Saturday, August 01, 2015

Digital Literacy and the ICT Curriculum

As members of the future workforce and society, today’s students require guidance and education, in order to successfully navigate and utilize the digital world that they were born into.    Acknowledging the importance of becoming digitally literate, the provincial and territorial governments of Canada have been developing various forms of information and communication technology (ICT) curricula, which will assist students in their skill development.  School-age children have a unique set of experiences awarded to them due to the digital age in which they were born.  However, their birth date alone is not sufficient to equip them for navigating the digital world without support.  Successfully utilizing technological tools and communicating within the digital world requires that students incorporate a skill set that differs from other aspects of their life.  An ICT curricula that is implemented with purpose and support produces direct benefits for the students, such as enriched learning opportunities, ease of life, and practical post-secondary preparation.  For these various reasons, investing in the digital literacy and education of all students is important, in order to help students navigate the digital world that continues to evolve before their eyes.  

For some people, the technology knowledge of classroom teachers may seem lacklustre in comparison to the knowledge of the students in their classroom; however, classroom teachers actually rely on technology, for purposes in and out of the classroom, more than their students (Wang, Hsu, Campbell, Coster, & Longhurst, 2014, p. 656).  The relationship that many students have with technology is one centred on entertainment and communication (Wang et al., 2014, p. 656).  To illustrate, a recent survey of Canadian students found that online gaming, participating in aspects of social networking, and streaming media such as music, television programs, or movies, ranked in the top technology uses for students in grades four to ten (Steeves, 2014, pp. 25-31).  Thus, today’s students are primarily relying on only two of the eight possible digital realms: (1) rapid communication technology like mobile phones and social networking, and (2) web resources like games, videos and music (Teo, 2013, p. 392).  While students’ experiences in the digital world appear to be narrow in focus they embrace new web 2.0 skills and learn introduced programs rapidly (Wang et al., 2014, p. 656).  Furthermore, students have identified that they wish they learned more digital skills in the classroom, with identifying how to critique the validity of online information, how to stay safe while online, and the legality of certain online practices topping students’ knowledge wish lists (Steeves, 2014, pp. 25-31).  While it can be easy to assume that students have an increased knowledgebase when it comes to digital literacy, having teachers provide purposeful education and ongoing modelling that is tailored to be relevant and meaningful for their students gives students support to build their digital skill repertoire.

Addressing specific concerns regarding ICT implementation has been the subject of discussion by education and government professionals the world over.  In 1997, it was identified that traditional forms of literacy were not sufficient and that students required new skills such as searching for information through non-linear routes (Simsek & Simsek, 2013, p. 128).  Since that time, the required skill set of students has expanded to include the collection, organization, storage, and publication of information through a computer device in graphic, text, or number format (Haddadian, Majidi, Maleki, & Alipour, 2013, p. 195).  It has been assumed that a focus on ICT would result in teachers becoming unfocused with their planning as they would rely on computers to do the work they previously did, but research has concluded that the implementation of ICT lessons still requires teachers to utilize their knowledge of instructional strategies and the developing brain (Boschman, McKenney, & Voogt, 2014, p. 412). Furthermore, the addition of ICT elements into a pre-existing curriculum has been proven to extend learning opportunities and accelerate the learning rate of students (Haddadian et al., 2013, pp. 194-195).  However, with technology being a fast-changing world, educators need to resist the urge to jump at new ideas without thinking of how its implementation can be maximized, what problems may arise, and how sustainable the tool will be for students down the road (Latchem, 2013, p. 384).  These concerns need to be addressed by policy-makers and educators before and during the implementation of an ICT curriculum.

Defining the important and essential role of ICT education within the vast curricular network of public education has been the focus of recent initiatives undertaken by provincial and territorial governments within Canada.  As of 2015, 11 of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories have established ICT curricular policies that range from infusion and dispersal amongst pre-existing curriculums to structured cross-curricular models and specifically assessed benchmarks (Hoechsmann & DeWaard, 2015, pp. 15-17).  Regardless of the format in which an ICT curriculum is organized, it is essential that Canadian students increase their digital literacy skills in order to effectively participate in the new “knowledge-age work force” (Information and Communications Technology Council, 2012, p. 1).   In addition to the expanded skill set mentioned previously, students’ digital understanding needs to reach beyond basic fluency tasks and include higher-level thinking skills like digital composition and information analysis (Media Awareness Network, 2010, p. 4).  In a 2015 survey, it was identified that Canadian teachers need to educate students on the importance of utilizing digital literacy skills such as authenticating online information at all times and not just in the context of the classroom (Steeves, 2014, p. 22).   Furthermore, educators should focus on the transferability of a student’s digital literacy skills to ensure effective use on a wide range of technology tools (Steeves, 2014, 22).   Although these Canadian policies serve as a good starting point, much responsibility falls on the classroom teacher and individual school teams to ensure that appropriate implementation is occurring at the classroom level.

