It will come as no surprise to readers that a report published last month found that in a global survey of teachers across 92 countries, 56% of teachers felt that they do not have the skills needed to make digital learning a success (Oxford University Press, 2021). Furthermore, one classroom teacher spoke for many when they said: “I know there are many super digital resources available to support positive practices, but I still feel like I’m fumbling in the dark.”
We have seen the challenges that this presented in the many and varied responses to pandemic-induced lockdowns and remote schooling. But this is a much bigger issue. It’s fundamentally about social justice and facilitating meaningful equality for all children.
If, as teachers, we are not able to provide meaningful digital engagement within teaching and learning then are we – perhaps inadvertently – perpetuating or even amplifying the digital divide?
As the OUP report states: “If the digital divide is left unaddressed, the gap between the under-connected and the hyper-digitalised will widen, aggravating existing inequalities.”
As a teacher this will be on your radar already. The question you will be asking is what we can do to tackle this issue more effectively within all the existing constraints and pressures facing us here today. Here are a few discussion points for you to reflect on with your team.
The causes of the digital divide and inequalities are about much more than just access to devices, software and connectivity
The causes of the digital divide are only partly about access – our digital priorities, decision-making and habits may be widening inequalities.
In a study across 13 countries, Light and Pierson (2012) found that once a minimal standard of infrastructure was in place the presence of the technology itself made insignificant difference to frequency and nature of use within teaching. That minimal standard of infrastructure was below what the majority of UK schools have (BESA, 2018), and TALIS data shows us that even in schools with a comprehensive IT infrastructure, there can often be very low levels of meaningful digital engagement.
In other words, the causes of the digital divide and inequalities are about much more than just access to devices, software and connectivity. Instinctively we all know that. So what can we do about this, particularly in light of the findings shared above where 56% of teachers recognise that their skills are creating a barrier to successful learning experiences?
First, we need to move on from thinking about developing teachers’ digital skills in a constructivist way. That’s increasingly being seen as an old-fashioned view. When we talk about digital skills, we need to instead recognise several interlinked aspects that are features of a more sociocultural approach (Aubrey-Smith, 2021). Let me introduce you to the “Three C’s”: Cognisance, Competence and Confidence.
- Cognisance – what we are aware of and understand,
- Competence – what we are skilled in doing in practice,
- Confidence – how much we feel capable of doing.
If we reflect on the training and support that we put in place for teachers relating to digital technologies, most of the emphasis tends to be on raising awareness about what to use and how to use it. Teachers are often then encouraged to implement ideas, reflect and improve – with competence and then confidence assumed to be byproducts of frequent use. We tend not to explicitly look at ways to build confidence.
Recognise that teachers are not just professionals using digital tools to achieve intended goals, but also human beings living in a digital world. We are all surrounded by (and immersed in) digital influences which affect how we think about digital technology.
For example, digital profiles and identities, home heating and lighting, personal finance, online ordering and delivery, mapping routes, counting steps, rating products. The digital devices and processes surround us all the time. Some we love, some we find frustrating. Some we are indifferent to or don’t even notice. But exposure to technology in our wider lives influences our behaviours, our actions, our thoughts and ideas, and that translates into our classroom beliefs and practices.
- ACTION: Engage staff in thinking about what digital devices and processes they engage with (or avoid) – and move their thinking on from the actions that these encourage, to think about what behaviours and relationships they create.
- Your Key Question: How do those digital interactions affect the decisions we make and what we choose to prioritise?
- Intended Outcome: Help teachers see the ways in which digital technologies affect our everyday behaviours and to start to consider how those behaviours can enhance learning (eg discussion about customer ratings and reviews when online shopping can help us to think about how we interpret and become discerning about Google Search results).
There are now lots of free sources of support to help us learn how to use different devices, software and online systems, not least of which being the DfE EdTech demonstrator programme. These sources are absolutely superb. But we are also left with a challenge – how do we build competence in teachers who are more reluctant?
