leadership skills

An Australian educational network talks about leadership in rapid digital rollout during challenging times

Brisbane Catholic Education (BCE) is an organisation responsible for delivering services, programs and resources to more than 77,000 students annually in the Brisbane archdiocese.

In 2020, the group managed to effectively roll out approximately three years of technology skills and know-how to their 12,000 staff members in only three months with the implementation of its remote learning package: Alternative Education Program (AEP).
 
Even in the ‘normal’ course of business, this would have been a remarkable achievement but to have exacted this rollout  in the midst of a global pandemic remains a jaw-dropping feat; testament to the quality of their leadership.

Fiona Boyd, CEO of EdSmart – a digital administration platform – interviewed Sharyn Creed and Allan Sheffield from BCE as part of GESS’ Global Leadership Summit 23 and 24 March 2021. Following is a written summary of that video interview where they talk about performing such a herculean task under the most challenging of circumstances.
 
DESIGN: LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS
“It may appear on the surface that it all happened quite quickly but it was a lot of work behind the scenes previous to that," Allan Sheffield, BCE’s Manager of School Information Systems, humbly begins. “Our journey to the cloud really started several years ago, so we weren't in a position where we had to do everything at once.”
 
“We have 146 schools and eight offices, and they were already connected to a range of enterprise-wide systems,” explains Sharyn Creed, Manager of IT and Learning Services. “They were used for marking rolls online, collaborating and reporting in those online spaces.”
 
“Similarly, our parents were used to receiving and accessing information via our parent portals and on mobile apps, so they knew of those environments but they probably weren't as practised in using them.”
 
Sharyn admits, however, that BCE had been working with their schools to deliver a digital skills program aimed at increasing teacher confidence and digital literacy skills. As she adds, “At that time it was quite a different program, in that we were going into schools, doing a lot of coaching and modelling with teachers in classrooms.”
 
With those elements already in play, BCE was in a unique position when the instability created by COVID-19 began to impact education delivery across the country.
 
COLLEGIALITY AND COLLABORATION:
The second quarter of 2020 was busy and stressful for the vast majority of people as the scale and ferocity of the coronavirus – and its impacts – were being understood globally. Within BCE, this was no different. But in the face of these challenges, Sharyn, Allan and their technical teams (known as Digital Support Program Leads) began to play a vital role in facilitating remote learning and supporting their community through some important changes.
 
“We knew that we weren't coming back after the Easter break, and we knew that remote learning was going to take place. So we had probably about two weeks to build a broader team and think about how we would best prepare our teachers,” explains Sharyn.
 
“So alongside our little digital skills team, we also built a base of education officers – Digital Support Program Leads – who were within our system, that they would deploy to a whole range of other tasks. We set up a whole range of online conferences and ‘how-to’ sessions as a collaboration between those two teams. They became the most important people in our system there at one point.”
 
The collaboration between IT and teaching that resulted was a point of excitement for Allan. As he explains, “We put together a virtual conference and allowed teachers from across the organisation to choose their session. Some were around how to run an online meeting in Teams, how to distribute content when the students have iPads at home, and how to record online meetings and where to share them. [It was] really practical stuff, as well as about the best practises around pedagogy and curriculum.” 
 
“We advertised the forums and the response to that was huge,” continues Allan. “We had hundreds, even thousands of teachers over the course of three days join us. You might have in your meeting this one person pop up as an identity but then, when you look behind that camera, there'll be a whole staff room of 30 teachers who were joining to that one account, so it was actually hard to capture the true amount of teachers and the impact that we had through those online meetings.”
 
The gaps in staff and student technical skills became evident. Having the existing technical foundations in place allowed BCE to focus their attention on schools, classrooms, teachers and students. In something of a ‘happy accident’, it meant that end users approached Digital Support Program Leads more than perhaps they might have in a more conventional environment.
 
“We didn't have to sell the service as much,” explains Sharyn. “Teachers and our education office's staff as well, all of a sudden had this common purpose, a common need and a common set of expectations for how people use the tools and what they needed to use them effectively in the classroom.”
 
