________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 21. . . .February 6, 2015


The Digital Principal: How to Encourage a Technology-Rich Learning Environment That Meets the Needs of Teachers and Students.

Janette Hughes & Anne Burke.
Markham, ON: Pembroke, 2014.
157 pp., trade pbk.& pdf, $24.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55138-288-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55138-854-0 (pdf).

Subject Headings:
Educational leadership.
Educational innovations.
Educational technology.
Education-Data processing.
Internet in education.
Mass media in education.


Review by Denis Hlynka.


      First and last

     One doesn’t usually spend time in a review by examining the cover of the book, but, in this case, the cover does seem relevant. Front and centre is a large green apple which is not a MacIntosh, but almost certainly a Granny Smith. It is difficult to pass this image by without asking, “What are the implications of a Granny Smith apple? Is it merely an accident? Perhaps the authors wanted to show a Mac (the apple, that is) but somehow, got confused. Perhaps one is supposed to ignore the Granny Smith and focus simply on the fact that it is an Apple (of whatever type) and Apple is a significant computer brand name. Yet, what if the word granny in Granny Smith is meant to be the key image to be understood? Granny, we presume, is of an older generation and belongs to those who are not particularly familiar with the workings of computers. Are principals, like granny, of an older generation? If this is meant to be a mac that accidentally got hijacked, then why is there a computer mouse that is plugged in? Almost everyone knows that Macs seldom use the mouse any more. They have been using a pad for years. Or, in fact, is this semiotic analysis of the cover totally misguided. Perhaps the authors/publishers are simply using the classic metaphor of “an apple for the teacher” and this has nothing whatsoever to do with Apple computers. Perhaps covers simply exist and are not to be read into!

      There is also a back cover. The back cover bullets four areas to be highlighted in this book. The first bullet suggests that the book will feature online school profiles, in-house professional development and the use of social media in schools. The second bullet promises a focus on research, standards and assessment surveys. A third bullet “suggests practical ways to guide parents in monitoring their children’s online activities”. (This one sounds a little out of place, since the book title focuses on principals, not parents.) The final bullet promises a unit on cyber-bullying. (The promised cyber-bullying unit covers only four pages and is tucked away in the appendix).

      The back cover identifies that the authors are both Canadian. It is curious that neither seem to have had experience in actually being a principal of a school, despite the fact that this is a book ostensibly for principals! One author is identified as an “early” researcher with 18 years of teaching experience, while the other is identified as a “classroom-based researcher”. If either author has experience as a principal, that information is suppressed. These are teachers suggesting the role of a principal, not experienced principals who know both the challenges and constraints of his/her position. (Oddly, as well, one author is identified with “Dr.” in front of her name while the second author is identified as name only, but with “PhD” after the name. One wonders about lack of consistency.)


      The positives of the book are many. Highlights are the following: (1) The book is full of ideas that can provide the user with specific strategies. (2) The use of glosses in the margins helps to focus on details. (3) The subtitle says “how to encourage a technology-rich learning environment that meets the needs of students and teachers”, and the book seems to carry through on its “how to” promise. In a short 150 pages, the book is chock-full of guidelines, strategies, lesson ideas, background information, apps, and websites.

      A missed attempt to provide a Canadian focus

      Overall, the book seems at first glance to provide a reasonably consistent “Canadian” focus. Unfortunately, the Canadian dimension then seems to flounder. The deeper one gets into the text, the more an unfortunate unidentified intermixing of Canadian and American references seem to predominate. In addition, very little source material, if any, beyond Canada and the US is evident. (Of course, the authors might claim that they are aiming for a larger American audience, but if that’s the case, then the Canadian-only focus which does appear would seem to be seriously out of place.)

      There are only smatterings of references to the CBC, the Canada Safety Council, C21 (Shifting Minds), and various Canadian organizations. Often, the information is not quite complete enough. For example the C21 document is identified only by its initials, and not by its full name (Canadians for 21st Century Learning), nor its complete title, Shifting Minds: A 21st Century Vision for Public Education in Canada (2012). Missing is its detailed guidelines specifically for the school principal (pages 12-13), as well as its online reference (www.c21canada.org). On the other hand, a clearly biased industry document from the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) is cited and referenced in a sidebar and is identified in Chapter One as a foundational reference document. In fact, however, the SIIA is an American-based association with the avowed mission to “promote the industry; protect the industry; inform the industry.” Surely, there should be no difficulty understanding that the people who make a given technology are the ones who are most supportive that their technology should be used as widely as possible. The SIIA is composed of marketers whose job is to promote their products. Further, the authors of The Digital Principal seem to be satisfied (page 6) that the SIIA research report based on a mere 311 “research reviews and reports” is sufficient justification for integration of the digital emerging technologies.

      In like manner, the updated Canadian copyright laws are presented here, though it is not quite made clear what Canadian teachers can do legally, within the copyright regulations. For example, can a teacher legally purchase a DVD of a current first-run movie and show it in class? Should a principal support such activity?

      Notwithstanding an attempted Canadian focus, Chapter One then chooses the American based International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) as a foundational theoretic underpinning to the book. (See pages 12-14.) The chapter draws attention to the ISTE based standards. ISTE has developed four sets of standards (previously called National Educational Technology Standards or NETS) for teachers, for students, for administrators, and most recently, for coaches. This book, The Digital Principal references only two of the four, administrators and teachers. (A new fifth set of ISTE standards is aimed at computer-science teachers.)

