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Digital Leaders – student leadership by action, not voice

Empowering students in positions of responsibility, in relation to technology, provides assistance and solutions to many of the problems that schools face in the digital age, writes Nick Jackson.

As we move closer to positioning digital technology as an effective teaching and learning tool, there is an ever-increasing pressure for schools to increase their IT provision and for teachers to increase their skills using technology. Year-on-year, most of the students that enter our schools seem to have been exposed to digital technology from a younger age. The majority of young people have access to laptops, tablets and smart phones and are familiar with making these devices work for them on a social level. Students are required to become digitally literate to meet the demands of their school.

Empowering students in positions of responsibility, in relation to technology, provides assistance and solutions to many of the problems that schools face in the digital age. Digital Leaders are simply students chosen for positions of responsibility that can help schools and students improve their use of technology. This is a very broad definition, but it is the flexibility of Digital Leader schemes which allows schools to deploy students in roles that will best address issues of technology integration in their learning environments.

But who exactly are Digital Leaders?

Often selected through an in-school application process, Digital Leaders are students who want to get involved with increasingly using technology to enhance their own education and those of the whole school community. Usually, they are students who have an interest in using technology, some confidence in use of software tools and/or a desire learn to more about the use of technology for learning.

It is often assumed that Digital Leaders are the ‘computer geeks’, the nerds, the programmers or ‘hardcore’ gamers but that is often not the case. Groups of Digital Leaders are usually made up of a mix of different personalities and in many instances this diversity is encouraged as it is more likely that there will be skills to cater for a variety of projects and situations.

So, what do Digital Leaders get involved in?

Some schools set up Digital Leaders for prescribed purposes. Often, primary schools operate in this way. A school may, for example, have Digital Leaders who perform routine checks on equipment, reporting faults to technicians or even fixing problems. This can be a great assistance where technical support is limited or only part-time. Also on the technical side, there are schools who have students working with their technical support staff. This can take the form of a separate Student Helpdesk or programs more akin to apprenticeship models.

Other schools have Digital Leaders that work more closely with teachers and students. These students can be seen in ‘guide-on-the-side’ roles, assisting students and/or teachers in classrooms with using technology. This allows the teacher to focus on the subject content rather than on ensuring the digital tools chosen for a task can be used efficiently by students in the class. In more comprehensive versions of teacher assistance, Digital Leaders can be involved in staff training, demonstrating use of technology or assisting staff when schools are integrating new/updated systems. This can also lead to parent training sessions around the use of technology.

Digital Leaders are often a great asset with whole-school events, promotion and can be used in community work. This can be in an online form or with media for example: designing websites, blogs, school apps, newsletters, video tours of the school. Yet, Digital Leaders can work well when being a part of events such as assemblies, open days, school expos, parent’s evening, or sports days. During such events, their roles can be technical, presenting or assisting. Just as there a multitude of ways technology plays a part in our lives, Digital Leaders can play a part in utilising digital tools to enhance what a school does.

On a larger scale, Digital Leaders can play an important role in gaining an insight into the effectiveness and issues around IT provision in a school. They can be involved in strategy, testing and decision making. Such a role does not have to be confined to hardware and software though. Digital Leaders can be deployed in planning around curriculum development particularly where the curriculum is heavily dependent on having knowledge of digital technology.

My experiences with Digital Leaders

My current Digital Leader group is made up of six Year 10 boys and four Year 9 girls. They are a real mix of personalities with different skill sets and interests. I meet with them once a week during lunch time and despite only being together for less than a year, they have already been involved in a variety of projects in and out of school. Being able to offer a variety of opportunities for the group comes from my own and shared experiences I have had working with Digital Leaders schemes.

I first set up a Digital Leaders scheme about three to four years ago while teaching in the UK. I initially saw the impact of empowering young people when working as a Youth worker in the 1990s prior to training as a teacher. Working on the streets, often with disaffected young people, opened my eyes to what can be achieved when they are given power and authority. I have retained that same passion for empowering young people as I have developed as an educator.

When I recruited students in my first foray with Digital Leaders, I had no idea what I wanted them to do really, or where I wanted it to lead. I was inspired by Kristian Still and Dan Stucke who had championed the concept on Twitter. I got in touch with them, asking for their advice and insight. The information from those connections gave me the confidence to introduce Digital Leaders into my school.