“Without COVID, she continues, “it would have been a really large, complex, expensive change management exercise that would have taken years to get to where we are at the moment and a lot of budget to initiate. It was a little bit of a blessing in disguise.”

TEACHER-PARENT-STUDENT FOCUS. YOU WON’T KNOW IF YOU DON’T ASK.
With the foundations of the transformation in place, it was important to understand the effectiveness of the AEP within its core constituency: teachers, students and parents/carers.
 
Sharyn, Allan and their teams made a concerted effort to talk with people and “have people share their experiences in a space that they felt safe to do so,” says Sharyn. “We did a lot of visits to schools, we had surveys going and we captured a lot of information around the experience.”
 
Their eagerness to listen to feedback unearthed some significant findings. As well as the technological gains, they discovered indispensable human gains, which Allan describes as having the power to spark an important philosophical debate about fundamentals of education delivery. 
 
Sharyn and Allan break these findings into the following six areas:
 

  1. A noticeable growth in learning independence and resilience for both students and staff “That wasn't necessarily at all to do with the technology,” clarifies Sharyn, “but putting people in a change of space where independence and resilience became great skills to have.”
  2. A noticeable and authentic collaboration, amongst staff across year levels and across subject areas. “Collaboration across year levels being that everyone was learning together,” says Sharyn. “Collaboration was no longer restricted to you and your teaching partner, or the people within your school.”
  3. An increase in risk-taking. “People were failing together and growing together all at the same time in those environments,” notes Sharyn. “And there was a degree of comfort in that.”
  4.  Precision of pedagogy. “Students were individually working in their homes, so teachers saw the need to differentiate the experience for their students,” explains Sharyn. “COVID didn’t enable that, but it definitely promoted a need to differentiate the learning to meet different student needs.”
  5. The emergence of student voice. “That came through really clearly across all of our schools,” says Allan. “They found students were more curious; they were asking deeper questions. There was a lot of peer interaction and peer tutoring; helping each other. There was definitely more self-directed learning and the need for time management in that student space.”
  6. The strengthening of partnerships between teachers and parents/carers. “Parent engagement is one of those things that schools don't want to give up. And in going back to classrooms, that's one of the elements that they do want to explore a little bit more deeply,” notes Allan. “None of those things really had a whole lot to do with technology systems or online tools. It was change in the way of working, not just in our schools but across the world. The students want those collaborations to continue. They want their parents to be involved in their learning and understand what's happening in the classroom.”

CONSOLIDATION: THE WAY FORWARD
Sharyn and Allan are determined to ensure the gains their school communities have experienced don’t dissipate as COVID-based restrictions in schools and the broader community are eased back to a sense of normality. They’re keen to ensure that the “distributed support base” as Sharyn describes it – “school staff being able to support and mentor their own teachers, rather than that huge reliance on our team centrally” – endures into the future.
 
Allan, meanwhile, hopes that experiences like BCE’s ignites a broader philosophical conversation about fundamental education structures: “Education, for so long, has been about year levels and grades and subjects.”

“On the one hand,” he continues, “we can use technology to help supercharge the existing model around the subject spreads and year levels. On another, can technology be partnered with learning and teaching to transform schooling and create something new? Some of those questions have been contemplated by educators all around the world.”
 
As Sharyn adds, “We really want to explore how we can take that forward and enable that true transformation, that concept of using technology to facilitate individual and adaptive learning environments, and supporting teachers in providing differentiated support for different students.”
 
BCE is also committed to using technology to reduce complex and time-consuming processes that consume teachers’ teaching resources. But not at the expense of finding new administration burdens to replace the old ones: “There's no point being more efficient in one area, when we're just going to throw more stuff at teachers. That's not just an IT issue. It's an issue for education systems everywhere,” notes Allan.
 
“We wouldn't be here if we weren't really conscious of lightening the load for teachers, such that they could provide their focus and individualised attention on the kids and what's happening in the classrooms,” concludes Sharyn. “Each time we present a system, we present it in such a way that it is trying to either ease the burden, or make some process simpler for teachers and for the students. If it doesn't, we shouldn't be doing it.”