April.3.2017

The four challenges Australia faces to improve the digital literacy of new teachers

By Jane Hunter

The digital literacy of pre-service teachers was put in the spotlight recently. A report on the review of teaching information and communication technologies in initial teacher education received considerable media attention when new NSW education minister, Rob Stokes, released it.

The 49-page report, if you’d like to read it, is largely positive. However when Minister Stokes announced the report he spoke about “the need to better prepare teachers for an increasingly digital and online world.” So discussion that followed in the media quickly degenerated into conversation about the deficits in teacher education in NSW.

I wish we wouldn’t do that. Why is there always a need to lay blame, and why is initial teacher education often the scapegoat?

The report makes seven recommendations for initial teacher education. They are full of jargon and the language quite dense to any non-teacher. But suffice to say the review recommends that teacher education institutions should give priority to the digital literacy of their pre-service teachers as well as teaching them how to integrate technology into the curriculum. It emphasizes mentoring, and the provision of examples of best practice.

I am not here to critique those recommendations in particular (although I do wonder who sat on the ‘expert panel’ that made them, as the review does not tell us). What I want to do – as a former teacher in schools, researcher in classrooms and frequent teacher educator in universities in the field of technology enhanced learning – is talk about some of the challenges faced in teaching digital literacy skills to pre-service teachers and more generally to students in NSW schools.

The four challenges

Connectivity

Connectivity is still not consistent in many NSW public schools. Being able to connect every time, and quickly, is difficult. When I taught in a rural university in the US in late 2015 and visited various schools this was not the case. It was, to use a favourite word from the review, “seamless”. It must be easy every time in our schools.

Until having a seamless connection in every school is given proper attention and becomes a funding priority, teachers (especially new graduate teachers) will continue to be reluctant to base their lesson on something that depends on being connected. The fear, of course, is of their lesson falling apart. Some new graduate teachers do risk it and succeed; others try it but have a back up plan if they can’t connect readily the first time. But really, this should not be an issue in 2017.

Funding for professional development

Each large rollout of technology in NSW public schools (I am thinking of the Connected Classrooms Program in particular) was not accompanied by adequate funds for teacher professional development. There were newsletters with school-based case studies and some online materials. However, schools/teachers/principals were left to search for what they needed.

In the case of the federal government’s Digital Education Revolution (DER) there was hardware and a technical support officer but no dedicated funds for professional development or ongoing teacher professional learning.

This is critical in the tech space as obsolescence arrives fast and the ever-evolving state of tech means you must continually keep up to date.

Many tech companies have come into schools sold their products and left. There was scope in these two technology programs to work with teacher education; several did it quite well providing skills training for interactive whiteboards for pre-service teachers and some in content management systems. And of course, many of the larger tech companies did iPad deals with universities. But initial teacher education was peripheral to most of the exchanges.

The latest report seems to call for more ‘clinical training’. This could and does occur within preparation in subject disciplines. However in initial teacher education we not only teach with tech in our courses/units but we must also model it in terms of how pre-service teachers can construct deep learning alongside content for students in schools.

In the unit I am teaching at UTS this semester, in the Master of Teaching Program, I am reaching out to ‘teachers in the field’ to share what they do in secondary English. We connect via Skype or a Google Hangout each week. My students perfect and share a new tech app/tool/device that pedagogically fosters learning within their discipline. I prototype other technologies in unit content and last semester in the Digital Learning for a Digital Generation unit we focused on theory and effective technology enhanced learning practices in subject disciplines. We concluded the semester with a series of TeachMeets with excellent local in-service teachers as keynote speakers.

Develop digital fluency

A third challenge for initial teachers education is around suitable frameworks to develop pre-service and in-service teachers’ digital fluency. At the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) conference in Austin, Texas two weeks ago I learned that initial teacher education colleagues from a university in The Netherlands are using case studies to build confidence in digital skills and teaching practices in their pre-service teachers. They too found their teachers unable to connect digital literacy skills with theory and practice in classrooms in Dutch schools.

The case studies being used are those of some exemplary teachers from NSW public schools. Data collected in research over two years for these Dutch pre-service teacher cohorts shows this approach has impact. I can certainly enable access to the papers if people are interested.

In addition, a draft document detailing 12 teacher educator technology competencies was previewed. These are well worth consideration. Another peak technology in education association in the US with whom our local computer in education associations work, released a set of teacher standards in 2016. You could check these out.

In the digital literacy report, in addition to mentioning the technology framework of TPACK (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge) and SAMR (Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition ) there is scope to include the framework of High Possibility Classrooms an Australian example of a robust, validated pedagogical scaffold for technology enhanced learning for pre-service and in-service teachers. Several NSW public schools have High Possibility Classrooms in their strategic plans and in Victoria and the ACT; primary and secondary schools are finding it fills a much-needed gap in the how and why and why not of technology enhanced learning.

Educators involved with initial teacher education need continuous hands on experiences in schools

 The fourth challenge is to find a way for those involved in initial teacher education to spend time in contemporary classrooms. Many do and I acknowledge that.

Here is a radical idea: the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) could work with initial teacher education institutions to find placements in schools or classrooms for teacher educators for a minimum of five days in every year. It would be an internship of sorts. Or is that one step too far?

I believe initial teacher education is doing its work in NSW but, yes, there is more to do. It is an important conversation for us to have.

 

Dr Jane Hunter is an education researcher in technology enhanced learning the School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She is conducting a series of STEM studies focused on building teacher capacity; in this work she leads teachers, school principals, students and communities to better understand and support education change. Jane was a senior education officer/advisor in the NSW Department of Education for seven years, and in her work in initial teacher education at three NSW universities has received national and international teaching awards for outstanding contributions to student learning. She enjoys writing and her research-based presentations at national and international conferences challenge audiences to consider alternate education possibilities. This Wednesday evening at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences she is a NSW finalist for STEM communication in FameLab.

You can follow her on Twitter @janehunter01

4 thoughts on “The four challenges Australia faces to improve the digital literacy of new teachers

  1. Deb McPherson says:

    Thanks Jane, what a valuable insight into teacher education in the digital field.

  2. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thanks for this summary of the “dense, jargon -filled” recommendations made by the faceless committee of the report.
    My incursions in to the history of “literacy” suggest that changes in the technologies for, and purposes of, using written language always create issues for educators and policy makers. I think the shift from clay tablets and rocks to papyrus, from paper scrolls to books with pages, the invention of the printing press, all created similar issues for those educators/ politicians who were around when these changes occurred. What’s remained constant during all these changes is the human species’ unique ability to construct and communicate meaning using abstract symbols irrespective of the technology used. My fear is that changes in technology might interfere with what biological and cultural evolution has made possible.

  3. It seems to me, as a non-expert in the field of school teacher education, that the solution is quite simple: e-learning and blended learning should be used for basic teacher training. In this way computers in teaching will become normal and natural for new teachers and not something to be feared. Equip each new teacher with a $400 mobile broadband touchscreen laptop, so they are not reliant on school infrastructure. Then send them out to schools

  4. Victoria Keech says:

    The IT in universities needs to be just as seamless as schools which teachers are learning to teach in. Seamless connectivity simply does not exist as a priority for state or federal governments and schools are at the mercy of both.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *