If school-based, traditional literacies have not changed, then the children of this new century certainly have. They are initiating, appropriating, and establishing changes to literacy practice in a fast and furious manner. These changes, using the groundbreaking and rapidly developing technological advances of this new century, mean that young children and the youth culture of today are living their lives with and through the aid of digital technology.
Janet Evans (2004:8) Literacy Moves On.
Schools are already working towards developing strategies to deliver the new computing curriculum, which comes into effect in September 2014. The essential elements of this curriculum can be found here. There are three main parts – computing, which highlights computational thinking and computer science, information technology which the Royal Society defines as“the application of computer systems and the use of pre-existing software to meet user needs”and digital literacy, which is described as“the general ability to use computers”. Some of these definitions seem problematic.
The guidelines provide a useful Purpose of Study by way of justifying change. These include equipping pupils ‘to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world… the core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work, and how to put this knowledge to use through programming‘. In terms of digital literacy, the Purpose of Study claims to address the need to develop citizens ‘who are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology… able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.
The idea of ‘computational thinking’ encompasses
‘a collection of diverse skills to do with problem solving that result from studying the nature of computation. It includes some obviously important skills that most subjects help develop, like creativity, ability to explain and team work. It also consists of some very specific problem solving skills such as the ability to think logically, algorithmically and recursively. It is also about understanding people‘ (CS4FN).
Few who have been involved with school computing would disagree with the overall purpose of study. It is clear that the world we live in is changing rapidly and that it is essential for us to develop new understanding, skills and competencies if we are to thrive, rather than simply survive, in that world. Digital formats are everywhere – music, photography, film, where computer generated images play an increasingly important part in movie making. Communication systems are digital and the way in which we buy and sell depends largely on digitised systems. The social networking world, where an increasing number of young people create and share digital artefacts, including images, video, audio and other art forms, is a digital one. Peppler (2014:xi), talking about the parlous state of Arts Education the United States, notes that “outside of school, however, we see a strikingly different landscape, one full of promise for engaging young people in artistic activity… interest-driven arts learning – combined with the power of digital technology.”
Computer programming is not new to schools – indeed, many who acquired computers like the ZX Spectrum, BBC Model A and B and Apple 2 in the early 80’s found that they were limited in terms of software available, leading to a growth of programming. Easy to use and learn languages like Logo and Basic were popular and after school computer clubs proliferated. Logo is still around and is a good platform for learning about programming. Other useful platforms include Scratch. Teachers are already preparing for September and a number of healthy support systems including CAS , are in place.
However, I have a concern about the way that digital literacy is presented, specifically in terms of it being seen as consisting of ‘skills’.
Bawden (2008), commenting on Gilster’s early work on digital literacy, highlights it as being about “mastering ideas, not keystrokes” (p 18). My view is that it is about about critical understanding – developing a critical view of the digital world in which we live and the way it impacts on our daily lives. One aspect of this is that of keeping safe. Others involve being aware of the ease with which one is surveilled, be it by the state, the places where one uses credit and debit cards, the many social platforms on which one participates. It is also about developing a critical understanding of the wide range of mediums which we are are presented with on a daily basis, the importance of having a robust understanding of issues surrounding intellectual property, copyright and academic integrity and other ‘rules of engagement’ when working on the web in order to avoid embarrassment, or worse. More detail can be found in this post.
Wheeler, (2012:15) states: “…new media and digital technologies offer new opportunities for learning, yet the disruptive nature of these tools and the seismic changes that they bring require us to conceive an entirely new set of literacies.” Importantly, he emphasises the idea that digital literacy is NOT about skills or competencies, but rather about ‘cultural engagement’, which I would take to involve a thorough understanding of the digital world around us and how to operate successfully within it. Wheeler identifies nine key digital literacies:
- social networking
- transliteracy (ability to operate across a wide range of digital platforms)
- maintaining privacy (staying safe online)
- managing identity (using multiple online identities)
- creating content (eg – blogs, participating on wikis, discussion groups)
- organising and sharing content (posting to different platforms, saving and collating information online)
- reusing/repurposing content (mashing, mixing)
- filtering and selecting content (finding, saving content in ways which enable us to find it easily)
- self broadcasting (sharing one’s own content with others across different platforms).
There are a range of ways in which schools can deliver this aspect of the curriculum, perhaps the most appropriate being cross-curricular. Writing using digital devices, searching for and evaluating information and presenting ideas in digital formats is common in schools, but using Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, wikis, photo and video sharing, social bookmarking and presentation platforms like PowToon and Prezi are less so. It is vital to provide realistic opportunities for children to develop their skills as creators of digital artefacts – photographs, music, movies and audio content. There are many opportunities for this across the curriculum. Blogs are useful for reporting on class activities and for sharing children’s work, be it art, writing, interesting problem solving methods used in mathematics, or video of group recitals or drama. Wikis, designed as collaborative platforms, enable users to collaborate (plan, discuss, share, create, produce, edit) to create, share and collate information. They are especially suitable for project work, whatever the subject.
