Effective practice in teaching essential digital skills – an account of a rapid literature review

Mary Moss In 2017, the Digital Economy Act set out an entitlement for adults (19+) to free Essential Digital Skills (EDS) courses and paved the way for an annual assessment of the digital divide through the Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index. In a subsequent consultation response on improving adult basic skills, the Department for Education affirmed that, “[d]igital skills are as important to employability and participation in society as English and maths” (DfE 2019, p.4). What constitutes ‘essential digital skills’ was then defined through the Essential Digital Skills Framework (2018) and national standards (2019). These, in turn, have provided the basis of Essential Digital Skills Qualifications (EDSQs) at Entry 3 and Level 1.

The planned introduction of EDSQs from August 2020 met a number of hurdles, mainly due to the impact of Covid-19 and the associated shift to online learning. In some ways, this was a boost that accelerated the use of technology to enhance learning, often referred to as ‘EdTech’, but it also complicated the process of introducing EDSQs to those with no or very low digital skills.

The uptake of the qualifications has been hampered by the delay in Awarding Organisations receiving Ofqual approval and the delay to the introduction of Digital Functional Skills. Also, the term ‘essential digital skills’ is now used interchangeably with ‘basic digital skills’, not necessarily referring to those skills defined in the standards, which adds some ambiguity.

This article, by Mary Moss, a member of the ETF’s Essential Digital Skills CPD support programme delivery team, reviews some of the current literature to gain an understanding of what constitutes effective digital practice. It is a companion to a series of nine Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’ by leaders and practitioners being published on the ETF website. You can access the series via the Essential Digital Skills CPD programme page.

It is universally agreed that “[d]igital skills are more necessary than ever before and are vital for employability and productivity” (Education Committee, 2020 Ch4. Pt.41), but when I set out to review what is written about effective practice in teaching digital skills, I was surprised how difficult that was to find.

Within ‘EdTech’ literature, there seem to be two ‘streams’ – one which explores what makes effective online learning and another that looks at the effective integration of technology in teaching. Most recently, the focus has been on the former, supporting learners to learn online and supporting teachers to acquire, update, and extend their own digital skills in order to deliver online (ETF resources, Holex). Delivering digital skills online, even to low level digital skills learners has been necessary as a result of centre closures. Secondly, ways in which technology can be used to enhance learning – personalise the learning experience, track and monitor progress, enable giving ‘better’ feedback, encourage learner reflection, offer variety in the classroom, develop learner autonomy, use simulations and integrate real world experiences – are also relevant in digital skills teaching. So the identification of effective practice in EdTech is relevant to the digital skills practitioner, but it was not the focus of this review.

Digital skills as the third basic skill

In March 2021, a new Skills for Life (SfL) strategy was launched, including digital skills and pointing to the ETF EdTech and EDS resources. The previous twenty years had seen research, resources and CPD programmes dedicated to improving teaching and learning in maths, English, and ESOL. ICT was first named as the third basic skill in 2003, and the complex relationship between digital skills, literacy (and numeracy) and study skills was often discussed (Clarke, 2003 pp. 11–14). Jacobs et al. (2014) note:

“… thinking about literacies has developed from the changes in communication technologies that are also shaping literacy practices. The juxtaposition of icons, imagery and text particularly in the internet is presenting new challenges for the process of communication and the literacies associated with it.”

By 2016, we find:

“The traditional view of literacy as the ability to read and write has expanded to encompass understanding digital tools and information for the whole workforce.” (Laurillard et al., 2016, p.4)

Indicators of effective practice in digital skills teaching are both explicit and implicit. Much of this literature also addresses the digital divide.

Changing terminology has been a complicating factor in this rapid review of open access literature.

It is often remarked that learners’ progress from entry levels to Level 2 is a significant challenge; digital skills teachers report that many learners cannot achieve at Level 2 because their maths and English skills hold them back. If EDS is to be successful, developing the pedagogical content knowledge (i.e. “teachers’ knowledge of how to teach the particular subject or topic”) of digital skills teachers who are teaching adults with low level skills could lead to better understanding of the challenges and insights that will improve progression. Such insights would also benefit teachers embedding digital skills in employability courses, ESOL, vocational studies and maths and English.

It is felt that the pre-Level 3 landscape is not well understood by policy makers (Pember, 2021), but others recognise the value of lower level qualifications (Pember, 2021, City and Guilds, 2021) for younger adults who leave school without GCSE passes, as well as older learners. EDSQs are very definitely located alongside maths and English qualifications and provide a learning journey to Level 2 and beyond. A narrative of effective practice in digital skills must take this context into account.

Who are the learners?

Research shows that “those not using the internet have distinct characteristics – predominantly around age, education and deprivation levels” and “limited users” are “predominantly from lower socio-economic status backgrounds with variations due to age and education.” (Yates et al., 2020).

The Lloyds report describes those who have almost no digital behaviours (3.6 million people), or “very low digital engagement” (16.9 million). If no interventions occur, it is predicted that 25% of the population will have very low engagement in 2030. Of those with little or no engagement, 22% stated they would go online “if websites and apps were easier to understand” (p.18).

The Good Things Foundation Future Digital Inclusion (FDI) report (2019) also provides a similarly detailed picture of five groups of Online Centre users, older learners (17%), unemployed learners (45%), learners with poor educational experiences and attainment (29%), learners who are still learning English (>6%) and learners with limited digital skills (29%).

