Digital Empowerers

Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at what Digital Literacies are, and the role both learners and teachers have to play in ensuring every young person has the tools they need to operate in a digital world. This week we look at the people who perhaps hold the key to letting teachers and learners make the most of the opportunities out there – the Digital Empowerers. These are the leaders, the managers and the decision makers who have so much influence over what teachers and learners can achieve.

Yes, ’empowerers’ is a clumsy word (there might be some debate about whether it’s a word at all) but we feel it sums up the role these individuals and institutions have. The alternative was Digital Enablers, which, while it’s a real word, has its own negative connotations (after all, digital literacies are hardly a bad habit.) So empowerers it is, and we’ll just ignore the wiggly red line telling us it’s not really a word as we type this.

We’ve discussed how learners need freedom to explore and create in digital contexts. We’ve examined how teachers need to become guides for their students, learning alongside them, taking calculated risks and instilling an adventurous mindset when dealing with digital learning. But this all assumes that schools have adequate resourcing and, just as importantly, that the attitude from leaders at all levels gives permission for experimentation and considered risk-taking.

Let’s take how schools use devices to start with.  Obviously this varies between schools and authorities but most learners have access to a range of tech, either via school-owned PCs, tablets, and laptops or by having a pupil ‘bring your own device’ policy (BYOD). Often iPads are purchased as they are a recognised brand but Android and Windows tablets are usually cheaper, as useful, and often have access to a wider range of apps. We are aware of many examples where schools have iPads or tablets which are woefully underused, through no fault of the teachers. In many cases, due to a lack of Wi-Fi in schools, staff have to take the device home to put apps on it (which can go against school policy on removing such equipment from the building or using personal accounts on them) and then the apps can vary from device to device depending on what was downloaded. From a teacher’s point of view this is challenging, as how can a class teacher make good use of an app if not all devices have it installed? And how do schools know which apps are good to use? Authorities should be collecting information like this and sharing with all establishments.

no-cellphones-35121_640.pngAt the moment, lots of schools are fighting the battle against mobile use. Many schools have posters on walls banning pupils from having their phones out during class time and actively discouraging pupils from bringing their phones to school at all. However, some forward thinking establishments are working with pupils’ attachment to mobile phones rather than against it. The BYOD idea appreciates that a mobile is more than a phone: it is a computer, and a powerful one at that. Harnessing that untapped potential removes the need for schools to buy in so many devices themselves and also helps educate pupils on the applications and uses of their own phones. Regarding the use of pupils’ own devices, many authorities already have policies on this that have been shared with parents, such as a policy in some East Lothian schools that phones can be on the desk at the start of the class but they can’t be turned over until the teacher says so, giving the teacher control of their use in a well-defined and mutually understood context. Inequity of access does still exist of course – many children have tablets and smartphones, but many do not.  Although it would be overly simplistic to assume that every child can bring a working, appropriate device to school every day, we must accept that allowing the use of personal devices is a positive step along the way to really effective tech use in schools. There can be creative solutions where a child is not able to bring a device for any reason. For example, one authority we are aware of has reworked their policy on musical instrument loans and applied the same logic to ‘loaning’ out devices.

304px-Wi-Fi_Logo.svgOnce we have considered the issue of hardware, we must logically move on to the problem of Wi-Fi  access. We talk about wanting to raise attainment, to give all children a fair start in education, but while Wi-Fi continues to be viewed as an option rather than a necessity then we are penalising pupils. Already in secondary schools, where the large majority of pupils have access to mobile phones, the discrepancies are visible not in the type or brand of phone the pupils have, but in the amount of data they have as part of their contracts. Pupils are being limited as their data is limited. Wi-fi for all would level the field for the young people and also be a step towards bringing schools closer to the real world. Some authorities provide Wi-Fi to all of their schools, and have carefully managed policies to allow learners to connect their own devices to filtered internet access, removing the problem of data poverty.  Some other authorities allow schools to ‘buy-in’ to Wi-fi but this throws up another issue as it relies on schools deeming it an important enough expense to spend their already stretched budgets on. It is then down to luck whether or not your head teacher prioritises it. Wi-Fi for all isn’t a magical solution to all of our digital needs but it seems like an obvious resource that authorities should be providing or insisting schools spend part of their budget on.

