Principals, Technology and Change

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School systems worldwide face increasing pressure to use technology to enhance teaching, learning, and administration. In the school system of Victoria, Australia, school principals have been able to manage a decade of explosive change through an increasing reliance on information and communication technology (ICT). Among other changes that principals have had to cope with are the following:

In short, principals are expected to be the key leaders of increasingly self-managing schools. In an earlier article (Exhibit 1), I identified changes for principals in the following areas: leadership and decision-making, work demands, business orientation and human resource management, communication and accountability, and planning. It is clearly a more complex world that principals now work in. Information and communication technology is an important feature of this new world. In 1999 I interviewed 21 public school principals from Victoria, Australia, about the impact of ICT on their work. There were ten primary-school and ten secondary-school principals, and one P-12 principal. Nine were female and 11 were male. Their schools ranged from a small primary school of 115 students, 5 to 11 years of age, to a large multi-campus secondary college of 1800 students, 11 to 18 years of age.

The interviews indicate that ICT has changed the way principals work. These changes have been so dramatic that principals note they would not be able to do their jobs today if they were unfamiliar with ICT. The changes to the way principles work have come in obvious ways, such as the variety of hardware and software available, and in less obvious ways, concerning the very nature of the work principals do. In this article I explore three important areas: the ICT knowledge and skills principals need; changes in principals' work brought about by the use of ICT; and the use of ICT to enhance teaching and learning. (See Gurr, 2000, for more detailed information, including a description of ICT in Victorian schools.)

Knowledge and Skills

The principals I interviewed report that they must be knowledgeable about a wide range of ICT issues. Though they do not need to be experts in all aspects of ICT, they must understand what is available, how it might be used in schools, and where to get advice on issues such as developing internal networks and providing Internet access to classrooms.

Principals gain ICT knowledge and skills through a variety of means. The two primary means are professional development programs sponsored by the department of education (DOE), and the expertise of school staff, parents, and consultants. Daily exposure to ICT also seems to improve skills substantially. Ongoing support, though important, occurs opportunistically rather than as a planned process, perhaps mirroring the way ICT is adopted and used in many schools.

One principal with a passionate dislike for computers had to learn to use ICT, including a laptop computer, in 1999. (For excerpts of an interview with this principle, see Exhibit 2.) Her school had recently added networked multimedia desktop computers in each classroom (with newer and more powerful computers for older students), telephones and voice mail in all classrooms, and ICT in the curriculum. The principal had just received a laptop computer from the DOE and was faced with several immediate pressures: communicating via e-mail with the DOE, using a recently installed high-speed Internet connection provided by the DOE, incorporating more ICT into the school, and responding to expectations that ICT would be used in sophisticated ways. She responded to these pressures by selecting appropriate staff, providing professional development courses for staff, and enrolling in an ICT program provided by one of the parents of the school.

New Ways of Working

ICT has not necessarily resulted in a decrease in workload, as some might expect. Instead, ICT has fundamentally changed the work principals do, by facilitating new types of work and improving older work patterns. Some of the changes are merely improvements in traditional practices, such as using spreadsheets to create budgets and accounts, e-mail for communication, and word processing software for writing. Others represent transformative change and the advent of new practices, such as using sophisticated management information systems (MIS) as core tools for school planning. Word processing software is, somewhat paradoxically, an example of both. For some, word processing merely replaces handwriting and expedites administrative tasks, but for others, it is a sophisticated thinking tool that enables them to do things differently such as develop ideas through multiple drafting and sharing with colleagues (Exhibits 3 and 4).

Principals are also increasingly using e-mail and the Internet. Since the DOE uses e-mail as its chief means of communication with principals, those I interviewed who were not already familiar with e-mail were pressured to learn quickly. Many, however, were already sophisticated users of e-mail and the Internet. One principal I interviewed regularly uses the Internet to research areas important to his school such as middle school reform (Exhibit 4). A number of principals commented on the freedom ICT gives them to choose where they work. Many now work away from the office (usually at home), interacting more with teachers, staff, and students during the school day (Exhibit 5).