Learners joining an EDS course are likely to have low or no qualifications regardless of age, and associated issues of low confidence and little motivation or expectation of success.

Challenges in digital skills teaching – what might work?

Many learners will join a digital skills course without the foundation skills identified as pre-requisites for EDS, although many will have gained some of these skills in an informal setting or from friends and family. It is important to ensure first steps in a more formal learning environment are well thought out:

“When adult learners have a positive experience acquiring new skills with the face-to-face support of patient tutors, they acquire the strategies and confidence necessary to explore the digital landscape and engage with new challenges.” (Jacobs et al., 2014, p.626).

  • Motivation and the Goldilocks principle

The FDI report suggests approaches for learners who have poor previous experience of education and very low confidence and motivation that include:

  • Higher levels of one-to-one support and positive feedback
  • Ability to put learning into practice, building confidence through tangible evidence of success
  • Environmental resources which help to overcome negative attitudes and poor previous experience of learning
  • Friendly and informal relationship between learner and tutor
  • Sense of community within the learner population.

According to The Sutton Trust research review, ‘What makes great teaching’,

“…the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.”

Learners arriving in a face-to-face digital classroom immediately encounter issues that impede success, for example, logging on to a college network, and unexpected error messages. According to Hattie, (2015), using “[t]he Goldilocks principles of challenge (the challenges must be not too big, not too small but just right)”, these are “too big”. Overcoming this through a ‘Bring Your Own Device’ approach presents other problems for the teacher – a class demonstration cannot replicate the same experience as each learner will have on their respective phone or tablet or laptop.

  • Learners’ starting points

The ‘digital landscape’ is constantly changing. Smartphones and apps have altered the nature of access to internet-based information, and because of Covid-19, large numbers of people use video calling. Digital skills teachers must not only keep their own skills up to date, but also accommodate starting points for learners who bring diverse knowledge to the classroom. Learners may feel comfortable with text messaging and social media. As social media is familiar, it offers opportunities for peer feedback and the creation of collaborative learning spaces (Crook et al., 2010). ‘Likes’, ‘star ratings’ and emoticons are a new shorthand for expressing preferences that can be incorporated into feedback and assessment. However, learners still need to be taught to adopt safe and responsible practice – fear of the internet and of misuse of data is a barrier for non-users (Lloyds, 2020, FDI, 2019) and addressing fears improves confidence.

  • Developing autonomy

Inviting learners to co-design a course may be “too big” a challenge:

“Educators wanted to find out what we wanted out of the course, but unfortunately we couldn’t say much, given our small experience in technology.” (Learner quote given in Jimoyiannis et al., 2011).

Digital skills teachers know that learners need more than a simple demonstration of a task, such as setting up an email account. Many learners have accounts set up for them by others – they are essential to look for work. However, they cannot repeat this independently – in fact they often cannot access the account they have, and do not know “where to look for it” if they have to use a PC rather than click on the icon on a smartphone.

A digital skills learning environment is a place where the unexpected will occur. Evidence from cognitive psychology indicates this may be useful, if problems are viewed as “desirable difficulties” (Bjork and Bjork, 2011, cited in Coe et al. 2014) – “some approaches that may appear to make learning harder in the short term, and less satisfying for learners, actually result in better long-term retention”. The four examples given (p.17) are worth noting for EDS course design:

  • Varying conditions of practice “improves later retention, even though it makes learning harder in the short term”, so using different devices may be productive rather than harmful
  • Spreading out practice, allowing “gaps in between for forgetting” leads to better long-term retention, so courses that occur once or twice a week, often considered less effective for digital skills learners, may actually be a more useful model of delivery than an intensive course
  • “Interleaving” learning topics compared to “learning in a block” also leads to “better long-term retention and transfer of skills”, so time away from the computer doing related tasks in groups or individually may be seen as more effective than maximising hands-on activity
  • Using testing leads to “better recall than simply studying”, through having to “generate an answer”, so assessments to practise skills leading to a qualification have learning benefits alongside the gain of the qualification itself.

What next?

  • An acknowledgement of the value of entry and Level 1 qualifications as stepping stones to Level 2 and beyond should lead to an appropriate allocation of resources to provide a supportive learning environment for digital skills learners.
  • Research to test interventions that might address some of the specific challenges that arise in digital skills delivery. The ETF’s Excellence Gateway currently holds hundreds of resources and reports from practitioner research focussed on effective teaching practice in maths and English, yet a recent search found only one which focused specifically on ICT delivery – action research on EDS implementation could change this and benefit digital skills delivery.
  • Joint practice development for practitioners of digital skills, English, maths and ESOL to work together towards a collaborative understanding of how to support learners. EDS Level 1 skill statements state expectations of learners to assess the relevance, reliability and possible bias of sources, “[f]irstly, as part of study skills, but ultimately as a life skill.” (EDS Module Teaching and Learning for using digital devices, Ch 2.) They are expected to enter data and use simple formulae that depend on understanding of numerical concepts such as percentages. Enabling learners to meet these standards may involve teaching the concepts themselves.
  • Consultation with practitioners to develop flexible learning programmes “placing [their] knowledge in high esteem”. The new Education Inspection Framework could be a useful lever to open up ways of restructuring the curriculum to enable achievement in the three basic skills. “This requires the greatest investment, and the benefits for the students will be manifest, powerful and exciting.”

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