Then there are the training opportunities needed to ensure that teachers are a quality resource as well. To upskill staff, improve their confidence in their own digital literacy and empower them to guide our learners effectively, authorities need to provide quality training  and support time for staff. For those who know where to look for this, there are already supports available through Glow. In addition, there are countless free online courses, communities and training resources, but all staff need to be made clear about where they can find this information, and also have a clear steer on the importance of fostering digital literacy – until authority, school and departmental improvement planning recognises this as a vital area for development, there will always be other priorities.

Even if a school has a forward thinking staff and supportive head teacher, barriers can often appear at local authority level. If yours isn’t one of the authorities forging ahead with Wi-Fi and BYOD, it might feel like wading through treacle trying to get any significant changes made in council policy. Often those managing IT infrastructure are not from an educational background. This can have benefits – it’s a crucial role that requires a read head for business and strategic thinking. However, there is often a tendency to try to impose the same kinds of strictures on teachers that might be found in a corporate  environment. Yes, in most offices you don’t want staff messing about, installing programmes, making changes to browser settings, updating software and so on – but teachers aren’t office staff. When we have to jump through ever more complex hoops to make the most basic of changes, can we be blamed for eventually giving up? When it takes three layers of management and several phone calls to have a single website unblocked, how often are you going to request it? When Education Scotland add a new service to Glow but it’s blocked by default and most classroom teachers have no idea who to contact to remedy the situation, are you going to look at it again?

2adThere are so many needless barriers placed in the way of the enterprising teacher in the name of security and risk management. There is so little desire from the centre to change, to renew, to upgrade, even when the latest browser on the school network image is already obsolete by the time it’s installed. Change means cost, and more importantly risk. Each change made at the centre can have knock-on unforeseen consequences, and the thought of having to deal with these is enough to stop progress in its tracks – for those making these decisions, the possible repercussions must be pretty scary, but that doesn’t mean we can just stand still, or move at the glacial pace that’s been the norm with educational technology for so many years in so many places. IT managers must work with and be guided by educationalists, and listen to the needs of the teachers at the frontline. Risk must be part of what we do – not something to be avoided, but something to be managed. If we never take risks, we’ll never move forward, and those authorities who do make the leap into the unknown will be providing opportunities for learners that teachers in other authorities can only look upon with longing.

Until the support of digital literacy, through both pedagogy and infrastructure, becomes something that local authorities insist upon and monitor, progress is guaranteed to be limited. Teachers are massively pushed for time as it is, and money is immensely tight. There’s only so much individual teachers can do without the support of leaders at school, local authority and national level. HGIOS 4, with its explicit focus on digital competencies, is a step in the right direction, but this needs to be backed up with changes to the curriculum (in the form of an acknowledgement in the Curriculum for Excellence documentation that Digital Literacy is the responsibility of all practitioners), the publication of the new national Digital Strategy for Education, and a concerted effort from the Scottish Government to support this in the form of investment and clear guidance and expectations. We’re embarking on our journey down this road, but at the moment the route is full of potholes and shoogly bridges, with a few oases of excellent practice shining in the distance. Our Digital Empowers, those leaders who determine the direction of Scotland’s education system, need to smooth the path for all of us and pave the way for Scotland’s digital future.


Digital Guides

As teachers, we are often scared to relinquish control to the learners. It’s not that we see ourselves as founts of all knowledge; rather, we worry about the effect on classroom relationships and climate should we radically change the dynamic of our learning environment. The trepidation is amplified for many when it comes to digital learning. When we as teachers feel less than confident dealing with this area of the curriculum, it’s harder still to hand over the reins to the children, even when we acknowledge the fact that they are often more skilled than us in some aspects. In addition, there is a fear of the online world – how do we keep the learners safe? How do we manage poor online conduct?