      A major omission is any reference to the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB has led the way since its creation in 1939 as first in documentary film, first in educational support, first in community media, and first in a kind of social media before the idea of social media even existed. The NFB today is moving into new technologies and continuing its mandate to serve Canada and Canadians. Its omission in this book is a significant oversight to educational technology in Canada.

      Likewise, the significant work of the Ontario-based Media Awareness Network (now called Media Smarts) does not appear in the index at all.

      What is digital citizenship?

      Digital citizenship is one of those ubiquitous buzz words that supposedly can only mean something positive. An entire chapter is devoted to “digital citizenship.” That chapter begins with a simple definition that says digital citizenship is “learning to use technology in an appropriate manner.” A good start, but that implies that every subject on the face of the earth must have a “citizenship” component. Yet we don’t really talk about food citizenship, recycling citizenship, television citizenship, Facebook citizenship, political citizenship, etc. even though these ideas may make sense. So what is special about digital citizenship? What does the digital encompass? Page 103 gives an answer in a sidebar: “Digital citizenship involves the appropriate use of all current digital technologies as well as technologies still in development.” (italics mine). The curious implication in that statement is that appropriate use need only apply to current digital technologies or technologies not yet in existence (!), but not to older non-digital technologies. The word current, itself, is a moving target. Is television a current digital technology? Only sometimes. Are video games current, or are they already old technologies? Does current mean up to five years old? Ten? More? And can one recognize digital television from analogue television? Is it really the technical mode of transmission that requires some sort of citizenship, or, in fact, is this a social issue? The authors only add to the confusion on the following page (104) where they identify nine elements of digital citizenship: access, commerce, communication, literacy, etiquette, law, rights and responsibilities, health and wellness and finally security. Yet might these nine elements also not apply to non-digital devices such as books and Swiss Army knives? This discussion culminates on page 125 with three principles of digital citizenship (not to be confused with the previously mentioned “nine elements”).

      All of which leads to a certain un-clarity as to the meaning of the word digital. The book, of course, is titled “digital principal”, and throughout encompasses and notes digital tools, digital citizenship, digital literacies, digital access, digital practices, and even the digital self. Although the word digital, by itself, is not quite defined, Digital principal is defined on page 7 as “an educational leader who is intent on maximizing student learning through the effective infusion of digital technologies.” The definition reads well at first glance, but with further analysis, it self-deconstructs. Why would, for instance, an educational leader wish to maximize student learning via one method only (that is, digital technologies)? Should not an educational leader wish to apply all methods possible, digital or not? Technological or not? And, is the aim of 21st century learning really “to maximize student learning”. There is much interesting philosophic debate on the meaning of this phrase. And, finally, what happens when we “infuse” technology? Does infusion make something so invisible that we don’t really notice it? Is that, in fact, why we cannot even see the book or the pencil as technologies, because they have become infused? And if that is indeed a goal, then does not a textbook such as this one contradict its infusion theme by, in fact, separating out the so-called digital technologies and leaving it to someone else to do the infusion? In short, the term digital is not as innocent, nor as obvious, as might seem.

      Other Cautions, Problems, Issues

      An additional concern is the fact that, in the broader technology debate, this book ignores the equally significant side that argues for a thoughtful critical analysis of digital technology. Technology is not automatically a good thing. Technology in the second decade of the 21st century is not an answer; it is a question. Funding issues need to ask not just “where do we get the money?” but also do we really need this particular technology. Is it cost-effective? What is the argument for a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model versus supplying each student with an ipad? Advice (page 98), such as “Cut your textbook budget” and “whenever possible, encourage teachers to use the cloud for storage”, are not clear cut. Opposite advice warns us that textbooks are here to stay, and that to merely cut the textbook budget belies the question of the added purchase price of online readers such as Kindles. As to using the cloud, we are equally advised to protect our privacy by staying away from “cloud storage.” Interestingly, the word privacy does not even appear in the index of The Digital Principal! So which is it to be? Do we use the cloud and thereby put privacy at risk? Or do we ignore the cloud and put privacy first?

      The issue of funding is found on several pages, including 98. Page 98 advises, “Collaborate with school council and get help with fundraising.” “Involve small businesses and parents.” On the contrary, advice from this book notwithstanding, teachers and parents should not be fund raisers! There have already been enough miss-steps where schools have bought equipment that sits until it is obsolete, and other schools that have provided no teacher training to integrate the technology appropriately. The Digital Principal seems to imply that budget for technology is outside any normal budgetary process, and, therefore, it is something to be found “extra”. This is no way to run a school and certainly no way to understand the purpose of a budget.

      As a final issue, symptomatic of the overall process, Edutopia is noted (page 7) but not indexed. There is no reference to what Edutopia actually is. Credibile source? Commercial source? Academic source? (I know, but I am not telling, either!).


      In summary, The Digital Principal has some good ideas. At the same time, it bypasses controversial issues. Principals and teachers need to know how to recognize advertising rhetoric, and how to resist the rush to novelty that will wear off almost before the technology becomes obsolete.

      This book presents one side of the educational technology revolution. New technology will not guarantee that a digital principal will have better teachers or smarter students. Principals need to know what technology can do for their teachers, their students and their schools. But they also need to know what technology can do to them.

      In the final analysis, get the book but with caution if you want ideas on how principals might implement and integrate specific concepts, programs, and digital lessons into schools. But, on the other hand, ignore the book if you are tired of being hit by the same old advertising threat of “buy it or be obsolete”. Ignore it if you are looking for a broader perspective or rationale that addresses why we need digital technologies in the 21st century classroom, Ignore it if you are looking for ways to justify budgetary expense and cost issues related to new technology implementation.

Recommended with Reservations.

Denis Hlynka ia a professor of educational technology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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