Digital Literacy: A Moving Target

When I was in the ninth grade, I took a typing class. It was expected that most students in my school did. We did have electric typewriters back then, not manual, but they were definitely typewriters and not keyboards. My classmates and I learned about the home keys, and over the course of a year we learned the others and different conventions of typing. Typing was an expected skill for most students, so could be considered a basic literacy.

The author with his pal Max honing their digital literacy skills on their weekly Zoom family meeting.

Twenty years later, I was working on digital literacy training for school leaders. No more typewriters! It was all PCs now. I had just entered an elementary school in Georgia to visit with and interview an exemplary principal when we ran across a young man pushing a large cart of older laptops down one of the school hallways. The principal looked at me and said, “I’m having the old laptops sent to the Kindergarten classes so they can learn keyboarding now and really apply those skills next year.” Next year, as in the first grade! So much for the keyboarding expectations for high school students.

Travel forward another 20 years to a fourth-grade classroom I visited in Kentucky last week. Every child had a laptop on their desk and they were working away on several tasks comparing and contrasting Greek and Roman gods to prepare for reading one of the Percy Jackson novels. The students were going back and forth between a spreadsheet, some notes from online research, and the Canva website where they were using their information to create an infographic. One young man in front of me furiously pounded away on his keyboard about as quickly as I can touch type, but…he was truly a hunt-and-peck aficionado. Most of the students were. My typing teacher wouldn’t have liked their style. She might have gotten out the masking tape to cover their keys, but their method didn’t slow them down. I can’t imagine what they could do with their thumbs on a handheld, touchscreen device. I’m sure they’re much better than I am.

This little storyline emphasizes that the idea of what a person should know and be able to do to be considered “literate” evolves over time. I’ve been working with schools on aspects of digital literacy for much of my career, but just like this story, the digital literacy projects I worked on 20 years ago are different from what they are now. I’m co-author of a textbook with two of my mentors, Kathy Cennamo from Virginia Tech and Peg Ertmer from Purdue. It focuses on the ISTE Standards for Students and for Educators, but those standards have changed over time. They’ve moved from being very tool-focused to focusing on what teachers and students do with digital resources. To reflect this, we had some foundational agreements about technology that thread their way through the multiple editions. One of those is that technology is constantly changing, which means “being literate” changes, and so we encouraged our readers to become lifelong learners who understand how to manage change and develop new literacies as they become important. Another is, “it’s more important how you use technology than if you use it.” (Cennamo, K. S., Ross, J. D., & Ertmer, P. A. (2019). Technology integration for meaningful use. A standards-based approach. Boston, MA: Cengage. P. 2.)

I’ve been working on the “what technology skills do our students need to know” question with numerous school districts across the country a lot lately. During the time of forced remote learning, so many school districts bought a lot of devices and digital resources for students but didn’t have the time or ability to thoroughly teach everyone how to use them—even teachers. Now that students are once again attending schools every day with those devices, we are seeing teachers and students with access to powerful devices and digital resources but perhaps not using them as effectively as they could be. But what to focus on? Many adults are calling for isolating technology and teaching those skills separately. For example, some think we should stop everything and focus on typing, because typing was once seen as an important skill (and still probably is for some) but is it that important for everyone? Phones are more ubiquitous than laptops with keyboards. What skills do you need to be considered literate if your digital device doesn’t have a keyboard or you don’t need to use one? Phones have teeny tiny keyboards that I can’t use my touch-typing skills with, and many people just talk to their phone (or TV remote, or smart speaker, or other device) to navigate the apps on it.

I go back to the how you’re using technology part of the equation as being the most important consideration for being literate. The ISTE Standards no longer focus on the technology you’re using. Instead, they encourage students and adults to become empowered learners who leverage technology to connect with content and with others to support their learning. They acknowledge how important it is for all of us to be savvy digital citizens that understand what it means to live in an information-rich society and to manage and protect our own information and data that is now generated in any number of media formats with the click of a button. They inspire us to communicate and collaborate locally and across the globe and to create innovative new products and propose solutions to challenging, real-world problems. What I see as the connecting thread behind those standards is that they happen everywhere, not in isolation. They happen in every class. They happen on the playground, and at home, and everywhere else, and so maybe the secret to digital literacy is to not consider it something separate or unique. It’s just literacy. And we use the tools that are necessary to be literate in whatever situation we’re in.

