Supporting digital skills: the importance of understanding and valuing everyday digital practices

Jo Dixon photoWe talk a lot about digital skills, but digital skills are a means to an end: they enable people to engage in digital practices. Our own digital practices – the ways in which we habitually use digital technology ourselves – can lead us to make assumptions about how ‘everybody’ should be taught to use digital technology. In the first of a series of Essential Digital Skills thought pieces by authors from across the sector, Jo Dixon draws on her own experience supporting digital skills development amongst teachers and adult learners of ESOL to show how exploring learners’ current practices can help learners develop digital skills in small steps.

At the Clear Project in Southampton, we do not currently offer Essential Digital Skills Qualifications (EDSQs), which are available at Entry 3 and Level 1. The learners in our ESOL classes are developing their language and literacy within the Entry levels and would have difficulty with the language of the exam tasks. Many of them struggle in particular with literacy. Our classrooms are not computer rooms and our teachers are not digital skills teachers. However, teachers have a laptop in the classroom and a large display to project the screen for the class to see; we have WiFi and our learners have mobile phones. We are committed to developing learners’ digital skills with the technology available to us. Ultimately learners will need more hands-on practice with a computer or tablet than we can currently offer if they are to gain a broad range of digital skills for life and work, but we use what we have to support them to take first steps with digital technology and develop basic concepts, vocabulary and transferable digital skills, to help them to progress.

A fundamental principle of andragogy – a set of principles that should underpin all adult learning – is that adults bring a huge resource to their learning in the form of a variety of life experiences. According to constructivist theories, this experience is crucial to learning. Experience can also act as a barrier to learning though, because some adults may be returning to learning having developed habits and beliefs that make them less open to new ideas, and some may lack confidence due to negative past experience or, conversely, be over-confident in their abilities. We can only ensure learners are building on what they already know if we acknowledge and value this knowledge. Therefore, before we set out to instruct learners how to perform any given digitally-mediated task, we must first consider the variety of communicative practices in which learners currently engage, and make discussion of their current practices the jumping off point for any digital skills teaching.

By way of illustration, I want to provide a snapshot of a lesson in which the teacher wants to introduce web search for the first time by embedding this digital skill in a journey planning activity. The teacher plans to project the laptop screen and demonstrate searching Google by typing in the key words ‘train’ and ‘times’, which will find the major rail information websites, and then get learners to try doing the same on their phones and to practise searching for different trains.

The teacher introduces the task by presenting a scenario in which learners will need to take a train to Bristol. They are asked how they would find out what time they can get a train to Bristol in real life.

One learner says they would ask a family member to do it: it is difficult to find information themselves as their English is “not good”. Another suggests they would actually go to the station to ask for information. Yet another says, “Ask Google”. The teacher asks this learner to come to the front and use the laptop to show the class how. The learner doesn’t know how to use the computer, but picks up their phone, opens the Google Search app, taps the mic icon and says, “What time train to Bristol?” A synthesised voice starts speaking from their phone: “From Southampton Central …” and their phone displays details of the next four trains. Meanwhile another learner has volunteered to show how to do it on the computer. They type ‘What time…’ into the browser and then express uncertainty about the grammar and spelling.

The teacher, in just a few minutes, has gained some useful insights into learners’ current practices, how they differ from their own, and how they’re impacted by their digital skills and language and literacy skills. In keeping with andragogical principles, the teacher can use these insights, which open up possibilities that were not part of the original plan, to proceed in a way that values and builds on learners’ existing practices.

The teacher decides to focus on formulating questions correctly. This is a useful part of learners’ general language development and in turn could help with searching (although Google is fairly forgiving of grammatical errors!). The teacher then encourages learners to try different searches using the questions this exercise generated. They do some voice searches and practise typing in the same questions. They discuss which is easier (although some struggle with spelling and typing, others have pronunciation difficulties that make voice search less successful). They also think of situations when it might be impractical to use voice (e.g. situations when you don’t want to disturb others by speaking aloud) and useful to be able to type in your search, and vice versa (e.g. situations when your hands are busy). Raising awareness that both methods of searching have advantages in different situations helps learners see the advantages of being able to do both and encourages them not to disregard an alternative, if more difficult, method. At this level, effective practice may be as much about developing understanding of concepts, of possibilities, of limitations and advantages of different ways of doing things, as it is about mastering skills.