The answer is to treat the digital world in the same way as the physical world in which we teach or ‘guide’ our pupils as best as we can. We teach children how to stay safe around busy roads, how to eat healthily, how to avoid stranger danger. It’s no different for online safety – we teach them how to avoid the dangers present online, and if we don’t feel sure how to do that, we use the wealth of resources available from CEOP and similar organisations.


As for misbehaviour, the same rules again apply. If you have a policy or protocol for managing poor behaviour offline, you apply it to poor online behaviour. Bullying, viewing inappropriate material, misusing resources – all of these ‘offences’ occur offline as well as online, so we apply the same rules and sanctions. As Aileen Monaghan from HMIe said at the Scottish Learning Festival in 2015, we don’t restrict access to pencils, yet a child determined to cause harm could easily stab another through the eye with a nice sharp Staedtler HB. We don’t restrict access to the tools for learning; we teach children how to use them and follow through with consequences when they don’t use them responsibly. 

Internet safety is an excellent starting point for any schools wanting to develop good digital literacy in their pupils. Schools already ask pupils and/or their guardians to sign a form recognising the need for appropriate use of the internet during school time. There are firewalls in place which block any site deemed to have inappropriate content, and as part of their Health and Wellbeing and PSE programmes, most primary and secondary schools cover internet safety and rules such as not giving out personal information to strangers. For teachers trying to develop this further, online safety resources are a good place to start such as ThinkUKnow from CEOP and Kidsmart.

A couple of weeks ago we had Safer Internet Day (#SID2016) and many schools worldwide shared their experiences. It is straightforward to link Internet Safety to Literacy and Health and Wellbeing priorities but this doesn’t always need to take the form of lessons specifically focused on the issue. Instead, any teacher, where appropriate, can be building in discussions and guidance as and when issues appear. Are pupils emailing you homework? Do they know what is and isn’t acceptable to write in that email? Are they doing research? Can they identify reliable sources? Are they aware of the potential consequences of what they put out on the internet in terms of cyberbullying, slander, trolling, and even how their eminently Google-able online self may come across to future partners, employers etc.?

Those teachers looking to foray a bit deeper into the digital environment could begin to look at how learners evaluate the tools available to them, and how they project and portray themselves online. As English teachers, we are used to talking about tone and register with pupils – where and when it is appropriate to use certain types of language, both written and verbal. We see that most pupils learn to move between the register they would adopt while speaking to teachers, and the language style they use with their friends; in many cases there are differences again in how they communicate at home with their families. The ability to move between different registers appropriate to different settings is an important life skill to have, but we also need to actively teach pupils to do this online. They need to consider the way they communicate in different online environments, learn to use a tone and register appropriate to these environments and, crucially, to consider how this will reflect on them in the future.

Social media is an excellent forum for practicing these skills. Different social media platforms are suited to different communication forms, and this can be explored in lessons. For example, a class could be asked to consider how best to share their classwork with a wider audience online. Which tool would be the right one for the job? Depending on the nature of the work, the answer may be a blog, a Glow site, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other outlet, but the answer doesn’t really matter – the learning comes through the discussion and consideration of why one tool is better than the other. To do this they must have experience of a range of platforms. The ability to transition seamlessly doesn’t happen instinctively. It requires reflection, observation, practice.

This might seem frivolous – after all, kids learn how to use these tools on their own, just like we do, right? Well, yes, but why not guide them along the way. After all, social media is becoming more and more mainstream, replacing traditional websites in many ways and being used as a tool for promotion by a vast array of workplaces. Jobs in social media are becoming more and more common, and the ability to use these platforms to promote, sell, persuade and convince is a marketable skill. It’s probably more important to teach the softer skills needed to operate effectively online (such as safety, register and tone, picking the right tool and assessing reliability of a source) than it is to teach how to use presentation software or video editing tools, at least in the way we teach these things now.

