Digital Education: Comparison In Attitudes

By David Dawson.

According to Nancy Willard, of the Centre for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, “trying to prepare students for their future without Web 2.0 in schools is like trying to teach a child to swim without a swimming pool”. Switching off technology will neither protect students through education about self-management at home, nor assist them in rapidly adapting to the use of technology in the workplace when they leave school.

Willard suggests that the level of security overkill in most schools is bordering on hysteria. Children are prevented from certain types of online participation in schools due to perceived threats to students from online predators. However, online contact with minors is involved in only one per cent of actual sexual abuse cases. Willard also points out that those with less internet contact are generally more concerned about online safety than those that use the internet more: 46% of low-level users think the internet is too dangerous for children, compared to 24% of broadband or high-level users.

Is it the case that school cyber safety measures are out-of-touch with the realities of online use? How does this concern influence classroom practice when it comes to information technologies?

Researching Attitudes To Technology In The Classroom

I set out to answer these questions through a study of attitudes, which compared digitally literate students to digitally challenged teachers and visa versa. In this study, 321 students from years nine and ten and 100 educators were surveyed about their attitudes to digital literacy (DL) and the use of digital technologies (DT). The schools were co-educational independent schools with laptop programs and significant differences were observed in student and educator attitudes towards each other’s DL.

The hypothesis, “that there is a disconnect between the digitally capable students and digitally challenged educators in schools with laptop programs, limiting effective use of DT in the classroom” was supported in the findings. This has repercussions for educating “net generation” students and implications for implementing the National Secondary Computer Fund and National Broadband Network. The disconnect was revealed in attitudes towards technology in the classroom, teaching pedagogy, internet use, adoption of cutting-edge technologies and limitations placed on school laptops and networks.

In this study, 57 statements were provided to research participants, who were then grouped into:

  • digitally capable students
  • digitally challenged students
  • digitally capable educators
  • digitally challenged educators

They effectively self-assigned themselves to these groups according to their responses. The methodology involved a five-point Likert scale to measure attitude differences between groups.

Using Technologies In The Classroom: Educators Versus Students

There are clearly many attitude differences among participants towards the use of DT and the internet by students. Some people are rapid adopters and some people are not. Students (27.7%), like their educators (40.9%), may be digitally challenged. So there is evidence that the so-called net generation students do not have a universally high level of DL.

Educators commented that digital display technology is essential in classrooms so that they can demonstrate internet use, Web 2.0 tools and/or specialised software or hardware.

Educators agreed that student misuse is common (60%) and students thought that educators have difficulties in using DT (57%) causing time wasting due to a lack of knowledge or technical constraints. An enhancement of DL would limit time wasting in the classroom and increase efficiency. Some educators remedy the first issue by positioning themselves where student screens are visible.

Educators are more fearful of the possible risks of DT and use of the internet in the classroom (59.8%) than are their students (25.8%). This reinforces Willard’s findings that, as DL increases, fear of using DT decreases. Yet educators who cope confidently with online challenges are more likely to have a greater DL. Those who use Web 2.0 technologies regularly are more likely to see its use as being relevant in the classroom and to use DT collaboratively and/or in group projects. These educators are more enthusiastic about using new technologies and more likely to use them, although they are in the minority (18%) compared to those who do not encourage Web 2.0 use (53.9%).

Digitally challenged educators are often not using constructivist pedagogy in the classroom and are more likely to adopt an educator-centric approach. Mathematics, Physical Education, Art, Music and LOTE educators are less likely to use DT. Humanities, Science, English and ICT educators are more likely to allow students to use it. However, use in English depends on school curriculum or subject faculty administration in individual schools. Hence, curriculum leaders are able to influence the way DT is used.

The vast majority of students (76.5%) and educators (100%) agreed that DL is important in future employment. Yet, strangely, many of these educators rarely allow students to use DT in their classrooms.

Since some students have low levels of DL, it needs to be asked whether they are accessing technology programs that enable them with the capacity to self-learn in an ever-evolving technological age. If technology is embedded in the curriculum, student DL will only be enhanced where educators are sufficiently trained in the use and implementation of DT within the curriculum context.

