Newswise — The sudden and unexpected shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new awareness of the need for school leaders who can ensure that high-quality, equitable education can take place virtually as well as in the classroom.

How can school districts develop a large corps of such principals? Research on the topic is still emerging and has a number of gaps, but this report by a team from Digital Promise, a nonprofit that works with districts and schools nationwide on the effective use of technology, offers early considerations for decision-makers. The report is based on the authors’ examination of research literature, interviews with 11 principals and administrators knowledgeable about virtual learning, and Digital Promise’s experiences in the field.

The authors say high-quality, equitable learning in a virtual environment—which they call “powerful learning”—is enacted through three essentials: meaningful use of technology; inclusive access to it; and the efforts of principals who know how to lead for meaningful use and inclusive access. The report also poses questions for district leaders to answer if they want to develop such principals. Among the questions: “What does a principal need to know and be able to do in order to effectively lead in a virtual context?”

In addition, the report discusses how cultivating adeptness at leadership for high-quality, equitable virtual learning might be made part of effective principal pipelines. These pipelines, which research has shown can result in effective school leaders, are “comprehensive” because their seven parts cover the span of principal talent-development actions, and “aligned” because these components reinforce one another.

The authors look at each of the pipeline parts, known as domains, and provide considerations for possible district action for each one. In the domain of leader standards, for example, they say that a district could consider including requirements that principals have the skills to provide all students with access to learning devices, internet connectivity and teachers who can work with technology in meaningful ways. Or, in the domain of high-quality pre-service principal preparation, a district could consider working with regional pre-service programs to make sure that training includes professionals who have real-world experience with leading in a virtual context. 

In the final chapter, the authors call for more research that can help educators as they grapple with the many questions about leading for high-quality, equitable virtual learning, including how a strong connection among meaningful use, inclusive access and leadership can best be forged. 

This publication is part of an occasional Wallace series titled Considerations, in which we invite ​leading scholars and other experts to share insights based on research and theory on issues of importance to the fields that the foundation supports.​​​

Points of Interest

  • A report defines what high-quality, equitable learning looks like in a virtual environment and describes strategies for districts to consider in efforts to develop a whole pipeline of principals adept at high-quality, equitable virtual learning.


  • This report poses questions for school district leaders to answer if they want to develop principals who can lead their schools to virtual learning that is high-quality and equitable. It’s an issue that the school closures brought on by the pandemic have brought to the fore.

Other Link: Principal Leadership in a Virtual Environment (Report)