Digital for Beginners…and We’re All Beginners

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The idea of digital tribalism – the distinction between digital native and digital immigrant – is something I’ve blindly accepted but not actively considered. Given digital literacy is central to considerations of student support online, I thought I’d investigate the origins of the terminology that surrounds it.

Marc Prensky, who coined the term digital native in 2001, wrote as recently as 2010 on the subject, in which he instructs teachers how to teach these very distinct set of learners. Much of what he has to say aligns with theories of online learning we’ve discussed in our class: students as self-directed, teachers as facilitators, students as co-creators of knowledge (Prensky, 2010). My point here being, even concepts like digital native that I believe are harmful and misleading, can come from cogent arguments. Perhaps, that’s why we buy into them.

I have been guilty of assuming that I will struggle with new technologies more than my younger counterparts simply because I am generationally pre-internet. Entering a digital classroom as a student and as a practitioner simultaneously in the last year, I’ve observed the binary opposition of native vs immigrant as more than misleading; it is damaging.

There have been several occasions on SBOSE this term where I or my peers have struggled with the technology used. In one synchronous session, during group work, we spent more time grappling with how to use a Miro board than we did with the activity itself. It was both frustrating and equalising. I was surprised that the lecturers in our group were unfamiliar with Miro but this highlighted a preference for certain online tools over others, more than any overarching issue with technology itself.

Which leads me to discuss fear of change, which includes new methods of doing something. Being a student on SBOSE this term has challenged me to try new methods of learning and collaborating with peers. Working on our team module and grappling with the Moodle site is one such example of frustration turning into empowerment.

When I consider the use of native in any context, there is always an unmovable goalpost. If you were never a native before, you cannot suddenly become one. In other words, no matter what you do, you will never be part of the club. This idea seems contrary to the very foundation of education, where the objective is to finish in a different, better place to where you started.

I first heard the term digital literacy when I worked at the college. We used this term to identify support needs for learners, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have had limited exposure to technology. Our definition of competency aligned more with life circumstance and previous experience with digital technology rather than any generational analysis.

Digital literacy was also deeply embedded in lifelong learning programmes. In my role and in conjunction with lecturers, I developed a digital literacy training programme for facilities staff at sporting venues across Scotland. This involved guiding learners through how to log onto a computer, how to access email, and how to save and modify documents. This was the more traditional definition of DL that revolves around operational elements of using a computer (Burton et al, 2015). The internet and our increased reliance on digital tools and technologies has created a continuously evolving and more complex interpretation of digital literacy today.

In my current role, students come to our institute to train as accountants straight from university. Most of them are in their early 20s, from middle to high socioeconomic backgrounds, and with generally high levels of previous exposure to technology. This, however, does not predispose them to mastering the online classroom. Our assumptions that it does only creates a distance between teacher and student. Many of the lecturers and educational professionals at my institute struggled with this digital transition but it would be wrong to see it as some generational divide. Assuming that we alone grappled with technology would create a missed opportunity to empathise with students in this new world.

A key assumption many educators make is what Burton (2015) calls the danger of homogenisation. Our students come to us, with seemingly many similar characteristics – their interest, for one, in becoming accountants – and we make assumptions about how far these similarities stretch.

The need to distinguish students’ comfort with digital tools for socialisation from digital tools for learning is also key to ensuring that we are realistic in our assessment of our students’ capabilities. I think there is a particular danger with our assumptions that young people are digital natives because they too are aware that they are meant to play out this role. It creates an environment where a student might be reluctant to admit they need help because of our own expectations of them or their own perception of our expectations.

Recalibrating our expectations is the first step but, beyond this, how do we identify students who are struggling with digital literacy? Prior et al (2016) identified the essential link between the self-efficacy of online learners to both their attitudes and their level of digital literacy. Students bring to the classroom entrenched attitudes regarding online learning. This has become further complicated by the sharp and significant pilgrimage of learners to the online classroom last year. These experiences will shape their future attitudes to online learning so it is vital that we do not leave anyone behind.

Many educators within HE have spent this past year fire fighting on all fronts. My group project to deliver a course on student wellbeing drove home to me the pressures educators are facing in trying to assist students who are also struggling on multiple fronts. At my institute, we primarily rely on formative assessment and mock exams to tease out problems, but we need to look at students beyond performance measures.

It is time consuming and challenging but I think we need to understand online learners as soon as possible. Inductions offer an opportunity to observe how students interact with new tools and platforms and each other: are those who participate less reluctant and disengaged or are they struggling with the platform?

I think there is an overlap in the skills an online instructor needs to support students who struggle with digital literacy and students who are struggling with mental health and wellbeing issues.

As one of my classmates aptly explained on our padlet discussion board, she assisted a student who was struggling with her coursework as a non-native English speaker. The takeaway from the student, in addition to feeling supported, was being noticed and understood as an individual. Despite all of the challenges we face at the moment, it is vital that we notice our students, and the cues they send us. The digital pivot put us all in a difficult and challenging position but it creates an opportunity to work in what Prensky (2010) aptly described as educational partnership, where the teacher and the student can work together to create the ideal learning environment.

Burton L.J., Summers J., Lawrence J., Noble K., Gibbings P. (2015) Digital Literacy in Higher Education: The Rhetoric and the Reality. In: Harmes M.K., Huijser H., Danaher P.A. (eds) Myths in Education, Learning and Teaching. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Prensky, M. R. (2010). Teaching digital natives: Partnering for real learning. Corwin press.

Prior, D. D., Mazanov, J., Meacheam, D., Heaslip, G., & Hanson, J. (2016). Attitude, digital literacy and self efficacy: Flow-on effects for online learning behavior. The Internet and Higher Education29, 91-97.

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