Jane Hunter

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

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 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

Does professional development improve teaching?

Most Australian teachers returned to their schools last week, and for many their first day back was a pupil-free day spent doing doing professional development. I am sure most teachers were respectful and attentive to whatever sessions had been organised for them and fellow staff members by their school, but after the long summer holidays it can be a challenge.

I wonder how effective these professional development experiences might be for our teachers? Do we really know? Usually professional development is evaluated on the day and feedback is given, but how reliable or useful might this be? I am especially interested having just read a new paper by Professor Mary M Kennedy from Michigan State University.

So how does teacher professional development work?

Kennedy looked at 28 studies of all types of professional development (PD) programs for teacher learning in the US. Kennedy invites her readers to think about the idea that although there is widespread agreement about the importance of PD, and that PD can foster improvements in teaching, there is little consensus about how PD actually works.

She asks questions such as: What happens in PD? How does it actually foster teacher learning and furthermore how is it expected to change teaching practice? How can education researchers give more attention to developing their ideas about teacher learning alongside what they know about student learning?

Kennedy points out that there is no single overarching theory of teaching or of teacher learning and this is what makes the effects of PD complex. Now more than ever, teachers are enveloped by multiple conflicting messages about what is most important in the classroom, and that if one’s attention is in a particular area, then it may compromise their effectiveness in another. I often hear the lament that the education system is “noisy” and the feeling of being overloaded by education ideas/strategies/practices/content is tangible.

A second feature Kennedy raises has to do with how teachers’ translate new ideas into their own systems of practice. It’s worth remembering that PD is usually conducted outside of the classroom and whatever is said, modelled or shown during a PD session is meant to alter behaviours inside the classroom. It is a tall order when you break it down; the problem of enactment as Kennedy calls it, becomes very real.

Often in education literature, the terms professional development and professional learning are used interchangeably. And so, the term professional development is the activity, the process and experience teachers engage in, in order to develop their professional learning. Certainly from Australian colleagues there appears to be some agreement that professional learning primarily should be school-based and school-managed, and be focused on improving and reflecting on teaching practice. The scholarship of practitioner research embraces many of these ideals.

Critical professional development program design

In the final section of Kennedy’s paper there is a useful discussion of critical PD program design features:

  • There should be some element of content knowledge that has a broader goal of exposing student thinking
  • PD must include opportunities for collective participation – where it’s possible for teachers to discuss the intellectual work they are engaged in
  • It ought to have intensity in relation to time and the amount of information transmitted and especially when the PD program provides strategies or insights
  • Consider using coaches, again it depends on the coach, and the studies reviewed showed that coaches, as might be expected, vary in value
  • Should pay attention to the PD providers, for example, how are they selected, prepared for their work and examine how their efficacy is assessed; and
  • Issues of sustainability are critical in terms of the PD effects, and what does that look like at the end of the program, and then after one, or two years.

Kennedy finishes her review with a call to arms in that we need to ensure that PD promotes real learning for teachers’ rather than merely adding more noise to their working environment. Here, here I say!

I confess, that the Kennedy paper spoke to me at the right time. I was preparing for a PD session with teachers at Parramatta High School on the first day of the new school year. I changed a few of my plans.


*It is important to note in the paper it is PD (professional development) programs that Professor Kennedy is referring to.

The author would like to acknowledge and reference the paper from which many of the quotes and positions are drawn and trusts that this snapshot represents Professor Kennedy’s work in a meaningful and fair manner.

Kennedy, M. (2016). How does professional development improve learning? Review of Educational Research, , 86(4), 945-980.


Dr Jane Hunter is an education researcher in the School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She is conducting a series of STEM studies in Australian schools; in this work she leads teachers, school principals, students and communities to better understand and support education change. Jane was a classroom teacher, and she 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. You can follow her on Twitter @janehunter01


Secondary schooling in Australia needs to change: throw out the tests and bring in deep learning

There is a problem in some Australian secondary schools right now.  ‘Endgame’ assessments such as the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW and the requirements of an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) to gain entrance to university, place restrictions on the kinds of teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms. Some teachers are frustrated that this ‘current game’ of secondary school is the only one that can be played.

So, alternative models of secondary schooling are becoming regular topics of conversation, debate and disquiet in the world of education. Just look at an education discussion on Twitter or go to an education conference or TeachMeet and you will hear the lament: there has to be a better way.

The desire for something else

At a few education forums in past months both here and overseas I have invited audiences of principals, system leaders, teachers, students and in one case, parents, to consider reimagining high school.

I tell them I believe teachers and students might be better served by teaching that is not ‘high stakes’ focused.  Could we dare to move away from the rigid systems we currently impose?

When I deliver such ideas people gasp and clap. But no rotten tomatoes are thrown. Afterwards, delegates email me to share: “high schools are not serving many adolescents well” or “we could focus on learning” type messages. I believe there is gathering momentum and a mood for change. There is unrest in the education ranks.

How could secondary schooling change?

Educators are talking a lot more about the type of skills mentioned in the Australian Curriculum general capabilities, such as critical and creative thinking, ICT capability, personal and social capability, and ethical and intercultural understanding as well as literacy and numeracy across subject areas. As I see it, these are quite a few of the ‘necessary skills’; the ‘grit skills’, the ‘growth skills’, the ‘public good skills’ = making ‘a good life skills’ for young people.

In the early years at some high schools, teachers and whole year groups are doing week-long interdisciplinary assessments. These are not just brief end-of year tasks but deep learning opportunities that include real-world projects, significant design challenges and creative exercises to enrich and create a vision of schooling that is able to better to inform, critique and question a ‘post truth’ society.