This entry is cross-posted with the Region 8 Comprehensive Center blog.

Deeper Assessment: Why don’t we practice what we know we should do?

As part of my work as an innovation coach with the Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network, I collaborated with Julie Foss to present a four-part series on Deeper Assessment. This post is cross-posted with Advanced Learning Partnerships (ALP), a partner in the Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network who has graciously asked me to participate as a coach.

Driving Questions: What do we really want students to know and be able to do? How do we determine what’s important? To them? To us? To our subject areas? To our communities?

The four-part series on Deeper Assessment began with a high-level overview of using backwards design to decide what we really want students to know and do. Prioritizing learning outcomes is a common first step in designing a guaranteed and viable curriculum that prepares students beyond “the test.” Prioritizing standards helps determine vertical scope to prepare students for future courses in their sequence as well as to develop transferable skills across courses and subject areas. Ultimately, the highest priority standards help prepare students for “life,” whatever that may look like now, a month from now, or years from now.

The session started with a short clip from Ted Dintersmith’s Most Likely to Succeed of Linda Darling-Hammond sharing research on how fleeting inert knowledge is. Inert knowledge is information we memorize and repeat but never really use, and we lose about 90% of all inert knowledge we are exposed to. The clip from Dintersmith’s Innovation Playlist reports findings from a study conducted at the Lawrenceville Academy in New Jersey, where over two years, students were re-tested in the fall on their final science exams. Average scores went from a B+ to an F. Most students failed their exams after just three months. Moderator Julie Foss asked the 20+ participants in the session whether they might expect these same outcomes in their own divisions.

  • Justin Roerink, principal of the Hanover Center for Trades & Technology speculated that the trend might be found in a lot of classrooms. He queried, “How important is the material we are asking students to learn?” He further questioned the value of material we present to students if they don’t remember it a day, a week, or a month later. He encouraged increased use of hands-on assessments.
  • Stephanie Haskins from Staunton City Schools, noted that for a long time teachers have been caught up in the details of what needs to be taught rather than the big ideas of, “what is the important concept here?” She suggested that now is a good time to back up and forget about “all the details and all the bullets” and focus on the big ideas we really want students to understand. These big ideas will be far more memorable.
Priority Standards: You get what you aim for.

Moderator John Ross shared an overview of a backwards design process, one that many educators hear about but few use in practice, at least according to his experience. In that process, prioritized standards lead to those big ideas Stephanie Haskins references. Then assessments are developed first, based on those big ideas, and prior to considering any instructional materials or activities. That’s the crux of backwards design: design the assessment first. Using a “Fist to Five” formative protocol, participants were asked “How does this backwards design process resonate with current practice in your division?” The most common responses were 2s and 3s. 

  • Stephen Castle from Hanover County acknowledged “4 in theory…2 or 3 in practice” further noting that it’s important to dedicate time to build a truly collaborative PLC structure where teachers can do the work of prioritizing standards and determining a systematic and structured approach to addressing them. He acknowledged that despite these efforts, some teachers may still be reluctant to trust that taking a mastery-based approach is going to yield the results they want on “the test” at the end of the year. He suggested many teachers pull back from more authentic instruction prior to testing and rely on “drill-and-kill” to get information pushed into students’ inert knowledge, which we know from Linda Darling-Hammond, doesn’t stick.
  • Andrea Hand from Fairfax County Public Schools concurred with Castle and shared the idea of the tension between “have to have versus nice to have syndrome.” Some educators believe that one thing they “have to have” is good test scores at the end of the year, so they focus on that. Once they feel comfortable that will happen they can then work on the more authentic learning and others which, to them, fall under the category of “nice to have.” She suggests that the more we can advocate and align the “have to haves” with our collective beliefs around authentic learning it would guarantee students more of those experiences. 

