According to Nancy Willard, of the Centre for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, "trying to prepare students for their future without Web 2.0 in schools is like trying to teach a child to swim without a swimming pool". Switching off technology will neither protect students through education about self-management at home, nor assist them in rapidly adapting to the use of technology in the workplace when they leave school.
She suggests that the level of security overkill in most schools is bordering on hysterical. Children are prevented from certain types of online participation in schools due to perceived threats to students from on-line predators. However, online contact with minors is involved in only 1% of actual sexual abuse cases. Willard also points out that those with less internet contact are generally more concerned about online safety than those that use the internet more regularly: 46% of low-level users think the Internet is too dangerous for children, compared to 24% of broadband or high-level users.
Are school cyber safety measures out-of-touch with the realities of online use? And how do these concerns influence classroom practices when it comes to information technologies?
Researching attitudes to technology in the classroom
I set out to answer these questions through a study of attitudes, which compared digitally literate students’ to digitally-challenged teachers and visa versa. In this study being undertaken at Swinburne University and sponsored by the Wesley College Institute for Innovation in Education, 321 students in years 9 and 10 and 100 educators were surveyed about their attitudes to digital literacy and the use of digital technologies. The schools were co-educational independent schools with laptop programs and significant differences were observed in student and educator attitudes towards each other's digital literacy.
The hypothesis, "that there is a disconnect between the digitally capable students and digitally challenged educators in schools with laptop programs, limiting effective use of digital technology in the classroom" was supported in the findings. This has repercussions for educating “net generation” students and implications for the implementation of the National Secondary Computer Fund and National Broadband Network. The disconnect was revealed in terms of attitudes towards technology in the classroom, teaching pedagogy, internet use, adoption of cutting-edge technologies and limitations placed on school laptops and networks.
In this study 57 statements were provided to research participants, who were then grouped into four groups: digitally capable students, digitally challenged students, digitally capable educators and digitally challenged educators.
They effectively self-assigned themselves to these groups according to their responses. The methodology involved a five-point Likert scale to measure attitude differences between groups.
Using technologies in the classroom: educators versus students
There are clearly many attitude differences amongst participants towards the use of digital technologies and the internet by students. Some people are rapid adopters and some people are not. Students (27.7%), like their educators (40.9%), may be digitally challenged (27.7%). So that there is evidence that the so-called Net Generation students do not have a universally high level of digital literacy.
Educators commented that digital display technology is essential in classrooms so that they can demonstrate internet use, web 2.0 tools and/or specialised software or hardware.
Educators agreed that student misuse is common (60%) and students thought that educators have difficulties in using digital technologies (57%) causing time wasting due to a lack of knowledge or technical constraints. An enhancement of digital literacy would limit time wasting in the classroom and increase efficiency. Some educators remedy the first issue by positioning themselves where student screens are visible.
Educators are more fearful of the possible risks of digital technologies and use of the internet in the classroom (59.8%) than are their students (25.8%). This reinforces Willard’s findings that, as digital literacy increases, fear of using digital technologies decreases. Yet educators who cope confidently with online challenges are more likely to have a greater digital literacy. Those who use Web 2.0 technologies regularly are more likely to see its use as being relevant in the classroom and to use digital technologies collaboratively and/or in group projects. These educators are more enthusiastic about using new technologies and more likely to use them, although they are in the minority (18%) compared to those who do not encourage Web 2.0 use (53.9%).
Digitally challenged educators are often not using constructivist pedagogy in the classroom and more likely to adopt an educator-centric approach. Mathematics, Physical Education, Art, Music and LOTE educators are less likely to use digital technologies. Humanities, Science, English and ICT educators are more likely to allow students to use it. However, use in English depends on individual school environment, relating to school curriculum or subject faculty administration in individual schools. Hence, curriculum leaders are able to influence the way digital technologies are used.
The vast majority of all students (76.5%) and educators (100%) agreed that digital literacy is important in future employment. Yet, strangely, many of these educators rarely allow students to use digital technologies in their classrooms.
