September/October 2001 // Commentary
Principals, Technology, and Change
by David Gurr
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: David Gurr "Principals, Technology, and Change" The Technology Source, September/October 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

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:

  • The curriculum, from the preparatory year to year 10, has been restructured according to a centrally prescribed curriculum framework and set of standards.
  • Student assessment methods have been modified to include non-compulsory statewide testing programs at years three and five, student opinion surveys, and increasing emphasis on portfolio assessment of student performance in the elementary years.
  • School administrations have been given increased authority and responsibility, including managing most human and physical resources and responding to a school accountability framework.
  • Schools now control their own funding. More than 95% of the budget for public schools is controlled by the schools themselves.
  • The school system has developed new career pathways for principals and teachers, new individual appraisal systems, and new teacher certification processes.
  • The school system has also developed new programs for student transitions between preschool and the preparatory year, among years five to eight, and between graduation and work.

In short, principals are expected to be the key leaders of increasingly self-managed schools. In a previous article (Gurr, 1996), 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 confront in their work. 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. Ten were in charge of primary schools, 10 of secondary schools, and 1 of a P-12 school. These institutions ranged from a small primary school of 115 students (ages 5-11) to a large, multi-campus secondary school of 1,800 students (ages 11-18).

The interviews indicate that technology has dramatically changed the way principals work; most note that they would be unable to do their jobs today if they were unfamiliar with ICT. Some changes, such as the increased variety of hardware and software available, have been obvious. Other changes have more subtly involved the very nature of the work that principals do. (See Gurr, 2000, for more detailed information, including a description of ICT in Victoria 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 in Victoria 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 principal, see Exhibit 1.) 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 receiving tutoring in ICT on a weekly basis from a parent.

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; 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 2 and 3).

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 3). A number of principals commented on the freedom ICT gives them to choose where they work. Many now work away from the office after hours (usually at home), which leaves them more time to interact with teachers, staff, and students during the school day (Exhibit 4).

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 e-mail 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 2 and 3). It also reflects attitudes toward 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 Victoria schools have to use an MIS supplied by the DOE—both for internal processes such as accounts or human and physical resource management, and 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 5).

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 3). 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 also would be more likely to work on group projects in which ICT was used to support the learning process (for example, to facilitate the collection and exchange of information).

In a period of dramatic change, the impact of ICT on teaching and learning is only beginning. One principal who was initially uninterested in ensuring that students and teachers had the latest technology encouraged the use of old computers without CD-ROMs or Internet access. Six months later, the change was startling. The principal was 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 could not afford a home computer and had bought new multimedia computers and installed Internet connections in classrooms. Students and teachers were 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. In response to rapid changes, principals need to increase their skills and knowledge of ICT and to keep abreast of developments that enhance teaching and learning. It is arguably the potential to improve education that most interests principals, rather than what ICT does for them personally or administratively.


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

Gurr, D. (1996). Changing principals, changing times. Principal Matters, 8 (1), 42-44. Retrieved June 5, 2001, from

Gurr, D. (1997a). The development of management information systems in education. Hot Topics, 3, 1-2. Retrieved June 3, 2001, from

Gurr, D. (1997b, July). The development of management information systems in education. Paper presented at the Australian Council for Educational Administration National Conference, Canberra. Retrieved June 7, 2001, from

Gurr, D. (2000, July). School principals and information and communication technology. Paper presented at the International Learning Conference 2000, Melbourne, Australia. Retrieved June 3, 2001, from

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