When planning the lesson, this teacher was guided by their own practices: the teacher’s habitual way of searching for information is via a key word search typed into a web browser and this informed the plan to teach learners to do just that. Only 15 years ago, this was the way most web searches were performed. The mobile internet, the appification of everything, voice search and natural language search, are fairly recent developments, but they are significant developments that have made web search more accessible for some. There is often more than one way to achieve the same outcome with digital technology and by asking the learners questions, eliciting ideas from them, and using the initial plan flexibly, the teacher is able to introduce new ideas and approaches that build on what learners already know and do (and has also learnt something in the process!). The learner, who would have asked someone for information but did not know how to search, has found a way of searching that is accessible to them with their current level of digital skills and literacy skills: they can ask a simple question in spoken English and they now know how to use this knowledge to find straightforward information online. Another learner, who could already perform a straightforward natural language voice search, has been challenged to try entering text.

Given the learners’ current practices, and given how these are impacted by learners’ language and literacy, an instructional approach that simply teaches them one method of conducting a web search is unlikely to persuade learners that they could benefit from developing their search skills. Those who have never used the web before might find it too difficult and decide they need to ‘learn English first’. Others might think they do not need to learn it as they already know another way to search. By exploring what different people currently do, the teacher can open up discussion of how, when and why. Even if some learners cannot master the practical skills at their current stage of development, this approach can help them acquire underpinning knowledge that supports the development of transferable skills.

The classroom activity and interactions between teacher and learners described here are fictitious. However, they are based on real examples of teachers’ and learners’ practices that I have collected at the Clear Project in Southampton in the course of my work there and through observations and interviews with teachers and learners undertaken for my PhD research. Our low-literate ESOL learners, if they use digital technology at all, tend to use it differently from how their teachers do themselves and sometimes quite differently from how we imagined they did.

Teachers in my study were more likely to use websites than apps to access information themselves, whereas the opposite was true of learners. Teachers typically prepared their lessons on a computer rather than a phone so it is natural that they would search the web to find a resource to share with their learners. Their learners, on the other hand, rarely used websites. Many of them had more apps installed on their phones than some of their teachers and would open a specific app to find a specific type of information (for example, a weather app for the weather forecast, a TV news app for the news). As it is clearly easier for someone with limited literacy to recognise an icon on their home screen and open an app than to search the web or enter a URL to access a website, they may see no reason to learn to access websites unless we can provide examples of use that illustrate the advantages and help them understand the limitations of their current practice.

Uses of email also differed. If you were to ask the learners in my study if they had email, most would have answered “yes”. However, most were not in the habit of replying to emails, even if they knew how to (which many didn’t). Email was “for the council” (for example for receiving notifications relating to housing, benefits, library services etc), “for shopping” (for receiving order confirmations) and “for jobs” (for receiving vacancy alerts from job search websites) – and none of the emails they received required a reply. Email was “not for family and friends”. Instead, they communicated via WhatsApp and other internet messaging apps. This was confirmed on a larger scale when we went into lockdown in March 2020, with teachers having to develop new skills and practices in using WhatsApp themselves (for example, sending voice messages and annotating pictures) to engage some learners in a way that was accessible and familiar to them before they could get learners to start replying to emails.

It is all too easy to assume that our own practices are universal. Your own learners’ uses of and attitudes towards technology may differ from those in my example, but the principle will still hold true. Rather than approaching the digital divide as an issue of people who can teaching people who cannot, I would advocate that we build connections between different ways of doing things, thus empowering and enthusing learners in a two-way exchange of ideas and strategies and exploring together what works best for different people and different tasks.

About the author: Jo Dixon is a part-time Digital Learning Facilitator at the Clear Project, Southampton, and a part-time PhD student at the University of Southampton. She has extensive experience developing approaches to teaching and learning with digital technology through her work over the past two decades as a teacher of adult literacy, ESOL and EAP, and as a writer of e-learning materials.

About this blog: This is the first 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).

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.