There is very little educational value to anyone, teachers and learners alike, in following a user guide and learning how to use a computer programme in a formulaic manner. Where’s the creativity? The personalisation and choice?  Instead, give the class a challenge, provide access to a range of tools (apps, social media, video creation and editing tools, image manipulation tools and, yes, PowerPoint) and let them pick their right tools for the job and learn how to use them by experimenting. You can be there to guide and support, but so can their classmates. If you don’t know how to do something, and no-one in the class can help, then find out how to do it together. It’s the very embodiment of a growth mindset – it’s not that we can’t do it, it’s that we don’t know how to do it yet. Make digital education into digital exploration and blur the boundaries between teacher and learner. If we can overcome our fear of the digital unknown we can embrace the limitless learning possibilities of digital technologies and become the Digital Guides our learners need.




Digital Explorers

With the physical world mapped out, it would be easy to think that future generations may seek their challenges by exploring the far reaches of space. Perhaps they will, but the opportunity to cultivate the fun of exploration can be found right now in a more terrestrial arena. In the third of our posts on the impact of HGIOS 4, we’re interested in the role our young people can, and already do play, adventuring closer to home as Digital Explorers.

Image courtesy of Sakeeb Sabakka @Flickr

Curriculum for Excellence has always encouraged pupil voice and leadership, through its emphasis on peer assessment, pupils setting their own targets, and on schools developing Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Effective Contributors and Responsible Citizens. The development of pupils’ digital literacy embraces all of the above as well as supporting Literacy and Health and Wellbeing.

Recently, we took part in a Glow TV webconference where we watched some inspirational young people from two Falkirk primary schools as they confidently and knowledgeably described their role as Digital Leaders in their school.  The pupils talked about staying safe online, and how they researched apps and their uses, showing what they had learned to other pupils and staff in their schools. Their engagement in and enjoyment of their responsibility was clear, and the skills they were developing were numerous.

Hearing them speak demonstrated the leadership role that young people are capable of playing in their schools and the impact this can have. This was a lightbulb moment for us; previously we had been focused on teachers leading pupils towards digital literacy whereas we now discussed how we could support schools by having the young people themselves as Digital Leaders. From there we discussed the adventurous mindset that we wanted all young people to have in school, regardless of their level of digital literacy, and envisioned having Digital Explorers across all schools. For us, the reality of creating Digital Explorers can only flourish against a background in which all pupils feel able to create, innovate, and explore in a supportive environment.

But where do we start? There is perhaps a misunderstanding about what it means to support digital competencies across the curriculum. We’re not talking about coding and programming, although in economic terms these skills are essential for Scotland’s future and should be nurtured through the STEM curriculum. We’re talking about the ability to operate effectively in a digital world. This is something that we can both do, despite the lack of formal education in the area. Both of us are regarded by our peers as being ‘good with computers’, but neither of us has any high level training or background in Computing Science. What we do share, though, are several attributes that make us appear to know what we’re talking about, including:

  • An understanding of how hardware is set up on a standard computer (e.g. how to set up a printer/project to a screen etc.).
  • The self-taught knowledge of how to operate standard software programs, and how to transfer those skills to new and unfamiliar tools.
  • A willingness to try and experiment; if we don’t know how to do something – we play with the program until we get it to do what we want. We’re not scared to make mistakes. We’ll take a calculated risk, safe in the understanding that we can probably rectify any mistakes later.
  • The ability to recognise when something looks a bit ‘dodgy’ – knowing when something is too risky or seems too good to be true.
  • Knowing how to get help – it’s very unlikely that any computer-based problem we come up against has only ever happened to us, and the wonderful world wide web is filled with help if you know where – and how – to look. When someone approaches us for help, nine times out of ten we don‘t  know the answer – but we will use the tools we have to find out, and in doing so build up our own store of knowledge.

All learners don’t need to be programmers. All learners do, however, need to be able to evaluate and take risks, transfer skills and actively seek solutions to problems. And to be honest, teachers need these skills as much as the learners. It’s all too easy to be a passive recipient of technology and throw up our hands at the first glitch or bug, but the more we accept that we often can find our own solutions, the more free we are to begin to create and innovate.

