Book Review: Digital leadership: Changing Technology for Change-Savvy School Leaders

This is one of the best books I have read. I believe every educator, education administrator, and simply all leaders should read. Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Timeswritten by Eric Sheninger thoroughly explains why educators and leaders should be directly involved in using and promoting the use of technology as a work, learning, and communication tool.  In 264 pages spread over 12 chapters, Sheninger has not only convincingly explained why we need to leverage technology in support of educational institutions, he has also given countless examples on how to do it and has challenged all educators to get on board. Personally, I found this book to be not only important for school educators but all leaders. I would strongly encourage Extension educators to read this book. I believe there are countless ideas and reasons for taking local communications to the next level. Sheninger is a principal of the New Milford High School in New Milford, NJ. By his own admission, he did not see the need of technology in his school. He felt it would be a distraction and not worth the trouble. He kept his school strictly locked down. He then had an experience that changed his entire mindset on the idea, and now his school is fully open. He explains the transformation across these 12 chapters:

  • Chapter 1: The Evolving Educational Landscape
  • Chapter 2: Why Schools Must Change
  • Chapter 3: Keys to Leading Sustainable Change
  • Chapter 4: Leading With Technology
  • Chapter 5: Communication
  • Chapter 6: Public Relations
  • Chapter 7: Branding
  • Chapter 8: Professional Growth and Development
  • Chapter 9: Increasing Student Engagement and Enhancing Learning
  • Chapter 10: Rethinking Learning Environments and Spaces
  • Chapter 11: Discovering Opportunity
  • Chapter 12: A Call to Action

He has also included six appendices which will be especially important to school administrators, and these include:

  • Appendix A: The ISTE National Educational Technology Standards (NETS-A) for Administrators
  • Appendix B: Twitter Memo for Parents
  • Appendix C: Student Media Waiver
  • Appendix D: Professional Growth Period Model Developed at New Milford High School
  • Appendix E: Integrating Digital Tools and Content to Develop Essential Literacies
  • Appendix F: IOCS Rubric

In the forward of the book, Sheninger clearly states his purpose of the book:

Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times presents a framework for leaders to harness the power of digital technologies in order to create school cultures that are transparent, relevant, meaningful, engaging, and inspiring. (Sheninger, 2014, p. xx)

Pillars of Digital Leadership

I believe he achieved his purpose for writing the book. Throughout his book, he keeps the overarching purpose of improving education and learning at heart. He believes this can be achieved through his “Pillars of Digital Leadership:”

  • Communication
  • Public Relations
  • Branding
  • Student engagement/learning
  • Professional growth/development
  • Reenvisioning learning spaces and environment
  • Opportunity

Sheninger notes that “Leaders will see how the other six pillars connect and work together to bring about unprecedented opportunities” (Sheninger, 2014, p. xxiv). I believe that the pillars of communication, public relations, branding, professional growth/development, learning spaces and environment, and opportunity can apply to any organization. The pillar of student engagement/learning can be modified to meet the needs of the organization. Perhaps one of the most interesting sections for me was “A Day in the Life of a Digital Leader.” This served as a powerful introduction because it showed what Sheninger does on a daily basis to live the Pillars of Digital Leadership. I walked away with ideas that I intend to implement immediately. For example, he sends out a daily email including resources he has found using Twitter. He uses Google Docs and Twitter to keep faculty, staff, students, and parents abreast of important information and activities.

Digital leadership is not an add-on, but a complement to everything that I do. (Sheninger, 2014, p. xxxv)

As Sheninger begins the first chapter, he discusses the changing environment and the disconnect with education. In the real world, everyone is using mobile devices to do everything from communicating to learning, yet, in a typical school, these resources are banished or access to the Internet has been severely hobbled. He has done a great job supporting his findings with research. As Sheninger notes, the world outside of the school walls is more engaging. Students want to learn; we were born with an insatiable appetite for learning but this has been killed through the current system.

We are tasked with preparing students for success in a world that is becoming more dependent on technology, a world that is also in need of a workforce that can think critically, solve real-world problems, and function entrepreneurially. (Sheninger, 2014, p. 17)

We must change

In chapter 2, Sheninger dives headlong into why schools must change. I would like to add that it is not only schools that must change. As Sheninger notes, in the not so distant past, schools were the places you went to advance your knowledge, it is no longer necessarily the case. Now people regularly go to the Internet to learn. I among others Google for solutions to my problems, or go to YouTube to learn new things. Sheninger adds that we no longer have a need to memorize facts, we now must learn to better apply what we find because the nature of business has changed. We must be more agile. There is a lot of research about effective teaching and learning methods, we need to now have put this research into practice rather than continue to lecture. When illustrating principles, Sheninger highlights educational leaders who exemplify each of the pillars he is presenting. These stories show that digital leaders are out there and it is possible to succeed in this new technological world. He explains what each leader is using in terms of technology, and more importantly why they are using it. I walked away with countless ideas to implement. In order to maintain sustainable change, Sheninger notes in chapter 3 that digital leaders must lead by example. This means practicing what you preach and implementing what successful leaders are doing to communicate with the organization. However, this typically means that the status quo must change. Sheninger devotes a section to implementing change as well as overcoming obstacles to change.