Since students have low levels of Digital Literacy, it needs to be asked whether they are accessing technology programs that enable them with the capacity to self-learn in an ever evolving technological age. If technology is embedded in the curriculum, student Digital Literacy will only be enhanced where educators are sufficiently trained in the use and implementation of Digital Technologies within the curriculum context.
A majority of students (58.3%) and educators (67%) agree that schools should allow students to explore self expression using Digital Technologies and be encouraged to use new technologies in schools (students 72.4% and educators 87.9%). There is also recognition that Digital Technologies allows greater flexibility of classroom delivery of content and methods of research than traditional modes of education. However, many students are dissatisfied with their school laptop setup (48%), that they prefer to use it at home (32.9%) and that most of their Digital Literacy has developed through home use (69.7%). Many of these students have high levels of Digital Literacy.
Although educators think students should explore self-expression using Digital Technologies (67%) and that Digital Technologies make them more creative (64.5%) and innovative (77.8%), only 39.8% of students think that most of their teachers encourage them to use Digital Technologies in the classroom even though 69.2% say that they encourage students to learn by discovery using Digital Technologies. Hence educators are often not meeting the needs of students in terms of enhancing student capacity to use new technologies, despite their beliefs, so that actual behaviour is not reflecting affective or cognitive attitude components. It is probable that generally it is the 46.3% of educators who say they are passionate about using Digital Technologies in schools, that are encouraging its use. Therefore students with low levels of technological access at home are being limited in acquiring Digital Literacy by schools and educators. This may eventually affect student employability. This has serious ramifications for school administrations. This also indicates that even schools that have had laptop programs for a number of years are in a transitional state in adopting Digital Technologies.
On a more optimistic note, aside from beliefs that Digital Technologies enhances creativity and innovation, laptop programs have wide support amongst users with 82.6% of students and 94.6% of educators agreeing that they enjoy having a school laptop and enjoy using the Internet (89.4% and 90.7%).
From these findings is recommended that:
- Students be encouraged to use new technologies including: laptops, tablets, digital cameras, iPads, smart phones, Web 2.0 tools, simulation software, social media, 3-D and gaming technologies.
- Schools may benefit from exploring the use of social media sites like Facebook, as they offer excellent communication modes and it is plausible that related cyber-safety would be enhanced and online anti-social behaviour could be rectified.
- Innovative use of Digital Technologies requires that schools focus on professional development of staff and student training in the use of these technologies. This will require curriculum initiatives.
- Schools should use their digital innovators as a resource to lead them in the adoption of future technologies and assist administrators in deciding between alternative solutions. A minority of educators are highly skilled innovators in the use of Digital Technologies and remain at the cutting edge of new technologies; they are the visionaries and pacesetters in the adoption of new technologies. Administrators making decisions about technological access, new purchases and/or limitations of access are likely to have little experience in using new technologies and almost certainly no professional training.
- Schools should prioritise employing digitally literate educators to boost staff skill levels and assist in the professional development of current staff. This is particularly pertinent where schools are implementing a new laptop program.
- New innovations in schools are often hamstrung by exaggerated fears of new Digital Technologies and excessive security limitations. There is a need for user requirements and innovation to be prioritised.
Despite the fact that constructivist pedagogy has been at the forefront of teacher education in Australia for more than 30 years, it is clear that a teacher-centric approach is still at the forefront of educational methodology in many classrooms. Yet there are also educational innovators who show a high level of enthusiasm for Digital Technologies and who have a high level of Digital Literacy. They use new technologies where possible and they are inspired by their own sense of curiosity, exploration and learning for learning sake. These are the lifelong learners who are optimistic about a bright and exciting future in using technology in schools. These teachers should be supported in their work and encouraged to share their knowledge with other educators.
Digital implementation and innovation needs to be overseen by a “digital innovations team”. This team should be established in schools and have skilled representatives and a significant budget in order to prioritise new technological implementations and make informed choices. Digital innovators, with representatives of teaching staff, information technology, library, e-learning, finance, professional development and curriculum would inform school administrations about recommended projects to be implemented each year. Students, parents and teachers should also become involved in through regular user surveys.
A user-focused innovative approach to future uses of technology will need to be translated into budgetary information and technical implementation. Change should be seen as an inevitable priority in schools and it should be recognised through visionary policy.