Delivering foundation digital skills to beginner learners

Emma LangloisEmma Langlois, Digital Skills and Preparation for Work Curriculum Manager at Manchester Adult Education, reflects on the lessons that have been learned during the implementation of its Digital Skills for Beginners course.

Digital exclusion is where a person lacks access to the internet and/or has no or low-level digital skills. The latter could be a consequence of low confidence to use the internet or little motivation to use the internet. Essential Digital Skills (EDS) encompasses Life and Preparation for Work pathways and positively encourages learning the skills to use the opportunities of the internet. Many digitally excluded learners also have low level basic skills and few or no qualifications. The EDS framework contains much that is representative of how we use digital skills today. In September 2020, the Digital Skills curriculum team at Manchester Adult Education decided to offer EDS, and this article reflects on our experience.

According to the Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index 2020:

  • 16% of the UK population cannot undertake foundation digital activities such as turning on a device, connecting to WiFi or opening an app by themselves.
  • A person’s education plays more of a role with their level of skill than their age does.
  • Digital skills can be a lifeline for people and are even more likely to be at this moment in time.
  • In the last twelve months, an estimated 1.2 million more people have developed foundation skills meaning they are able to use the internet and their devices by themselves.

These four ‘key’ findings demonstrate the extent of digital exclusion and highlight how the global pandemic has accelerated the need to improve digital skills at foundation level. Within Greater Manchester, the State of the City Report asserts that “Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) have reported that as many as 1.2 million residents in Greater Manchester could be digitally excluded post COVID-19.”.

Starting somewhere

The Essential Digital Skills Framework defines the skills to be mastered at foundation level by learners with different starting points, distinct ambitions, specific drivers and individual needs. In our experience, digitally excluded learners need to develop digital trust, build confidence and see relevance. Learning also has to be manageable and motivations met and/or extended.

Therefore, we believe that to positively influence behaviour to participate in a digital world, teaching and learning needs to be creative and mindful. Classroom delivery needs to include new hooks to encourage the adoption of a more digital lifestyle and the course needs to be relevant to learners’ individual needs. With the national essential digital skills standards in mind and a progression route to an entry level accredited course, we created a scheme of work and supporting resources for our six-week (30 hours) Digital Skills for Beginners course, delivered twice per week at seven centres across Manchester, offering at least six cohorts in each centre over the year.

As learners progressed through this, it became clear from our discussions that a number of digital beginners either did not want to progress to the next level or were not yet ready to progress.

Those who did not want to progress were typically more mature and not seeking employment. Their motives were to save money, save time, and to socialise. They simply wanted to learn the foundation and entry level skills. Those who were not ready to progress were learners with low level basic skills, and little or no education and lower cognitive ability, which meant the acquisition of foundation skills took longer.

Effective strategies to encourage and nurture interest in digital advancement for digitally excluded learners not wishing nor ready to progress will be discussed below. I will look at learner motivations, reducing cognitive overload, and using ‘nudges’ to adopt a more digital lifestyle.

Learner motives

Learning on a course can often be dominated by the need to meet specific key course targets to stay on track with a fixed scheme of work that aims for standardisation across all courses at the same level. This can be demotivating and disengaging for learners and teachers alike.

Increasing motivation and maintaining engagement is achievable by understanding why the learners are here. Following up initial assessment with informal discussions can help to flesh out their motives and lead to a deeper understanding of individual needs.

Through creative activities, discussion and assessments that secure answers to the questions below, tutors can gain better insight and understanding of their learners’ world.

  1. Why are you joining this course?
  2. What prompted you to join this course now?
  3. What are you currently using digital skills for?
  4. What other things do you want to use digital skills for?
  5. What exactly is it that you want to be able to do?

Similarly, ongoing feedback and reflection activities throughout the course prompts tutors to forget what they want learners to do, and re-focuses the course on what learners want to do.

Email, and Google tools such as Jamboard, Slides, Forms, and Padlet can all be used to gather learner feedback and needs. Subsequent sessions or parts of sessions can be delivered in a workshop style format with learners engaging in differentiated digital activities: accessing websites of individual interest, using their own devices, sending emails for different purposes, creating/editing documents from CVs to ‘thank you’ letters to ‘to do’ lists, and opening an app of their choice.

Reducing cognitive overload

A good question to ask during the planning process is: How do I want my learners to experience digital? In a single session, learners should be experimenting, taking risks, making mistakes, working individually, working collaboratively, using multiple digital skills and having fun.

These can be achieved by creating an inspiring and explorative learning environment where additional opportunities to learn are maximised. However, the tutor will also need to use subtle ways to skilfully reduce cognitive overload.

Learners who are new to using digital technology may experience feelings of frustration and this may impact on their confidence, as well as their resilience. Often this can stem from cognitive overload, where there is too much demand placed on working memory.

