Modern learning: The digital future is now

Susan Galloway & Katie Barrowman

Susan Galloway and Katie Barrowman are English and Media teachers in Glasgow, Scotland. Their unapologetic enthusiasm and unashamed geekiness leads them to believe that the possibilities for digital technologies in education are limitless. They're making it their mission to encourage Scottish educators to get on board and aim for the stars!

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 In true Scottish storytelling fashion, there is a tale, which may or may not be true, that tells of when Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence was in its infancy, in the middle of the first decade of the millennium. The tale was that - along with the areas of Literacy, Numeracy and Health & Wellbeing – ICT was to be a responsibility of all practitioners. This would mean that every Scottish educator would be required to explicitly take ownership of supporting and tracking the digital skills of the learners in their care. Then sadly, the story goes, for some reason ICT was quietly removed from the ‘responsibility of all category’ and subsumed under the banner of technologies.

"Many of our learners' technical abilities eclipse those of their teachers."

Now, whether this is true or not, it has a ring of believability about it – after all, a decade ago neither schools nor teachers were perhaps quite ready to buy into the reality that the future is digital (even if the learners were more than ready). They were not yet prepared to accept that the ability to work, create and innovate, safely and responsibly, in a digital world was something that we all had to take ownership of. So 'ICT' remained the province of Computing teachers (supplemented by the few interested teachers of other subjects) in Secondary schools, and the one or two interested or 'volunteered' members of staff in Primary schools. And time, like technology, moved on.

Here we are now, at the dawn of 2016, when an estimated 90% of jobs in the UK today require the competent use of digital technologies. We live in a Scotland where over 84,400 people work in digital jobs and the digital sector alone contributes £4.5 billion value added to the nation's economy. According to the Scottish Government, in the five years leading up to 2013, the number of digital businesses in Scotland increased almost twice as fast as across the UK as a whole. Yet many schools, in Scotland and further afield, are still failing to address the needs of wider society when it comes to ensuring our young people are equipped with the necessary skills to contribute and flourish in this digital age.

It was heartening, then, when the Scottish Government’s education body, Education Scotland, released the latest update to its framework for inspection of schools, How Good Is Our School 4. HGIOS 4, launched in September 2015, brings digital to the forefront. While its predecessor, HGIOS 3, mentioned the term 'ICT' six times and 'digital' not at all, HGIOS 4 dedicates a sizeable section of Quality Indicator 3.3 (Creativity and Employability) to the themes of Digital Innovation and Digital Literacy. References to the importance of supporting learners in the digital world are woven throughout the rest of the document, leaving the reader in no doubt that the Inspectorate is now looking for evidence that Scottish teaching has entered the digital age. Most strikingly of all, in section 2.2 (Curriculum), we find the following statement (emphasis ours):

"All staff take responsibility for developing literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing and digital literacy across the curriculum. Learners demonstrate these skills at a high level in a variety of meaningful contexts."

Slipped in, with no fanfare, digital literacy is now the responsibility of all Scottish teachers (according to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education anyway).

For many Scottish educators, this is a cause for celebration, and what we have been waiting for. Until the importance of digital skills is accepted and understood by every professional, there will always be other priorities, other areas seen as more deserving of time and resources. Meanwhile, the gap between the learners' digital needs and expectations and the profession's ability to meet them continues to widen. It can no longer be put off until tomorrow because it is almost too late already - many of our learners' abilities and skills in the digital universe eclipse those of their teachers, leaving no-one able or equipped to guide behaviours and encourage responsible use in this brave new world. Our young people need this change to happen now and HGIOS 4 gives this permission. It is up to us to embrace it.

"We must understand that digital literacy goes beyond creating a PowerPoint presentation."

Of course, not everyone will feel this way. This shift in responsibility brings fear and anxiety over workload, and many teachers will experience a crisis of confidence around what they will now be expected to deliver. Teachers need opportunities for professional development but also, more importantly, for professional dialogue. Some schools and authorities are further ahead than others in this journey, but it is one we must all be part of. Sharing good practice or even just handy tips is something that has never been easier to do, with teachers keen to share across Twitter, Facebook and education-specific platforms, such as the Scottish schools intranet, Glow. We are beginning to see that the key isn't having lots of technology - laptops, tablets, Smart Boards or other hardware artefacts - but how the technology that is available is harnessed to ensure learning is as impactful as it can be. Some would say that technology is just one resource among many, but in reality it is something more. Yes, technology is a resource, a tool, but it is also a gateway to skills based approaches, and a conduit to encouraging creativity; to developing innovation and collaboration.

Schools of Education at our universities and NQT training programmes are ideally placed to share the message of digital literacy as a responsibility of all to the new entrants to our profession, but we must also support existing teachers to feel comfortable and empowered in their responsibility. Obviously, this doesn't mean that all teachers need to be able to teach their pupils how to code (we aren't all Computing Science teachers after all). What we do all have to do is understand that digital literacy and digital innovation go beyond being able to create a PowerPoint presentation or move an object on a Smart Board.

Children need to learn how to interact and create in the online world. They must be able to explore the digital context in the same way they explore the physical world around them - with the freedoms they need to be creative, alongside the knowledge they need to stay safe. They should have access, in a learning environment, to the apps, the tools, the online spaces available to support and enhance their learning. For teachers, this shouldn't mean added workload; rather, it means shifting some aspects of learning from the physical to the virtual, and taking advantage of the tools that are out there to be used. For local education authorities, this means investing to support the infrastructure, loosening the constraints of corporate style web-filtering and giving schools and teachers the permission, both literal and cultural, to take risks with their practice and to be creative.

At some point, we have to embrace the future rather than trying to hold on to the present. We are all learners in a digital age, and it demands a fundamental change in the teacher/pupil dynamic to realise that our students can teach us as much as we can teach them. Is it now time for us to allow our young people to lead the way?

Do you teach in Scotland? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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