While e-mail has the potential to give the school community greater access to the principal, this was not the case with most of the principals I interviewed. (There are exceptions: at one school, the annual report stated that email was the preferred means of communication with staff.) This reflects not only principals' expertise, but also teachers' expertise and the supply of appropriate ICT. For example, in many schools, internal networks were still being developed that would give teachers their own network connection (Exhibits 3 and 4). It also reflects attitudes towards e-mail. For example, one principal explained her refusal to use e-mail to communicate with staff and students thus: "I believe in walking a job, not e-mailing a job. You've got to be seen, you've got to talk to kids and teachers, you've got to pop in on classes." (Principal I, personal interview, February, 1999).

Schools now use management information systems (MIS) that rely on ICT (see Gurr, 1997a, 1997b). All Victorian schools have to use an MIS supplied by the DOE, both for internal processessuch as accounts or human and physical resource managementand for external accountability requirements, such as student performance, curriculum provision, school environment, organizational health, and parent opinion. These systems do not merely replace previous systems. ICT has enabled new and more sophisticated systems that collect a greater variety of data. The new systems can automatically process data into useful information for school and school system use, such as summary tables and figures. Most principals, especially those of smaller schools with less administrative support, have to know how to run these systems. All principals must be able to interpret the data collected and the information generated by the MIS in order to drive school change (Exhibit 6).

Educational Leadership

For many principals, ICT offers great potential and great challenge. Two comments by principals illuminate this:

It’s got the capacity to fundamentally shift the power in the classroom to independent learning. We’ve got kids starting to do that. (Principal D, personal interview, March, 1999)

Its impact on staff, teaching, and learning is massive. We are looking at a radical change in teaching and learning. (Principal J, personal interview, March, 1999)

The possibilities for enhancing teaching and learning are the main force driving principals to understand and use ICT. Although principals struggle to provide adequate ICT resources, good resources can prompt dramatic change in student proficiency with technology. Students learn new applications quickly and often surpass their teachers. Collaboration within and among classrooms increases. One principal articulated an extensive scenario for how students would learn in the future, noting the potential for greater individualization of learning (Exhibit 4). This included "seamless self-paced experiences," individualization of programs, and as-needed access to multimedia and network technology. Students in this scenario would not work in isolation; rather, ICT would provide enriched and more appropriate learning experiences. Students would be more independent learners, able to choose, for example, appropriate software to support their learning, albeit with the guidance and support of teachers. They are also more likely to be working on group projects were ICT is used to support the learning process (for example, to facilitate collection and exchange of information).

In a period of dramatic change, the impact of ICT on teaching and learning is only beginning. One principal was initially uninterested in ensuring that students and teachers had the latest technology, encouraging the use of old computers without CD-ROMs or Internet access. Six months later, the change was startling. The principal was now animated and excited about ICT. The increasing use of ICT by the DOE, pressure from the school community, and the availability of affordable technology had convinced the principal to update. The school had given old computers to families who couldn't afford a home computer and had bought new multimedia computers and installed Internet connections in classrooms. Students and teachers were now using e-mail and the Internet to enhance their programs and were excited about the potential of ICT.


New ways of working in schools are being developed as a result of ICT. Principals need to increase their skills and knowledge of ICT as a result of rapid changes and to keep abreast of developments to enhance teaching and learning. It is arguably this potential for improvement in teaching and learning that most interests principals, rather than what ICT does for them personally or administratively. The need to develop skills and knowledge in ICT, to keep abreast of the changes to the administration of schools through the use of ICT, and the need to ensure that ICT is used to enhance teaching and learning provide considerable challenges to the already complex role of principals.


Cussack, B., Gurr, D., and Schiller, J. (1999). The impact of technology on the work of educational leaders. Hot topics, 3, 1-2.

Gurr, D. (1997a). The development of management information systems in education. Hot topics, 3, 1-2.

Gurr, D. (1997b, July). The development of management information systems in education. Paper presented at the Australian council for educational administration national conference, Canberra.

Gurr, D. (2000, July). School principals and information and communication technology. Paper presented at the international learning conference 2000, Melbourne, Australia.