Leading out loud

In chapter 4, Sheninger begins with a story about a superintendent, Lt Col David Britten and his use of technology to “lead out loud.” I found it very interesting that here was another story about the need for leaders to “work out loud”, “lead out loud”, “learn out loud”, etc. Perhaps there is something to this idea. I think there is, and I am glad that Sheninger foot stomps this topic time and time again through his book. Sheninger notes in this chapter:

To me, being a technology leader meant making sure our computer labs were up to date and available for staff to use when needed. The notion of using social media was never a thought, since the perception was that it lacked any potential value for learning or education in general. (Sheninger, 2014, p. 64)

I think the quote above is important because Sheninger recognized the need to change and took steps to lead by example. In the book, he talks about the reason for his change of heart; basically, he became connected. He writes in detail about this transformation. I believe it is an important part of the book. Also in this chapter, Sheninger ties the Pillars of Digital Leadership to the ISTE NETS-A Standards and the Breaking Ranks Framework.

Communication, public relations, and branding

Across chapters 5, 6, and 7, Sheninger discusses the important of leveraging social media tools for communicating, maintaining public relations, and branding the institution. He realizes this is a tough sell for many education leaders.

When school leaders hear the words Twitter and Facebook, they cringe. (Sheninger, 2014, p. 78)

However, he notes that traditional methods of communication has lost their reach because individuals want constant up-to-date information. In the communication chapter, Sheninger discusses how he leverages Twitter, Facebook, Google Voice, blogs, social bookmarking, Google+ Hangouts on Air, and many other tools to communicate across the school to include parents. He emphasizes the importance to educate parents, employees, and students how to use the various tools. He does this in many different ways from instructional Web sites to videos. As Sheninger addresses public relations, he notes that “official” media can often ignore an institution or focus on the negative stories. Institutions have the ability to shape their public image by putting out their own information through social media. Using social media tools, digital leaders can keep everyone easily informed.

If we do not tell our story, someone else will. (Sheninger, 2014, p. 98)

Social media tools are free, ubiquitous, and powerful means for distributing messages related to the happenings of an institution including administrative notes, event updates, and opportunities to learn. Sheninger again provides countless ideas for getting the word out. When Sheninger addresses branding, he looks at it from two perspectives: your personal professional brand and the institution brand. He believes each is equally important to address.

If you don’t intentionally claim your brand, some stakeholder on the other end of a computer will do it for you. (Sheninger, 2014, p. 109)

It is important to monitor and shape your personal brand. You should be removing negative elements through the increased input of positive elements. I created a presentation on shaping your digital footprint that I recommend viewing. Sheninger also provides ideas for shaping the school’s brand.

Professional development, student engagement and learning, and learning environments

This part of the book is essential. Sheninger indicates that everyone should be in ongoing professional development from top leadership on down. I could not agree more. Professional development should be a part of everyone’s day. Sheninger discusses tools that can be incorporated in personal learning networks (PLN). These tools include Twitter chats and feeds, RSS feeds, etc. He highlights the difference between an individual who uses only traditional means to stay current and those who have a robust digital PLN. Sheninger is training educators how to create digital PLNs. It not only saves time but produces better results.

Digital leadership requires connectedness as an essential component to cultivate innovative practices and lead sustainable change. It is not an option, but a standard and professional obligation. (Sheninger, 2014, p. 122)

Sheninger also discusses a concept called a Professional Growth Period (PGP). He created two to three 48-minute periods where educators can focus on their professional development. Naturally, the PGP must be documented to demonstrate how the educator benefited from their time to develop. Sheninger is quick to point out that in many typical schools, students are still learning as their grandparents did, although the world has significantly changed.

Schools and systems of education that do not embrace digital learning and place a high emphasis on standardization will always fail to resonate with our students. (Sheninger, 2014, p. 134)

Sheninger believes as I do that learners must use the tools they use daily in the real world. Sheltering learners from the real world will not adequately prepare them for the real world. Sheninger discusses how his school is now using Twitter, Skype, and other tools to learn on a global level. He has embraced the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards. He also discusses Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategies. He talks about how his school crafted a BYOD policy. He noted that when developing the policy, learners were key contributors. Another important topic that he says must be addressed is digital citizenship. Learners to not intuitively know how to be good digital citizens, they must learn. In chapter 10, Sheninger talks about what sounds to be a wonderful school with an amazing learning environment; however, the learning environment was not used as intended. Instead, it was used as educators have always used a learning environment for the past 150 years. He cautions that if you are planning to change the learning environment, you must also significantly change the way of teaching. He advocates for developing lifelong learners by providing them with individualized and personalized instruction. This can be achieved with the addition of MOOCs and open courseware (OCW).

Moving forward

To begin a path forward, to become a digital leader, Sheninger encourages leaders to develop meaningful partnerships with businesses, universities, and the community. He again stresses the importance of learning to use and subsequently using social media. Finally, Sheninger has a call to action. Learn to leverage the technology around you. Lead by example. Become connected and learn from those around you, and through your connections help to develop others.

The job of the digital leader is not just to model the art of being connected; it’s also to model the art of human conversation and unplugging the devices. (Sheninger, 2014, p. 190)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was another one of those books where I vigorously shook my head up and down in agreement. I believe this book should be read by all leaders and educators because of the number of lessons to be learned. Not only will this book benefit educational institutions and programs, but also non-profits and corporations. It will hold a prominent place on my shelf. I plan to read it again shortly just to pull specific ideas out that I intend to immediately use.


Sheninger, E. C. (2014). Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin.

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