Finding the right balance between what we hold dear and what we must change “is the essence of audacious leadership,” said Michigan State professor Punya Mishra.

Transforming schools from places that deliver traditional, factory-era models of instruction to institutions that support engaging, personalized, and student-centered learning requires bold, audacious leadership—and that was the theme of the Consortium for School Networking’s 2013 annual conference in San Diego last week.

CoSN is a professional association for school district chief technology officers (CTOs), and its 2013 conference explored what it means for educational technology administrators to be “audacious leaders.”

“We need disruptive, innovative leaders to move 21st-century education forward,” said Jean Tower, CoSN board chair, in kicking off the conference March 12. Tower is also director of technology for the Northborough and Southborough Public Schools in Massachusetts.

During the opening general session, Lord David Puttnam—who worked for Great Britain’s Ministry of Education for several years and is now chancellor of the online Open University—said education in the Western world isn’t at a “Sputnik” moment today, referring to the mobilization around science and math instruction that occurred in the 1950s when the Soviets launched a satellite into space.

Instead, “we are at a Pearl Harbor moment,” he said—suggesting the urgency to act is even greater now than in the 1950s.

Lord Puttnam described what he saw during a recent trip to southeast Asia, where the governments of countries such as Vietnam and Thailand are making huge investments in their education systems and have developed a common vision for their future.

He said the sequester that will cut more than a billion dollars from federal education funding in the United States this year would never happen in those countries, because “it’s disruptive to where they want to be in five years.”

“Those southeast Asian countries I’ve been to, they love” the dysfunction in the U.S. political system that’s holding education back, he said. During another session later in the week, he noted: “Napoleon once said, ‘Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake.’ That’s how southeast Asia sees us.”

Anticipating future needs

Punya Mishra, director of the master’s degree program in educational technology at Michigan State University, said there is always tension between “what we hold dear and what we must change.” Finding the right balance between these ideals “is the essence of audacious leadership,” he said.

Mishra added that ed-tech leaders can’t be afraid to “wreck” things in leading change—the system is already “wrecked on some level,” he said. And he said audacious leadership requires looking farther into the future to anticipate needs.

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