process structuring, and leaders need to learn to work with such tools and help implement them within their teams” (p. 346). Zigurs (2003) suggests that virtual
leaders can and should:
create rich and satisfying environments through software that supplements and even replaces some of the roles that team members need to fill. The implications are significant for leadership roles in teams and the interplay of technology with
Sustainability and scalability of cognitively oriented technology innovations is a critical factor for any successful leadership research initiatives (Fishman, Marx, Blumenfeld, Krajcik, & Soloway, 2004). This research has confirmed that context is a critical issue affecting virtual leadership. Design-based research offers the best alternative for developing contextual solutions “producing new theories, artifacts, and practices that account for and potentially impact learning and teaching in naturalistic settings” (Barab & Squire, 2004, p. 2).
Modern Paradigms and a Postmodern Promise Lyotard’s (1979) skepticism of metanarratives, as discussed in chapter one, raises questions about whether there should be a single leadership paradigm, with incremental reforms, applied equally to leadership in both the traditional face-to-face and virtual K-12 contexts. This study highlights the ever-present tensions created by modern and postmodern conditions, between the “what is” and the “what should be.” From a modern perspective, the tensions are to be resolved by evidence and consensus. From a postmodern perspective, the tensions themselves are the reality in which leadership must function. The findings from this study speak to the current “state of the art” of virtual Kleadership as an emerging paradigm meant to challenge today’s dominant theories of leadership. This study lends credence to Baudrillard’s (1994) concept of the “precession of simulacra.” That is, virtual education and virtual leadership are indeed forms of “simulated reality” that exist within a digitally mediated context for its constituents. The findings reveal how school leaders and teachers simulate their realities as extensions of their traditional K-12 experiences. Thus, school leaders conduct “virtual walkthroughs” of “virtual classrooms,” attempting to assess teacher effectiveness and student engagement as if classrooms were somehow the relevant unit of analysis and reform construct. Others in the virtual domain, however, advocate a new paradigm grounded in different software platforms that would allow virtual K-12 education to evolve, becoming something more, something different, than its traditional counterpart. Baudrillard (1994) refers to this latter experience as the “hyperreal”, a simulation without a referential source, thus becoming its own “real” without origin in the physical world. Deleuze (1994) might see this as a positive development, as an act that challenges the privileged position of traditional K-12 and its incumbent models of leadership. Modernity drives us to think in terms of a continuum, with its implicit belief in “progress.” This study has searched for a break in that continuum of modernity, seeking to find a postmodern promise in the interplay within the world of virtual K-12 education.
For only a few, that break is a certainty in the minds of virtual leaders, who have a sense of virtual K-12 education’s possibilities as something new and different in both practices and theories. For most virtual K-12 leaders in this study, the old paradigms of leading and conducting school have simply been brought forward from their previous domain (traditional K-12) into their roles as virtual K-12 leaders.
Despite the findings of this study that there are no significant differences in leadership between virtual and traditional K-12 leaders, this researcher finds hopeful signs that changes in virtual K-12 leadership can and will happen in unexpected ways in the foreseeable future. The speed with which new and novel ideas can be disseminated and adopted in the virtual world of the Internet is breathtaking. As educators and technologists continue to dream and collaborate, as new and innovative infrastructural elements are designed for virtual education, as a new generation of digital natives assume leadership positions in the virtual K-12 domain, a sudden and positive paradigm change becomes a likely postmodern possibility.
Recommendations for Further Research The domain of virtual K-12 education is still in its nascent stage, searching for its role in the K-12 educational landscape. Leaders of these virtual schools spend much of their time seeking to legitimize their existence as institutions to their various constituencies, marketing their services to increase enrollments, and struggling with maintaining and troubleshooting the technological infrastructure for their schools. Their communications with students, parents, and staff are often constrained by distance, limiting the face-to-face contact available in traditional schools.
Clearly, a unique skillset is demanded of virtual K-12 leaders. A combination of technological expertise, educational leadership skills, and specialized communication skills is required for successfully leading in the virtual environment. There are few (if any) programs that currently address this integrated skillset in a programmatic way. As noted earlier, “the attention that we pay to technology-related leadership issues is nearly nonexistent” (McLeod, 2003, p. 3). This is an opportunity for meaningful research to provide guidance for universities, colleges, and other institutions of higher learning in developing programs and courses for current and future virtual leaders.
The importance of developing a uniquely digital virtual pedagogy cannot be overstated. If the postmodern paradigm is to be applied to the practice of virtual K-12 education, then much work remains to be done to replace the traditional, factory paradigm of education with a 21st century virtual alternative. Action research into new models for delivering instruction virtually, addressing the software tools, infrastructural elements, and instructional methods that best foster student achievement is another opportunity for productive research to inform the practice of virtual leadership. This
researcher is in complete agreement with Bell and Kozlowski (2002) when they suggest:
Future theory and research efforts should also explore the operational issues surrounding leadership in virtual team environments. For example, organizations or virtual team leaders will need to create infrastructures that facilitate information sharing, work planning and assignment allocation, feedback and review, information processing, decision making, and dispute adjudication. It is important for future research to focus attention on understanding how virtual team leaders design and implement these and other management systems. (p. 44) As suggested by the university-based researcher participant during the interview, virtual schools should open their doors to allow more researchers in to learn and to help virtual education move forward. They should be open to providing more mentoring opportunities, bringing in the next generation of leaders. As many students in traditional programs take at least one course online, opportunities for traditional leaders to shadow virtual leaders to see virtual K-12 from the inside would build bridges and connections between these institutions.