For the digital skills tutors, there are a number of strategies that can be helpful in reducing cognitive load. First, there are many things a beginner learner does not need to know about so the tutor should be mindful to keep irrelevant information to a minimum. Secondly, activities can be scaffolded to skip steps that can be learnt at a later time. Thirdly, visual checklists and help guides can be used to aid learning of new information.

Finally, these can all be achieved by using tools such as Google Sites and Padlet. Using a Site or Padlet as a ‘main base’ where sessions are organised by week is helpful in limiting information, controlling exposure, scaffolding learning and as resource banks. Beginner learners can also use these tools outside the classroom as well as trusted links to other appropriate resources and suitable practice activities that have been added by the creator.

Adopting a digital lifestyle

Making learning both personalised and attractive to learners, as well as providing ‘timely’ hooks during class time, will support learning and application outside of the classroom.

Learners are more likely to be motivated to develop their digital skills if they can see how these can be applied to real life situations. Exploring what is happening outside of the classroom with learners will provide ‘timely’ catalysts to increase digital activity. For example, learners might wish to download an app, submit an electricity reading, check a bus timetable, find out more about library services or reply to an email. Supporting and guiding learners to ‘action’ their needs increases the likelihood of future application.

Demonstrating the ‘social’ side of digital can also encourage people to commit to continued upskilling. Showing learners how most people use digital, the power of digital networks and the benefits of ‘connecting’ through social media, video conferencing and apps such as Google Arts and Culture can provide that much needed lifeline for those who are digitally excluded.

The tutor has a responsibility to show learners how to be safe online and share tools and tips to reflect on digital wellbeing. Both will alleviate fears around adopting a digital lifestyle and will support a healthy digital relationship.

Doing things differently

There is a significant level of knowledge and skills that the beginner learner is expected to be confident in and skilled at before moving to an Entry 3 EDS qualification.

Since many foundation level learners will require some time before they are ready to progress to the next level, it is worthwhile exploring a bridging course between foundation and entry level EDS. A bridging course would support learners to consolidate their foundation learning and develop their confidence and entry level skills. Such a course would also build confidence and develop autonomy to inspire more experimental and independent digital learners.

One reason why more time is needed, is to master the use of a device. We found that many beginner learners do not have access to a device such as a laptop, tablet or Chromebook. Our organisation is committed to Google as our platform of choice, and a Chromebook loan system was set up for learners requiring devices in all curriculum areas.

Since most beginners are using or have access to smartphones, the Digital Skills team is also developing a bridging course that incorporates the use of an app. This app has already been developed by Talk English Manchester (a project that supports people with low levels of English to improve their language skills).

The intent is to use the app to support the development of EDS skills and knowledge in a blended and remote environment. The app aims to ‘reduce’ cognitive overload with a function that keeps content within the app itself. It is hoped that the app will be used by beginner learners on their smartphones to develop their essential digital skills outside of the classroom.

What is next?

Training for digital skills tutors that builds confidence to deliver to low level learners of English and maths would be advantageous, since it would support tutors to create more inclusive learning environments and tackle barriers to digital inclusion.

Since foundation level skills are a prerequisite for EDS standards, many learning providers have prioritised beginner digital courses for face-to-face delivery. However, as learners progress, they are likely to be required to move towards a blended model of learning. Certainly, the teaching of the EDS standards is predominantly taking place in a blended or remote learning setting.

Therefore, CPD which explores ‘strategies for supporting learners who are transitioning from face-to-face teaching to blended learning’ would be welcomed by digital tutors.

About the author: Emma Langlois is Digital Skills and Preparation for Work Curriculum Manager at Manchester Adult Education. As Curriculum Manager, she has worked on devising course programmes and broadening course offers to meet the needs of Manchester residents who are seeking employment and would benefit from accessing the opportunities of the city. Her background is in ESOL and she delivers both the Preparation for Work and Digital Skills courses.

About this blog: This is the seventh in a series of Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’ intended to stimulate discussion and dialogue around the development of effective practice in the delivery of digital skills to those who are digitally excluded. They are part of the ETF’s CPD programme for those delivering and preparing to deliver the new Essential Digital Skills Qualifications (EDSQs). You can access all of the pieces via the Essential Digital Skills CPD programme page.

Contributors come from a range of backgrounds including current practitioners and those with responsibility for supporting teachers’ CPD, as well as advocates of adult education in different contexts, both formal and informal.

These pieces aim to explore how practitioners in a range of settings are helping to inform quality standards by working collaboratively to test out new pedagogical strategies and digital resources.

Thinking around digital skills delivery has been very significantly affected by the impact of Covid-19, and contributors address the challenge there has been for teachers to upskill rapidly for remote delivery. Currently, there is no established framework setting out the features of ‘effective’ delivery of digital skills online, but these pieces help us to go some way in understanding what works in different contexts.

Comments on this, and the other pieces in the series, are welcomed on Twitter using the hashtag #EDSThoughts.

The ETF does not necessarily endorse any of the strategies, tools or approaches mentioned in these pieces.