Having done a little promotion via posters and assemblies, I asked for students to apply insisting they show interest in technology by providing an application using digital tools of their choosing. A Year 7 boy provided an application that was in Morse Code! It even translated perfectly into English. He became a Digital Leader with five other boys and two girls from various year groups. At first, their roles seemed trivial until a breakthrough moment came in the school when a Government inspection prompted ideas to improve pedagogical standards in the school. One idea mooted was to video those teachers seen as outstanding as they teach. These videos could then be used in professional development sessions across the school. I had just the people to do the videoing – the Digital Leaders.

Their status among the staff in the school soared as a result of this video project. They worked side-by-side with teachers filming them in lessons but, more importantly, editing the videos to highlight areas of best practice. This led to many roles in the school such as assisting teachers in lessons and providing IT training to trainee teachers. The Digital Leaders began to attract attention from other areas of education which saw them in online projects with Microsoft, presenting at conferences and even live on stage talking about their exploits to Royalty.

None of this was planned in the beginning and where the concepts originated from depended on the projects in question. Sometimes, I thought up ideas, other times it came from them or from other people in education I introduced them to. Before I left the UK, the Digital Leaders decided to organise their own TeachMeet. This was organised from start to finish by the Digital Leaders with students presenting from various schools, over a hundred teachers in the audience, fully catered and live streamed around the world. The satisfaction I felt in seeing their efforts manifest into such a wonderful event and the praise that was lavished on them, was a defining moment in my career. I knew that having students in Digital Leaders was a vital part of a school who was serious about advancing technology enhanced education practice and that involving young people in education reform has great potential.

Digital Leaders in Australia

Before arriving in Australia, I knew, via social media, that there were already a few schools who had versions of Digital Leaders deployed in their schools. Despite working in Higher Education at the time, I worked hard at connecting with these schools and setting up new schemes mainly via my website There are, at present, in excess of 20 schools who have Digital Leaders that I know about and I am sure there are others who are empowering students with technology in similar ways that I am not connected with.

Again, work with Digital Leaders I set up in various schools, produced an eclectic mix of projects. One example that comes to mind was last year when I organised nineteen Digital Leaders from Wirreanda High School in Adelaide to be a key part of the National ACEC conference. They provided a backchannel and media roles throughout the conference. Many delegates commented on how significant their roles were in making the conference a success and what a difference they made to the event. I am sure this has influenced many other conference providers who seem to regularly involve students in similar ways.

Digital Leaders in my school

I made it clear from when I started working in my current role at Urrbrae Agricultural High School that I wanted Digital Leaders to play an important role in technology integration in the school. Rather than just use a recruitment process, as I had previously done, I advertised for interested students and also identified suitable students through my Media classes.

In less than a year, the Urrbrae Digital Leaders have already achieved so much. They have tested robotics equipment for use in our Tech Deck, built websites for teachers, helped with media events in assemblies, created ‘how to’ videos, assisted teachers and students in classroom activities involving technology and presented at another school. However, their greatest impact has come from two key projects:

Firstly, the Digital Leaders led workshops on a teacher training day, training all staff how to use Google Apps. As I had seen in previous work empowering students in such schemes, there is usually a point where teachers in a school see the true value of their Digital Leaders. This was that moment at Urrbrae. The praise from staff, the relationships and the quality of their training put these students in the spotlight in so many ways. From this, they began to be considered a major part of the school’s contemporary culture.

More recently, I brought together Digital Leaders from Urrbrae and two other schools in Adelaide – Wirreanda and Woodville High schools, to unpack Digital Citizenship. This involved over thirty students in a conference room at UniSA for two days, researching, debating, discussing and providing comprehensive plans for the teaching of this subject in their respective schools. My Digital Leaders presented these findings and a letter of recommendation to the Principal and leaders in the school. This is seriously impacting on methods and content for teaching Digital Citizenship at Urrbrae AHS and I know it is having similar impact for the other schools involved.

