Creating a digital leaders initiative in your school

Written by: Sal McKeown | Published:
Photo: iStock

Digital leader programmes are becoming increasingly popular in schools. Sal McKeown looks at what resources and support are out there and how digital leaders can be introduced


Teachers often wish they had an extra pair of hands, especially when they find the keyboard has shed some of its letters, a student can't find the app they need on their tablet, and the printer is on the blink.

There is now an approach being employed by many schools to give teachers that extra help. It is called the digital leaders programme and offers many advantages to the school, the learners and to the wider community.

Students selected as digital leaders can help to embed the use of technology across the school. They attend regular meetings, support other pupils, teach members of staff, run assemblies and other whole-school events and lead on improvements in e-safety provision. It is a very high-profile and challenging role and it can work in many different ways.

Simon Johnson teaches ICT and computing at Highfields School in Wolverhampton. Last September, he started a digital leaders scheme to develop ICT skills and, equally importantly, to hand a large measure of power to the students.
There are just eight digital leaders to 1,500 students but Mr Johnson is optimistic about their impact: "Small action x lots of people = big change," he told SecEd.

Schools have made a considerable investment in technology, from interactive whiteboards and laptops to tablets and 3D printers. However, staff skills, and more importantly their confidence, are sometimes patchy. Some staff embrace technology wholeheartedly while others are late adopters so schools may find that they have pockets of innovation but not the wholesale change they are looking for.

As such, Mr Johnson believes that digital leaders are an essential element to any successful whole-school digital learning strategy. He credits three people in particular for helping him to get started:

  • ICT evangelist Mark Anderson, who he met via Twitter (@ICTEvangelist).
  • Sheli Blackburn, deputy head of a Norfolk primary who has delivered keynotes at conferences (@shellibb).
  • Chris Sharples from Lady Lumley School in Yorkshire (@gr8ict).

The trio have created the Digital Leader Network Blog and Ms Blackburn has been the backbone behind Digital Leader Chat (#dlchat) on Twitter from 9pm every Thursday.

Mr Anderson was the starting point and he had already developed a framework and produced a presentation which Mr Johnson adapted for assembly.

Most importantly Mr Anderson had mapped what digital leaders could look like and documented exactly what they could offer the students and the school.

In his ICTEvangelist blog (see further information) he recalls his first ever "trial" digital leader: "An ex-student from my vertical tutor group, let's call her Fred; she was a maverick. Earning house points all over the place for helping teachers with their Web 2.0 and other EdTech woes. On top of an already very busy extra-curricular workload, she helped me to see first-hand how successful digital leaders could be."

Ms Blackburn, meanwhile, works in the primary sector but her blog and presentations have opened Mr Johnson's eyes to new possibilities so now the Highfields digital leaders will be working with feeder schools, particularly on a project called Re-Boot to help pupils through the transition process.

Mr Sharples is head of ICT at Lady Lumley's School in Pickering, North Yorkshire. He is in his fourth year of implementing digital leaders in his own school as well as at the neighbouring Pickering Community Junior School.

Lumley's digital leaders have run assemblies for Safer Internet Day, published the school newspaper and worked with a Polish school to prepare a conference in Warsaw.

They also help in practical ways. They wrote online tutorials for a range of software and then trained staff during INSET day at the start of term. They provide support in lessons while gathering evidence for their Level 2 Creator and Educator badges (the badge system has become popular among digital leader and other initiatives as a way to recognise skills and achievements – see further information).

Highfields School has benefited from the badging system developed by Digitalme. This offers nine badges at Levels 1, 2 and 3. These cover different roles such as reporter, presenter and technician.

To be a first level presenter students have to present to a class, at second level to the school and at third level they present at an external event such as the Education Show, where Highfields presented earlier this year.
The badge system gives them ownership and a structure for gaining skills, but they still have the freedom to choose their own role. This has proved popular at Highfields and now the students have asked for real badges to attach to their blazers.

Some schools have adapted digital leaders and taken it in a different direction. Bishop Challoner Catholic College in Birmingham has one device per student. When the insurance for the devices became untenable it put the scheme at risk. However, Toshiba trained the network team and then went on to train 10 sixth-formers to maintain the equipment and do repairs under warranty.

This has proved to be very popular. In the latest round there are 45 applications for 10 places. Toshiba gives them the two-day face-to-face training course followed by an online assessment which gives them a certificate. They are accredited to maintain devices both in and out of warranty.

Daniel Perkin, education business development lead for Toshiba UK, said: "Five schools have gone down this route. It has proved to be very successful. Three of the students from Bishop Challoner have now got places on the computer science course at Warwick University."

Back at Highfields, Mr Johnson is keen to maintain momentum for the digital leaders programme and has set up a project for each half-term. The first half-term they worked with local businesses through the chamber of commerce and in the second half-term a group of digital leaders worked with the feeder schools on Scratch. Students have also run a session with governors advising them about some of the issues and benefits of bring your own device (BYOD).

In the next phase the current group of digital leaders will present to students, create a shortlist and manage the training. The scheme will no longer depend on teachers for its impetus.

"There are only so many hours in a day. We have to step back and facilitate, rather than taking control," said Mr Johnson. "It is more effective to train digital leaders than to train staff. The students are proud of what they do and we are proud of them."

What can digital leaders do?

  • Support staff and students with the use of technology.
  • Promote e-safety.
  • Report to school governors.
  • Trial and evaluate new equipment and services.
  • Improve their understanding of technology.
  • Share their knowledge and skills with others.
  • Act as e-ambassadors.
  • Write online tutorials for a range of software.
  • Provide in-class support to teachers.
  • Work with local small businesses that need help with websites and social media.
  • Write instructions for different pieces of software or apps.
  • Speak at local and national events.
  • Run an after-school computer club.
  • Work with feeder primary schools.
  • Work with digital leaders from other schools.
  • Sal McKeown is an education writer specialising in SEN and technology.

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