Thursday, March 06, 2008

21st Century Teachers & "Technological Literacy" (or as I would prefer it - "Technological Fluency")

John Norton's Are Teachers Ready for 21st Century Learning? and Karl Fisch's question in what was voted the "Most Influential Blog Post" in the 2007 EduBlog awards - "Is It Okay To Be A Technologically Illiterate Teacher?" raise some questions that are obviously very near and dear to my heart. These are questions that are being raised and discussed, in the context of India, on as well.

My stand on all of this is pretty categorical, and obvious, but I see a link - and perhaps it's only a tangential one - to this issue of technological (or digital) "literacy", (as opposed to "digital fluency"), and fundamental questions that are being raised even today about the role of technology in improving education!

I have long maintained that digital "fluency" is what is needed for teachers to use technology meaningfully and effectively in the classroom. While digital "literacy" is a necessary step on the road to digital "fluency", mere"literacy" will never cut it, if the goal is to leverage new technologies meaningfully for better learning.

Here's what I mean by "digital fluency" and why questions about technology's impact in learning will continue to be raised if teachers who are trying to integrate technology in education are simply digitally "literate" (lifted from my response to the 2 aforementioned questions) -

"Just as fluency with a language takes one beyond mere literacy and helps one understand the nuances of a language, digital fluency also helps one handle the unexpected when it comes to technology – which, as it turns out, is quite often the case. This does not mean that teachers need to be trained computer professionals. It does mean, however, that teachers should move beyond viewing the computer or any other piece of hardware as a mysterious object that only the very exalted can handle. They should be able to playfully explore a piece of technology (be it a digital camera or a new piece of software) without fear or intimidation. Unless they achieve this comfort level with technology, they will constantly be faced with situations where they have to abort a technology-based lesson due to a problem that they could have handled with some fearless ‘poking around’.

Mere digital literacy will also keep teachers from moving beyond naive (or even gimmicky) uses of technology in their classrooms - (powerpoint presentations, superficial use of the Internet for topical research and such). In today’s networked world, digital fluency also means teachers harness the power of technology (the internet in particular) for communications and collaboration through the many, varied, mostly free tools of the new web (blogs, wikis, podcasts, in addition to good ole' email and e-groups).

A good teacher who is also technologically savvy will know when good old fashioned teaching techniques will work, and when a tech tool will serve the teaching and learning process better. She will always use technology as a means to an end, and not and end in itself. She will appreciate the value that pedagogies like Waldorf bring to a learning environment, but she will also be aware of tools like Scratch that aid problem-solving, creativity and collaboration and sharing.

It is not necessary to use every new tool out there, and not all the time either. A technologically "fluent" teacher will be able to strike the balance and mix it up and design the learning experiences effectively with appropriate technology tools, or without any technology tool at all, depending on the particular learning situation and need. I doubt that a teacher who is only digitally "literate" will be able to do that. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the teachers who use technology in their classrooms, probably all over the world, fall in the latter category.

I believe that that is a big reason why questions are still being raised about whether technology can truly impact learning!


Shuchi Grover said...

[Posted by Joe Mackley]
I like the phrase "comfort level" you used. I think it's the best working definition for what we are after in staff development for instructional technologies. The are two challenges: 1. How do you make that change for large groups of teachers, and 2. how do you know when you've made it?
Let's start with #2. I've been responsible for evaluating this effort in various settings for nineteen years (no time to complain, just goals to meet. :) We've used survey data: "Ahem... do you feel comfortable with the technology? Circle 1, not comfortable, 2, somewhat comfortable," etc. (You can see the weakness of that, but it is of some use, because perceptions do matter.) We also used log files (to see who used the technology when for how often, etc.) We've gotten a little better at it in the last few years. One of the pieces we check for today is the quality and variety of student work. We are looking to see the students creating more diverse work in a variety of media, including electronic media. We are also looking for increased variety in types of communication used in the context of learning. For instance, Last week I had an English teacher that worked with some 15 year-olds on a book set in Iran. Our office hooked her up with EPals, and she went through considerable hassle registering her students to exchange emails. She also asked about a live teleconference, which we are trying to put together for her. I would say she had that "comfort level" we are looking for, so I made a note of that. These notes (compiled in a wiki) form a kind of "action research" which tells us we are on the right track. My point is you have to be able to measure the change somehow, if you are being paid to bring it about.