In Manitoba, the implementation of ICT content, including digital literacy, is outlined in the provincial document A Continuum Model for Literacy With ICT Across the Curriculum, which features a “holistic and pedagogy-focused approach” to ICT integration (Hoechsmann & DeWaard, 2015, p. 15).  This document can assist school teams and individual teachers in their planning of grade/age-appropriate ICT tasks, how to include both literacy and citizenship aspects, and how to assess where students are developmentally.  It not only identifies that students require a different set of literacies to thrive in the digital world, but also that students need to prepare to adapt to the ideas, attitudes and technologies that are ever-changing in the digital world (Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth, 2006, p. 7).  In Manitoba, the incorporation of ICT elements has helped students learn at their own pace, assisted students who do not have access to at-home supports, allowed for more one-on-one time with teaching staff, and allowed parents to stay more involved in their child’s learning (Stephenson, 2013, p. 11).  It is important to note that Manitoba does not have a separate curriculum dedicated to ICT but that it sees these skills as harmonious elements that need to be infused alongside pre-existing concepts (Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth, 2006, p. 9).  As such, it is supported by seven guiding principles: (1) inquiry-based learning, (2) constructivist approach to implementation, (3) high-level critical thinking, (4) deep understanding of concepts, (5) gradual release of responsibility, (6) digital citizenship, and (7) multiple literacies (Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth, 2006, p. 11).  By outlining ICT implementation as a continuum, Manitoba easily assists teachers in identifying students’ understanding and begin incorporation in a manner that suits their teaching style and comfort levels.

Integration of an ICT program is not only the responsibility of policy-makers and classroom teachers, but also the responsibility of the administrative team at a school- and division-level.  Teachers have identified that new technology programs and activities would be easier to implement if they could work as part of a team to support one another and exchange ideas (Stephenson, 2013, p. 11).  However, it has been found that although most school leaders have positive opinions towards technology they fall into two very different categories in regards to their approach: (1) distributed principals who work closely with their teachers and ICT teams to ensure effective implementation and, (2) formal principals who offer positive encouragement towards ICT ideas but do not personally participate in planning or training (Peterson, 2014, p. 302).  Of the two types of leaders, the schools that commit to ICT development as a team initiative and focus on collaboration and communication are more successful in their implementation than those schools who force a top-down approach with minimal support (Peterson, 2014, pp. 304-310).  In order to effectively support their teachers, school leaders need to keep up-to-date with new technology programs and tools, as well as model appropriate use for their staff (Waxman, Boriack, Lee, & MacNeil, 2013, p. 193).  Furthermore, an effective ICT implementation should be one that includes long-term planning with school leaders and addresses budgeting, hiring of necessary specialists, teacher training, and long-term maintenance plans (Peck, Mullen, Lashley, & Eldridge, 2011, p. 47).  Thus, in addition to provincial ICT policies, an effective administrative team that is committed to the purposeful implementation of an ICT program also contributes to successful implementation, which benefits both staff and students.

In conclusion, it is necessary that today’s students receive guidance and education in order for them to successfully navigate and utilize the digital world that they were born into.  In their initiatives to define the role of ICT for today’s youth, the provincial and territorial governments of Canada have also highlighted the necessity of purposeful education and skill development for all students.  Being born into the digital age is not sufficient in equipping students for the higher-level skills required for being successful in the digital world.  The different ICT applications and level of transferability that is required of students requires modelling and skills training in a variety of contexts.  An ICT curricula that is implemented with purpose and support produces direct benefits for the students, such as enriched learning opportunities, ease of life, and practical post-secondary preparation.  Therefore, in order to ensure that ICT programs are implemented successfully, and that students are prepared, it is necessary to provide education and support from all stakeholders. 

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