This tension is real, but many of the participants felt that our unique circumstances have given us reason to get back to what we know works to provide more authentic instruction that prioritizes learning outcomes to the needs of students, not just trying to cram in inert knowledge students will likely soon forget. Many of the participants continued through the rest of the week with additional sessions on designing performance-based tasks, creating learning progressions that lead to standards-based rubrics, and exploring portfolios and other resources to capture evidence of student learning.

Check out the conversation at this YouTube link, as well as the agenda with downloadable resources, a link to the slide deck, and links to resources from the other three sessions.

Going Online? Stay Calm and Consider These Tips

Ready or not, many teachers are now going to experience delivering instruction online. Prep time has been far from optimal, but there are a few steps teachers can take as they venture into the delivery of online learning to their students. Whether experienced pros or newbies to online delivery, it’s all about the learning, not the technology. Don’t get wrapped up in the technology. Don’t try to use every feature at the get go…or ever. Stay calm. Focus on the learning and continue to be the learning leader, regardless of what technologies your students use—even if you don’t use technology!

If you’re going to do this, here are some considerations when moving instruction online.

It’s about LEARNING, not just being online. Just because your class may have an online component now, that doesn’t mean it ALL has to be online. We learn in a variety of ways, and much of it is offline. Use online components to bring students together, check on their progress, and provide feedback. Then send them off to interact with content, read some things, watch some videos, complete projects, and create new products that they can then share with you.

Ask your students how THEY want to learn. This is a great opportunity to put personalization and differentiation into practice—true personalization, in which students are given the opportunity to determine what it is they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and how they’ll demonstrate what they’ve learned. If your learning goals don’t require writing an essay or answer a multiple-choice question, then don’t force students to do these things. Ask your students for their ideas. They might turn their mad Instagram, SnapChat, and TikTok skills into demonstrations of what they know and can do. And if they’re intrinsically motivated to use the tools at their disposal, you’re likely to get better learning out of the experience.

Focus on the learning, not the technology. At the end of the day, or your class, what is it you want your students to know and be able to do? Learning isn’t measured by time spent watching a video or the number of responses made on a discussion board. Very often, there are a variety of tools students can use to demonstrate their learning, not just one single tool. Give students one simple option—the lowest common denominator—for submitting their work, but encourage them to suggest and justify other tools. As students explore and use other tools successfully to capture their learning, share those exemplars with the rest of the class.

Every online activity is an opportunity to promote digital citizenship, but your students may need support being good digital citizens. Create practice opportunities to model how to use common online tools, like how to engage in an online discussion effectively. I like the simple “compliment-connect-question” format, which I learned from some teachers in Lee’s Summit, MO, but you can find lots of protocols online. Consider creating simple narrated slides or screencapture movies that reinforce appropriate procedures, like using online resources, citing intellectual property, or even how to use some features of your LMS. Share exemplars of past student-generated documents, videos, or other artifacts so students have expectations when creating and submitting their own.

Give your students responsibility for the online environment. Just as you would have helpers in your class, establish ways that students can contribute to the online learning environment. If you’re going to do some synchronous webconferencing, put students in charge of monitoring the chat room, creating a question queue, summarizing main ideas, and determining next steps. If you’re incorporating student groups, consider using students contracts with different roles and have students be responsible for monitoring and reporting on how well the group is meeting timelines and creating information. Most importantly, determine how students can contribute to the online learning activities that you incorporate. You do not have to be the leader of every activity. To do this you need to ask them.

It doesn’t always have to be online. Every day we communicate with others through a variety of means, even at a distance. Consider whether phone calls or texting can support your students as they learn from home. The Remind app sends text reminders to students and parents who have signed up for them. Service like Free Conference Call can let you set up group calls to check in with your students. And while email is technically online, it’s also a great way to interact with students, and automated emails and reminders can be generated through some LMS, calendar programs, and other tools.

Take a deep breath. We’re all going to get through this. Keep focused on what you do well—lead learning for your students—and let the learning continue!

John Ross has been developing and delivering online learning to students of all ages for more than two decades. His astronomy course developed with his friend and expert science teacher Anita Deck was honored as one of the Best High School Courses on iTunes U, and he has shared his experiences in his book “Online Professional Development. Design, Deliver, Succeed!” published by Corwin.