Now back to # 1. This blog thread has identified the problem, (though it hasn't said what percentage of teachers have these undesirable characteristics) and let's assume we have a way to measure success if we try to address it. Now, what are the best leverage points in the system for bringing about the goal?

In 1993, the "comfort level" challenge was getting 100% of the teaching staff simply to use the computer: turn it on, create/save a file, etc. I am very proud of the success we had at that time, which we achieved primarily in three ways: 1. install newer, more reliable computers, (one for each teacher) along with a support staff ($) 2. Install an easy-to-use kind of email 3. Get the principals to use it for announcements and daily communication with staff.
I say this to emphasize the fact that neither 1,2 or 3 above was a "training" or "workshop" or "staff development" piece. Those were held, but they were incidental. I believe we have to work systemically to address the changes we want to bring about.

For the challenges of today, we need to create a system in which the path of least resistance is to develop that comfort level with the new technologies. How do we make it so the desired behavior is simply an indispensable component of the way school works, rather than "some new thing they are pressuring us to do?" What kind of goal setting would establish this path? Where are the leverage points?

A Principal or Headmaster's blog, or a school vision wiki?
A curriculum mapping tool (interactive, with a global lesson pool, comments, ratings, etc.) to replace the teachers' planning books?

Changing teachers isn't easy. It certainly takes more than workshops, and identifying "bad" or undesirable practice is really beside the point. How are you all evaluating this outcome, and what is working best?

Shuchi Grover said...

Joe, let me preface my response by saying that I realize that changing teachers is not easy, and old ways of doing things are entrenched in the teaching practice of most teachers. I confess that I don't have all the answers (none of us do!), especially to the more nitty-gritty questions you raise, but here are some ideas.

I think you already have some answers in your comment - (1) Identifying that path of least resistance (2) Blogs and wikis all over the place - yes, a school head's blog will go a long way in helping change school culture, and wikis/collaborative googledocs/spreadsheets for all kinds of planning (3) It takes more than workshops - yes, I think the very nature of staff P.D. needs to change.

Clearly that teacher you describe set out on a path of using technology that is not easy to implement. There are too many dependencies - not just technology but distance as well. Getting something going with a school halfway across the earth is an idea, that has, in my view, too many moving parts, and hence, too many spots where things could go wrong! A live teleconference, too, can trip the most tech savvy teacher sometimes! Contrast these with a class teacher setting up a class blog or wiki with the help of the tech. integration specialist in the school. Blogs and wikis can work just as well to bring together classrooms from around the world.

Staff Development. I have, over the last couple of years, set up group blogs for the teachers who I have trained - and part of the workshop has always entailed responding to readings and discussion prompts on the group blog. It does not matter what the topic of discussion is or what the workshop is about (i.e. it need not be a workshop on "web 2.0 tools for teaching"- it could be assessments, MI, differentiated instruction - whatever. Get those teachers onto a blog every opportunity you get. Several of them warm up to the idea and get comfortable with the dynamics of setting up a blog, sharing their ideas, commenting on others' - blogging in general.

I think those surveys you mention are weak indicators, at best. Student work and products of learning - digital artifacts such as podcasts, blogs, wikis, movies, and what have you, are great, not just for assessing student learning but assessing the teacher's "comfort level" with leveraging these new technologies to transform teaching and learning in the classroom.

With any luck, we'll make every classroom and school a global publishing house!

Nancy Flanagan said...