Future plans

As far as the Digital Leaders are concerned, they already have a busy agenda for the rest of the year with a follow up training and development session on Google Apps and the possibility of working with a feeder primary school on their expo day among projects in the pipeline. They are also putting together a Google Apps accreditation scheme for Year 8s in the school that will run in term 4. This is intended to not only improve the skills of more students across the school but inspire younger students in the school to become part of the Digital Leader group.

On a personal note, I am in the second year of a part-time PhD, focussing on the work and impact of Digital Leaders. This research, along with trying to expand, I see as an important part of the development of technology integration in schools. I want to further connect with Digital Leader groups across Australia and help anyone who wants to set up a scheme in their school. I envisage an online map of the country with hundreds of pins showing Digital Leader groups in schools in every state. I would also love to see students being deployed at a strategic level by schools, boards of education or even at a Federal level. Now, that really would be an eye opening example of student leadership by action not voice.

But what does it mean to the students?

Being in a Digital Leader group has helped me gain many skills. For instance, I have learnt teaching skills from when I trained teachers Google Apps. I learned how to communicate with them and different approaches to teach them. In order to teach the teachers how to use Google Apps, I also learned a lot about how to use the applications as I hadn’t used it much before. Now, I use Google Apps for a lot of my school work.

I have also gained better communication and listening skills, confidence and made new friends from being a part of a Digital Citizenship workshop. The workshop had a few other schools there with lots of other students like us who are interested in digital learning. In the workshop we shared ideas with each other and worked together to come up with different things. At the end of the two day workshops I had made lots of new friends, had gained confidence and lots more knowledge about digital citizenship.

By being a part of Digital Leaders, I’ve gained many new skills, such as teaching, confidence, using technology and working with others. As a Digital Leader, I have had the opportunity to run a workshop for teachers at our school. I started the day rather nervous about what was going to happen but left with new skills after teaching the teachers. I also developed teamwork and communication skills after working with fellow students from other schools to discover for ourselves what Digital Citizenship meant to us and our schools.

I think that one of the best things about being a Digital Leader is all the new experiences and opportunities that I would never have the chance to do otherwise. One of these experiences was when all the Digital Leaders and I spent a day teaching all the teachers at school about Google Apps for education. It gave us the chance to step up into the position of a teacher and gain important new skills, like how to help others understand something that they find hard, as well as just having a good time.

Another great thing I got to do was go to UniSA for two days and help design a new part of the school curriculum on Digital Citizenship. It was really good to have the chance to be a part of something like that and it was also good just to get the chance to work together with other students from different schools.

When I was asked to join the Digital Leaders program, I was unsure what to expect. After being part of the program for six months, I have had multiple experiences which have all been very valuable.

The first task I took part in was introducing Google Apps to the teachers. At the start of the day, I was very nervous about standing in front of a room of teachers. The role reversal was a very strange experience but I soon realised that people will quickly learn to respect someone if they display courage and a willingness to help. As soon as this became apparent I began to project my voice and earn the teachers attention. It also made me realise the importance of explaining things slowly, and in a calm manner, as many people don’t have the same knowledge that you might have. Not only has this helped me in public speaking and class presentations, but in my general life. It is also something I can put on my resume.

I have also earned the respect from many of the teachers who I taught in my class. The day after our Google Apps classes, I had numerous teachers come to me in the corridors and school yard to thank or congratulate me for my lessons the day prior. This boosted my self-confidence and relationships with teachers.

As well as personal development and respect from teachers, I needed to learn aspect of Google Apps I had never explored before. I now know how to make surveys and tests using Google Apps. It has even given me a better understanding of how to use spreadsheets.
Our ‘kids teaching teachers’ program is still continuing and we hope to have more follow up sessions so the teachers can realise the full potential of online and digital tools in an educational setting.

Nick Jackson is the Senior Leader for Quality Pedagogy & eLearning at Urrbrae Agricultural High School in Adelaide. He is committed to developing contemporary pedagogy and driving effective technology use in education. He is passionate about increasing the involvement of students in technology integration.

As well as his role at Urrbrae, Nick regularly tweets on education issues as @largerama, has a personal blog, runs a collaborative blog and a website for Digital Leaders. He even finds time to research for a PhD and frequently presents at education conferences.


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