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?


Buckle In

September 2015 saw the publication of How Good Is Our School 4 – the latest incarnation of Scotland’s school inspectorate’s quality framework.  The evolution of the HGIOS series has moved from looking at ways for school leaders to quantify and monitor effective learning and teaching, through the self-evaluative model of HGIOS 3, and now to the all-inclusive, collaborative and reflective framework of HGIOS 4.

The number of quality indicators has been halved since HGIOS 3 – down to 15 from 30 – with only three sections: Leadership and Management, Learning Provision, and Successes and Achievements. The order is deliberate – effective leadership allows for and supports effective learning provision, which leads to success and achievement for the learners.

Yet, despite its streamlined appearance, HGIOS 4 is arguably the most significant version of the framework we’ve seen. As well as tightening up the format, condensing the best of what has come before into a clearer, more manageable structure, the document introduces and highlights areas that have been missing or merely nodded to in the past.

One of these areas is the one these bloggers are most interested in – Digital Competencies.

Outcome 3.3 in HGIOS 4 – Increasing Creativity and Employability –  includes the themes of Digital Innovation and Digital Literacy. It would be useful here to look at the Level 5 Illustrations for each of these themes, to make it clear what ‘very good’ practice might look like:

Digital Innovation: Children and young people work individually and in teams creating both digital and non-digital solutions. As their digital literacy becomes more sophisticated they embed computation to solve problems. Increasingly they apply the core principles underpinning digital technologies to develop their own ideas. Their skills are up-to-date with technological advances informed by a range of sources including the expertise of the young people themselves. 

Digital Literacy: Children and young people are innovative, confident and responsible in the use of technologies and staying safe online. They critically examine and make informed choices about the use of digital technology to enhance and personalise learning in school and where appropriate, beyond the school day. They anticipate and respond to new opportunities and threats caused by developments now and in the future. 

HGIOS 4, 2015

While these illustrations are not meant to be exactly replicated, they give a good example of the standard of digital engagement that will now be expected, should a school hope to achieve a ‘very good’ rating in this quality indicator. And many schools, reading this for the first time, will experience a creeping sense of panic, wondering “How are we going to approach this?”

Obviously, this is not the case for all schools. There is excellent practice going on within some schools and local authorities, such as Falkirk (who have been very forward thinking in their encouragement of schools to develop digital literacy), and East Lothian (who have historically been ahead of the game where digital learning is concerned). However, the onus is now on everyone to ensure that that Digital Literacy is given an important seat at the table with all staff being made responsible for this. This is either terrifying or exhilarating depending on the way you look at it, and to get uncertain staff on the digital roller-coaster, especially those who feel their own digital competencies are lacking, schools need to be able to offer them supports so that they climb on feeling suitably ‘buckled in’ for the ride.

Key ideas leap out of the HGIOS 4 message of digital innovation and digital literacy, encouraging creative thinking and collaboration and offering a level of challenge to both staff and pupils. Schools, who by now have had years to embed Literacy, Numeracy and Health and Wellbeing as responsibilities of all, are faced with a new challenge that will arguably be one of the most critical in keeping schools relevant in the future. Our ability to prepare young people for life beyond the classroom depends on our ability to foster and embed these essential skills for life, learning and work while nurturing creative thinking and resourcefulness.

Of course, the need to be digitally competent in the workforce is not new, with the majority of jobs in the UK today requiring the confident use of digital technologies. However, until this point, schools have been able to gloss over this much needed skillset, confident that their teaching was meeting pupil needs in all the ways that mattered, at least as far as HMIe were concerned.  In many cases, pupils’ digital competencies were left to develop by themselves. After all, isn’t it a common (if not strictly true) adage that today’s learners are digital natives, while their teachers hold only digital immigrant status? Don’t we all know that the kids know way more about ‘ICT’ than their teachers anyway? So what could we possibly teach them? But even ‘natives’ require support and guidance. We cannot assume that all pupils have encountered the same digital learning experiences out of school, that they will have been exposed to the same technologies at home, or that they will have an awareness of digital safety, etiquette and applications. We need to facilitate their learning, providing a space where pupils can safely challenge and be challenged. In order to do this, our profession needs to look inwards and be prepared to move beyond the traditional teacher role of ‘expert knowledge transmitter’. The role of the teacher is evolving and HGIOS 4 is clear indicator of this change. We are as much learners as the pupils (or at least, we should be) and we need to be willing to take on the challenge and move out of our comfort zones.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a closer look at the digital themes in HGIOS 4, and examine what the changes might really mean for learners and teachers in this Digital Nation.