"setting up a blog or wiki with the help of the tech integration specialist..."

"changing teachers is not easy"

Are you really thinking that most schools have a tech specialist on staff, to assist with this collaborative learning? And--are you assuming that the tech person is not only competent and right-thinking, but also has time to do something besides an endless round of fixing machines? And--can we agree, please, that teachers are independently functioning adults who will change themselves, when they understand the need to and are treated with professional respect?

We can argue about the glossary (literacy vs. fluency) ad nauseum, but most teachers have built their own technology tool kits piece by piece, when the new technological solution to the old technique or product is clearly the better path. Most teachers also have some experience with technology "solutions" being less effective and more time-consuming, not to mention worrisome or more glitz than substance.

Teachers face plenty of undeserved scorn today, for being no more or less technologically savvy than the rest of the adult world. When we're labeling teachers' reluctance to abandon strategies that are working for them as "undesirable characteristics" there's a whiff of superiority that makes me uncomfortable. Or perhaps I should say illiterate? non-fluent?

Shuchi Grover said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shuchi Grover said...

o be honest, I can sense a lot of (misplaced) ire and dare I say, undeserved scorn. You have probably met too many people towards whom such a response would be justified. I beg to not be counted among them. Our views and opinions are obviously shaped by our experiences.

Also, I will not comment on the "undesirable characteristics" bit, or for that matter, anything that I have not said. Your comment is in response to 2 people's comments here (Joe Makley's and mine)...I will respond to only what I have said.

You are obviously privileged to have come across teachers who have "built their own technology tool kits piece by piece, when the new technological solution to the old technique or product is clearly the better path". In my experience, while I have had the pleasure of working with some teachers who have embraced technology where and when it has made sense, I have also come across very many who have appreciated the benefit of a technology tool but not made the extra effort to integrate it in their teaching.

I am an educational technologist who has worked alongside many teachers at various comfort levels with technology, and I rarely, or rather never, suggest that they use technology merely for the glitz. I have, on the contrary, discouraged schools from investing in technology, if they not also invest in support staff and TPD to help teachers make sense of the technology and use it for meaningful learning. Always as a means to an end, and only when it makes sense. Please read this article I wrote as one of my first blog posts 2 years ago.

I don't think you read my original post well enough either since I wrote "A good teacher who is also technologically savvy will know when good old fashioned teaching techniques will work, and when a tech tool will serve the teaching and learning process better. She will always use technology as a means to an end, and not and end in itself. She will appreciate the value that pedagogies like Waldorf bring to a learning environment, but she will also be aware of tools like Scratch that aid problem-solving, creativity and collaboration and sharing.". Sounds a lot like what you are voicing yourself!

I have been working in India for the last few years where schools and teachers are farther behind the West in technology integration (although I have worked in US schools as well, and work with teachers world wide through Harvard U's WIDE World PD courses, and have a fair sense of teachers' struggles, and different teaching contexts around the world). I have encouraged school leaders to laud the baby steps teachers take in trying out new things with technology, but I have also realized that technology use will remain a forced add-on, a gimmicky one, I might add, until teachers become comfortable enough with technology to use it in the way you describe (as I have too in the previous paragraph that I quoted).

Coming to the 2 sentences you quoted -

(a) Actually blogs and wikis are so easy to set up - you don't even need a tech integration specialist ! Teachers could either do it themselves, or 5 minutes with a student or another teacher should do it! Remember I did mention this in the context of technologies that are easy to use and implement, but with great benefits for collaborative learning. More bang for the buck, as it were.

(b) Changing old ways of doing things is never easy, for any adult, and teachers are no exception, and neither are schools (which are simply organizations run by adults). I have had several teachers admit that they are unable to change ways of doing things because of time and syllabus-coverage pressures.