We should also remember that the idea that learners are Digital Natives isn’t accurate. No one is born with the innate understanding of how to deal with technology; instead, most young people have been exposed to technology from a young age and, by using a more instinctive ‘play’ approach,  are experimenting with digital skills without that fear of ‘breaking’ the computer. Schools need to identify and fill gaps in learning, and work on the assumption that while pupils may have the technical skills needed to operate digital technology, they may not yet understand the social conventions and cues needed to be a responsible digital citizen.

Our vision for Digital Explorers is one where pupils can consistently demonstrate the following:

  • They have the ability to work across a range of platforms as they understand commonalities of approach and can apply learning in new and unfamiliar settings.
  • They can ‘read’ digital texts and understand how to make best use of them.
  • They show an understanding of the audience and purpose of different forms of media and are able to select the appropriate tool for the   job.
  • They can collaborate with their peers and feel free to actively create rather than being restricted by a set task.
  • Possibly most importantly, they can safely navigate their way through technologies and recognise not only when they have strayed off the proverbial path, but also be able to make a judgement about whether it is a good idea to do so.

An example of learners independently exercising some of these skills can be found in Minecraft. For those not, like us, living with a mini-expert and who may not yet have had the pleasure,  it is a game, available on multiple platforms, which has very basic graphics and in essence is a bit like playing with Lego on a computer.  There are different modes but

Image courtesy of BagoGames@Flickr

the most straightforward is Creative where you cannot die, and don’t need to work to stay fed, watered and safe from the various monsters. In this mode you have unlimited resources so the possibilities are endless. So what do you do…? Whatever you want. In Creative mode you set your own challenges, create freely and then once you have achieved whatever the goal is that you’ve set yourself, you set another, and so on. Young people aren’t rewarded with badges or trophies; they don’t unlock the next level. It is up to them to be motivated and to use their imaginations accordingly. Minecraft is interesting as many pupils are playing with it outside school and self-teaching, or getting tips from each other and/or from YouTube videos created by other players. If we use Minecraft as an example of how to encourage digital literacy, we can see that it provides opportunities to collaborate, to problem solve, to set targets, to create, and to encourage children to take risks and think strategically. It develops digital literacy as it opens lots of possibilities to explore and also have a huge amount of very rewarding fun.  Minecraft is just one example of how we can look beyond traditional learning and teaching methods to find ways to develop those essential skills that today’s children will need as adults.

As well as engaging creatively with games like Minecraft, today’s children soon develop fluency in using social media to communicate with their peers, but they are not learning how to adapt these communication skills when they join the workforce, and they perhaps don’t consider the ‘self’ they will be projecting beyond childhood and their teenage years. This is another area where schools need to help pupils to develop. Digital Explorers must be able to navigate in and negotiate both the physical and digital worlds while being mindful of the self they present. Understanding the norms and rules of these worlds is essential. And that’s where we come in…

Next week, we’ll have a look at what teachers can do to support digital learning, and what help they need to be able to do this with confidence.

What is Digital Literacy?

Without a crystal ball or tarot cards to assist us, we can only take an educated guess at the skills that today’s children will need in the future to ensure they are equipped to meet the challenges that might come their way in the 21st century. However, even without any mystical assistance, it seems clear that the need for digital literacy is vital and part of our role as teachers is to help the young people meet that need.

So what is Digital Literacy? Searching for a definition on Google (‘What is digital literacy?’) brings back a mightily impressive search response of around 16,100,000 results. Yikes! Just a few then! A crystal ball would come in pretty handy around now…

But the truth is, we cannot have a simple and single definition. As the definition of literacy continues to evolve then our definition of digital literacy also needs to be flexible enough to respond to an ever changing world. Indeed, we may find in the future that, as the online and offline worlds become more and more closely intertwined, we no longer need a separate identifier for ‘digital’ literacy – the skills needed to access, critically understand and build upon information in any format may no longer need to be separated simply because one ‘text’ is a paper book and the other is an online environment.