I recently interviewed a number of classroom teachers as part of a study looking at how the teachers spoke about and used digital technologies. One teacher – let’s call them Sam – held very strong views about digital technologies. They spoke about the significant problems caused within their school as a result of children using social media. As a result of these negative experiences (and note that none of those experiences were within lessons themselves), Sam had formed strong views about the negative aspects of digital technologies.
Consequently, Sam talked about their explicit intention to design their lessons without any intentions of students using technology. You may then be surprised about what happened when I observed Sam teaching.
The children were set a particular writing task where they were writing about somewhere that they had recently visited. A student approached the teacher shortly after the task had been explained and said that they had difficulty remembering the location they were supposed to be writing about, so could they look it up on Google Street View to refresh their memory so that they could then write a quality piece of work. Sam paused and then gave consent.
The child got a Chromebook from the laptop trolley and set about going onto Google Street View. They looked at what they needed, then shut the Chromebook and completed their writing.
I asked the student how typical this was – and they explained that they didn’t normally use technology in this lesson but they knew about Street View because of a geography lesson, and that’s what had given them the idea about how it might help them in this lesson.
There were three interesting things about this.
- The teacher did not want to use technology in their lessons because they saw it through a significantly negative lens. But they allowed it to be used for a specific purpose – and it met that purpose. This facilitated the child doing something that they would not have otherwise been able to do.
- The technology idea and the skills had been acquired elsewhere – the teacher in this lesson did not have to know the device nor the software – shining a light on the importance of collective efficacy and thinking about a whole-school approach rather than every teacher needing to be highly digitally skilled.
- At no point was the focus on the technology. Instead, the focus remained on the writing task, and the tech was just a tool to help them to do that particular task.
The pedagogy of the classroom is what made the difference. This teacher may have been highly resistant to using digital technology, but they listened to the children, valued their opinions and welcomed their solutions. A teacher with a digital mindset is not necessarily a teacher who is a skilled digital technologies user.
Perhaps this example is one to think about for our more reluctant or less confident colleagues – does the teacher themselves really need to know how to use the tech? Or is it instead about the pedagogy of their classroom and about collective efficacy – working together across your team, department or school?
- ACTION: Take a sample cohort and identify what digital tools they have been taught about at home and school so far – seeking out input from all the teachers who have worked with them, not just their tutors/classroom teachers, and not just through ICT or computing lessons.
- Key Question: For colleagues who are less confident with digital technologies, what opportunities do they have to trust children to use these digital tools independently in their lessons to complement other areas of learning?
- Intended Outcome: For all staff to become aware about what digital experiences children will be building throughout the school day – with other staff, in other classrooms or in other activities. Importantly, identifying opportunities for utilising these in the lessons and activities elsewhere.
Being confident comes largely by doing something and perceiving there to be a positive feedback loop. This positive feedback can be internalised (eg we recognise that we have achieved our own goals or intentions), or it can be seen externally (eg praise from others, positive data, being offered opportunities to share expertise).
As teachers, we tend to be quite critical of ourselves – focusing on next steps or things that didn’t go to plan. But we need to be mindful that this can interfere with levels of confidence and inadvertently constrain perceptions of competence.
We must make sure that we plan for building confidence at the same time as planning for any form of training or support when building digital skills. This might be by SLT providing targeted praise for staff trying out new ideas. Or five minute ‘idea sharing’ at the start/end of staff meetings. Try setting teachers up in trios where they each informally share successes in small groups. Which teachers could you encourage to share their successes beyond the school (eg in HTU/SecEd)?
These three C’s – cognisance, competence and confidence – are the three main ingredients of building digital skills.
Let’s make a pledge to build those skills this academic year, so that rather than 56% of teachers feeling that they do not have the skills needed to make digital learning a success, we instead have teachers who both have the skills, and who feel confident in using them.
Now that would make a difference to closing the digital divide.