A majority of students (58.3%) and educators (67%) agree that schools should allow students to explore self expression using DT. A majority (students 72.4% and educators 87.9%) also agree that students should be encouraged to use new technologies in schools. There is also recognition that DT allows greater flexibility of classroom delivery of content and methods of research than traditional modes of education. However, many students are dissatisfied with their school laptop setup (48%), that they prefer to use it at home (32.9%) and that most of their DL has developed through home use (69.7%). Many of these students have high levels of DL.

Although educators think students should explore self-expression using DT (67%) and that DT makes them more creative (64.5%) and innovative (77.8%), only 39.8% of students think that most of their teachers encourage them to use DT in the classroom even though 69.2% say that they encourage students to learn by discovery using DT. Hence educators are often not meeting the needs of students by enhancing student capacity to use new technologies, despite their beliefs, so that actual behaviour is not reflecting affective or cognitive attitude components. It is probable that generally it is the 46.3% of educators who say they are passionate about using DT in schools, that are encouraging its use. Therefore, students with low levels of technological access at home are being limited in acquiring DL by schools and educators. This may eventually affect student employability. This has serious ramifications for school administrations. This also indicates that even schools that have had laptop programs for a number of years are in a transitional state in adopting DT.

On a more optimistic note, aside from beliefs that DT enhances creativity and innovation, laptop programs have wide support among users with 82.6% of students and 94.6% of educators agreeing that they enjoy having a school laptop and 89.4% of students and 90.7% of educators enjoy using the internet.

From These Findings It Is Recommended That:

  • Students be encouraged to use new technologies including: laptops, tablets, digital cameras, iPads, smart phones, Web 2.0 tools, simulation software, social media, 3-D and gaming technologies.
  • Schools may benefit from exploring the use of social media sites like Facebook, as they offer excellent communication modes and it is plausible that related cyber-safety would be enhanced and online antisocial behaviour could be rectified.
  • Innovative use of DT requires that schools focus on professional development of staff and student training in the use of these technologies. This will require curriculum initiatives.
  • Schools should use their digital innovators as a resource to lead them in the adoption of future technologies and assist administrators in deciding between alternative solutions. A minority of educators are highly skilled innovators in the use of DT and remain at the cutting edge of new technologies; they are the visionaries and pacesetters in the adoption of new technologies. Administrators making decisions about technological access, new purchases and/or limitations of access are likely to have little experience in using new technologies and almost certainly no professional training.
  • Schools should prioritise employing digitally literate educators to boost staff skill levels and assist in the professional development of current staff. This is particularly pertinent where schools are implementing a new laptop program.
  • New innovations in schools are often hamstrung by exaggerated fears of new DT and excessive security limitations. There is a need for user requirements and innovation to be prioritised.

From Teacher-Centric To User-Focused

Despite the fact that constructivist pedagogy has been at the forefront of teacher education in Australia for more than 30 years, it is clear that a teacher-centric approach is still at the forefront of educational methodology in many classrooms. Yet, there are also educational innovators who show a high level of enthusiasm for DT and who have a high level of DL. They use new technologies where possible and they are inspired by their own sense of curiosity, exploration and learning for learning’s sake. These are the lifelong learners who are optimistic about a bright and exciting future in using technology in schools. These teachers should be supported in their work and encouraged to share their knowledge with other educators.

Digital implementation and innovation needs to be overseen by a “digital innovations team”. This team should be established in schools and have skilled representatives and a significant budget in order to prioritise new technological implementations and make informed choices. Digital innovators, with representatives of teaching staff, information technology, library, e-learning, finance, professional development and curriculum would inform school administrations about recommended projects to be implemented each year. Students, parents and teachers should also become involved through regular user surveys.

A user-focused innovative approach to future uses of technology will need to be translated into budgetary information and technical implementation. Change should be seen as an inevitable priority in schools and it should be recognised through visionary policy. 

David Dawson is currently undertaking an MA at Swinburne University, with the Institute of Social Research. He has previous degree qualifications in Science and Education (Melbourne University) and Computing (Monash University). He has authored two textbooks and two CDs in computing education. For this study David was awarded an R.G Menzies Fellowship for research by the Wesley College Institute for Innovation in Education. He is currently Head of Learning IT and Head of Learning Technologies at the Wesley College St Kilda Rd Campus.

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