As Doug Belshaw points out in The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, 2014, Iiteracy is a spectrum – we cannot easily define the moment when someone becomes literate  but we can recognise when one learner is more literate than another. Does the same hold true for digital literacy? Of course it does. Just as the child who is read to from when they were a baby, exposed to a rich range texts at home, and provided with opportunities to hear and take part in rich language dialogues, is likely to develop a high level of literacy, the child who is exposed to and familiar with a range of online tools and environments (and the appropriate behaviours and expectations associated with them) will develop the skills and abilities needed to operate effectively in the digital sphere.

However, it’s pretty difficult to try to teach a set of skills if we can’t come up with some coherent definition that’s at least useful for now. Helpfully, HGIOS 4 includes just such a definition in the appendix:

“Digital literacy encompasses the capabilities required for living, learning and working in a digital society. It includes the skills, knowledge, capabilities and attributes around the use of digital technology which enable individuals to develop to their full potential in relation to learning, life and work. It encompasses the skills to use technology to engage in learning through managing information, communicating and collaborating, problem-solving and being creative, and the appropriate and responsible use of technology.” 

 – How Good Is Our School 4, Appendix 2, Education Scotland, September 2015 

This definition can be interpreted in many ways by the teacher trying to make sure she is addressing the theme of Digital Literacy with her class. It would be tempting to focus on the area of digital skills – these are perhaps more quantifiable and ‘trackable’ than some of the other areas of the definition. It’s easy enough to say “Yes, this child can log into a PC, load up a presentation programme, source images online, and present their work using a projector to their peers.” Box ticked, job done? Well, no. What if the child wants to use a different means to present their information? A video? A poster? A website? Were the images the child found online copyright cleared? In fact, do the children know about copyright and how it works online? If the child wants to publish their work online to a wider audience, can they do that, and do they know how to keep safe while doing so?

Teaching only the ability to go through the motions of utilising digital technology is all but useless – in one, five, ten, twenty years these programmes may no longer be in use, the hardware may look nothing like today’s, and the legal landscape online may have vastly changed. What we need to do is prepare learners to be safe, inquisitive, responsible, creative, risk aware but fearless in the online world, and that’s a bit more complex than showing a child how to open a PowerPoint and paste in an image.

The difference between digital skills and wider digital literacies is explored very clearly in this useful article by Maha Bali on the International Literacy Association’s site (thanks to Rosslyn Lee for linking to it on her North Ayrshire Glow Development site).  One example that Maha Bali gives to illustrate the difference looks at educational use of Twitter:

Digital skills would focus on which tool to use (e.g., Twitter) and how to use it (e.g., how to tweet, retweet, use TweetDeck), while digital literacy would include in-depth questions: When would you use Twitter instead of a more private forum? Why would you use it for advocacy? Who puts themselves at risk when they do so?”

These are the types of questions teachers and learners should be exploring when using digital technologies. Not ‘how do I make this work?’ (although that is important) but why should I use this tool and not another? What do I need to consider to make sure I use this tool safely, responsibly and legally? Can I use this in combination with another tool? If not, why not? Can I make them work together?

This may seem like a daunting prospect to a teacher who is not yet confident in the use of digital technology and who worries about his or her own suitability to teach even the basics, but with the right guidance and support, those worries could be vanquished. Curriculum for Excellence is designed to foster creativity and enquiry in all areas of learning – we already design our learning activities to allow for this, and to offer personalisation and choice. In the online world, the opportunities for creativity, exploration and innovation are infinite, and if we ensure the young people understand how to stay safe and responsible while using technology, then there is no better arena for nurturing these attributes.

Over the next few posts, we’re going to be looking more deeply at the theme of Digital Literacy from HGIOS 4. It’s a big area, as we’ve certainly realised over the course of this week when trying to narrow down an aspect to write about! Our plan is to break it down into three posts, each looking at a different set of stakeholders:

  1. Digital Explorers – What does Digital Literacy mean for Scottish learners in 2016?
  1. Digital Guides – what do teachers need to know and do in order to ensure digital literacy for themselves and their learners?
  1. Digital Empowerers – How can school and local authority leaders support the process of improving digital literacy in staff and learners?