I could write a lot more in defense of my views, but will end with this -
My view is that if there is a rationale (and demonstrated evidence) of the benefit of doing something differently from your usual ways of doing it, should you not make the extra effort? Are all (or most) teachers making the extra effort to leverage the technology infrastructure to make the teaching and learning experience better, wherever and whenever it makes sense? In my experience, the answer is 'no'! Are all (or most) schools making the effort to provide an ecosystem that will support teachers in those efforts? The answer is again a 'no'!

That said, I am doing my bit to help the cause - help school leaders and teachers become aware of technologies as tools for creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. In fact, I start and end my workshops with talking about what good teaching and learning is, and where technology fits in, if at all.

Shuchi Grover said...

The previous comment should start with "To be honest...."

Nancy Flanagan said...

Dear Shuchi--

I did read--and appreciate--your original post, as well as Joe's response. Frankly, if all schools had tech integration specialists like you and Joe, the seamless/fluent/literate use of technologies would be much further along.

There is now a growing discourse, however, (exemplified by the infamous Fisch post) claiming that most teachers are resistant to tech integration, even relatively simple stuff like blogs and wikis. Some techie bloggers go further, claiming that teachers who won't "take responsibility" for upgrading their technology skills are deserving of approbation, ranging from scorn to losing their jobs.

Obviously, I can only speak from my own experience, but friendly and patient technology specialists, who are willing to gently assist teachers in understanding the power and use of these these new tools are rare--and looking down our noses at teachers (who mostly learn new technical skills and strategies on their own time and using their own equipment) is counterproductive.

I am a 30-year veteran of the classroom. While I have been "trained" to use certain programs or tools, I have never had a rich conversation with another educator about who is served by using technology. Most schools see technology as making their work more efficient. Most teachers see technology as something that will make their teaching more current and appealing to students.

Almost nobody talks about the transformation of knowledge acquisition, in schools. Instead, they talk about how "behind" the teachers are in acquiring yet another set of skills and responsibilities. Teachers should not be responsible for teaching students about technology (other than computer science teachers, of course). Teachers should be responsible for disciplinary content, connections, application, evaluation and quality--and perhaps inculcating some ideas about what it means to be a good citizen in a global world.

Ironically, this discourse is totally dominated by fluent technology users! (laughing)I know many fine, effective, influential teachers who use technology sparingly and thoughtfully (and would never read blogs). I guess that I feel that they do not need to be "changed" by someone else--they're quite capable of deciding which tools to use, on their own.

Thanks for a good dialogue. I read your blog and respect your thinking, and your readers.

Shuchi Grover said...

Thank you, Nancy, for your thoughts.

I do realize that the focus of this larger discourse is misplaced, and that techie bloggers in education may be riding roughshod over teachers' views and perspectives.

I guess we're not far very apart in our views.

I totally agree with you when you say that teachers are "quite capable of deciding which tools to use, on their own." I would however, qualify that with what I have been saying all along - that only when teachers are well aware of the technologies out there, and know how they can be leveraged pedagogically, can they make those informed decisions.

I also agree that only technology or CS teachers teach students about technology. I, actually, also question whether kids today need to be taught "about" technology at all - they need to be taught "with", instead.

I'd like to pull out a paragraph from a paper I wrote recently about ICT in the context of fostering constructivist learning in the classroom in India -

"What must be underscored is the relevance of the teacher in a
technology-mediated learning environment as in any other learning environment. That technology is a “tool” – just like any other teaching and learning aid at the disposal of a teacher - to be integrated into the curriculum and learning process in a manner that best leverages its capabilities is a most fundamental tenet of technology use in education that is unfortunately still not understood by many schools and teachers even today. This in no way conflicts with the role of the teacher as “facilitator” of the learning process in the constructivist classroom. Bruner’s view (1960, 2006) that teachers are the “principals agents” to facilitate
teaching and learning in the classroom is as true today as it ever was."

I, too, have enjoyed our dialogue, Nancy, and as a 30-year veteran teacher, your perspectives and insights are invaluable.