Let’s agree, what we are doing is not working

We saw it with the most recent announcement of international maths and science comparisons. Now the 2016 PISA results are out and Australia has fallen further down ‘the global assessment gradient’. All the usual ‘click bait’, ministerial cries, glib talk-back radio, hand wringing and finger pointing radiated out across the country. It is because we have a problem with schools/principals/teachers/parents/teacher educators … we will need more checks, frequent tests, new assessments. And now a commercial business is to develop the PISA 2018 Student Assessment 21st Century Frameworks for the OECD.

However, as Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel says, “… do I take these findings seriously? Yes, I do.”

Well folks, guess what, the current model in Australian secondary schools is not working.

Yes there are whole industries who support same old same old (government policies, think-tank reports, the current political climate, boards of study, coaching schools, instruction makers, publishing houses and education research). Changing things would not be easy. Also the altruistic nature of teaching means that as long as final ‘high stakes’ assessments are valued in secondary schooling, teachers won’t compromise their students by considering more student-centred pedagogies. There is a lot more talk needed about all of that.

But, just maybe, as another education year draws to a close, it is time to #rethinkhighschool. Seriously.

Dr Jane Hunter is an education researcher in the School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She is conducting a series of STEM studies in Australian schools; in this work she leads teachers, school principals, students and communities to better understand and support education change. Her book ”Technology Integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK” is advancing new ways of enacting pedagogy in K-12 schools. Jane was a classroom teacher, and she 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. You can follow her on Twitter @janehunter01


‘Click bait’ hijacks the real story about technology in Australian schools

A recent education report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said, among many other things, young people first “need to be equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills so they can participate fully in the hyper-connected, digitized society of the 21st Century”. It went on to make tenuous links between too much technology and falling literacy and numeracy, but first warned, quite early in the report, that “the findings must not lead to despair”.

That was all it took. What followed was a media frenzy, here and overseas, which produced a range of very negative stories. For example: “Are iPads a waste of money? OECD report says yes” stated The Age; in the Huffington Post in the United States: “Putting more technology in schools may not make kids smarter: OECD Report”; and in the United Kingdom the title of a BBC News story “Computers ‘do not improve pupils results says OECD”.

If you look closely at the report Students, Computers and Learning, which uses results from the 2012 PISA computer-based assessment of ICT literacy of students aged 15 in 31 countries across the globe, it is saying there is much good news. The leaps of logic in the interpretation and application of findings in the report picked up by various media outlets are considerable and unfortunate.

The examples I gave are just three of at least twelve damaging stories I read after the report’s release. They show how complex education issues in schools, and for principals, teachers, students and jurisdictions are increasingly reduced to the ‘education sound bite’. This kind of reportage serves as click bait for online readers.

Politicians may then take what reporters say as ‘gospel’. However, far more insidious, is the harmful effect such headlines have on teacher morale and the public’s view of education and schools more generally.

The real story about technology in Australian schools

In 2015 teachers’ work in technology-enhanced learning in classrooms in NSW is exciting. I have carried out research in a number of Australian primary and high schools since 2011 and my research shows there is good progress with technology enhanced learning and the pace is hastening. This research is ongoing.

Students are doing tech well in many Australian schools. They are stepping up to embrace the challenges that learning effectively with technologies demands. Results in student assessment in these schools show this. However connectivity in many schools is still far from ideal and even within major cities it is variable.

I agree with the OECD report where it states, “young people do want to be taught how to search more effectively”. My recent research indicates that. It also demonstrates that in some high schools in particular classrooms, students want teachers to leave behind the industrial model of “talking at them”, using “mindless work sheets” and “copying endless notes off the board”. Students desire many more opportunities to problem solve, work in teams, carry out long-term real-world projects, create films/animations, and use inquiry and project-based learning. The OECD report says this too.

I know from first hand experience that technology inequities exist in our schools and the “digital divide” is real. I also understand most schools make provisions for providing computers and other mobile devices to students who cannot afford them.

Something that has not been reported widely is that groundbreaking programs like the Digital Education Revolution (DER) meant for the first time every student from Year 9 onwards in an Australian public school had access to a small technological device. The program was not perfect but what it did do effectively (and there are evaluations that show this) is it placed technology in the hands of students who could not normally afford it. DER served to ‘whet the appetite’ of technological things to come, like educational apps, augmented reality, 3D printing, maker labs, geo spatial technologies, code and digital games. It enabled tech-savvy ‘early adopter teachers’ to play with technology, to see how it changed core concepts and how learning inside classrooms could be more engaging and motivating for young people, whose ‘digital bedrooms’ at home were a parallel universe to their lives at school.

Technology hardware and software is expensive. Governments must replace outdated equipment. Provide more time for professional development. This is vital investment that will allow teachers, as the OECD report contends, to become “active agents of change”.

I am about to start teaching a digital technologies course in a doctoral program for teachers in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in the United States. This is relevant because yesterday the school received a $5.6M gift from an alumnus. The donor, who wanted to remain anonymous, hopes the philanthropic commitment will inspire others. “Without properly trained teachers, our country would not have an educated population. Teachers are critical if we want a strong and vibrant society,” said the donor.

We need the Australian public and politicians to understand, and actively support, what is going on in our schools and in teacher education in universities, but how can we do this when complex issues are reduced to the lowest common denominator in the media? We are doing all educators a disservice when stories about technology in schools are hijacked as ‘click bait’.


Jane Photo copyDr Jane Hunter teaches pre-service teachers in curriculum, pedagogy and technology enhanced learning in the School of Education at Western Sydney University. She is a researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at the same institution. Jane is the author of Technology integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK, New York: Routledge published earlier this year. In March 2016 she is a keynote speaker at the Future Schools Conference in Sydney.