What is most important is that pupils themselves are active in the creation, editing and delivery of material. Buckingham (2008) points out that the best way to understand digital media is to get involved in producing it. Learning to shoot and edit video, taking and editing a photograph, recording and editing audio content are, after all, part of expressing oneself and developing ideas through the use of information and communications technology.
Schools and teachers need to recognise the power of Web 2.0 as a platform which can motivate children and embrace it. Children enjoy using digital devices and working online and while it is true that there are dangers online, the Byron report suggests that providing children with the necessary understanding to identify and handle online danger is better than blocking sites willy-nilly. The broad scope offered by the new curriculum provides schools with opportunities to use the exciting digital technologies available to us to provide exciting and motivating learning environments.
Perhaps more important that these issues is the more important one of changing schools. The notion of a ‘grammar of schooling‘ (Tyack and Tobin (1994), the enduring ability of schools to resist change, has been around for a good while. Writing in 1991, Collins cited Cohen and Cuban as saying that computer technology was unlikely to have much effect on schools and that “to the degree that technology is flexible, it will be bent to fit existing practice and that, to the degree it cannot be bent to fit existing practice, it will not be used” (Page 28). Balanskat et al. (2006) are cited by Arbelaiz and Gorospe (2009) as having identified three main barriers to change in schools. These are as follows.
Lack of ICT skills, lack of motivation, lack of confidence in using new technologies. In many cases, these are due to poor or inappropriate teacher training.
School resources / provision
Even if teachers are adequately trained, school barriers impede their being able to put training into practice. These are
- Absence, or poor quality of ict infrastructure
- Limited access to ict equipment, school’s limited project related experience, lack of experience in project based learning, absence of ict mainstreaming into school strategies.
Barriers to assessment and evaluation methods, with current ones not designed to measure progress in ict rich schools. There is a level of doubt by schools and parents that ict type assessments will not provide the same kinds of results as traditional ones.
Tyack and Tobin’s (1994) seminal study on the grammar of schooling highlights aspects of schooling which tend to be regarded as fixed and unchangeable, ‘‘regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction… standardised organisational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students, allocating them to classrooms, and splintering knowledge into ‘subjects’ ” (p. 454). They explain how innovations which have “challenged the structures and rules that constitute the grammar of schooling, . . . have not lasted for long” (p. 455). Arbelaiz and Gorospe (2009) provide an interesting point about aspects of school practice which fall outside of the established ‘grammar’ but which are nevertheless accepted. These include (usually ungraded) activities like field trips, out-of-school and after-school programmes, domains where “ICT finds fertile ground in which to grow and to afford non-standard innovative practices”. This fits very well with the ‘informal’ curriculum, where learning happens in a less structured, more open and relaxed learning environment. They suggest that these are venues “for ICT integration” where innovative practices are free of the normal ‘grammar of schooling’ barriers.
The extent to which the new curriculum can succeed would seem to depends more on its ability to challenge the grammar of schooling rather than how good it is. The question is whether schools in a position where they can let go of traditional strictures and embrace the opportunities offered by the new curriculum. Are teachers adequately trained? Are schools adequately provisioned? Are other aspects of the curriculum flexible enough to embrace the kinds of learning that computers are especially good at supporting? Can organisations like Ofsted adapt their approaches in terms of acknowledging alternate kinds of evidence of learning? Are we ready to challenge the ‘grammar of schooling’ (Tyack and Tobin, 1994) which makes change in schools extremely difficult? What is particularly interesting is that these long held concerns rise afresh in the Royal Society report, which notes that ‘there is a shortage of specialist teachers able to teach computing’ (page 8), a lack of CPD for teachers (page 9), inadequate teaching resources and infrastructural issues which ‘hold back good teaching’ (page 9). These include compromises as a result of the ‘need to maintain network security – an analogue to health and safety myths holding back practical science’ (page 9).
My personal belief is that the delivering the aims of the new curriculum will be a challenge. Successful schools will be those who are proactive and innovative, schools which invest in professional development, establish coding clubs, purchase good quality computers, engaging equipment like Lego Mindstorms, embrace the use of multimedia narratives, establish clubs where members can experiment which the capture and editing of digital photographs, video and sound files. These schools will also be open to children bringing and using their own ‘internet ready’ devices to school for use as educational tools. The increased acceptance of children’s devices in schools, driven by current research in the area of ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) would seem to offer good opportunities for developing a broader understanding of how digital devices can support learning. These schools will also take advantage of the informal curriculum – the learning that occurs outside of school as young people use of computers in informal situations (home, cafes, on the move).
Arbelaiz, A. & Gorospe, J. (2009) Can the grammar of schooling be changed? Computers and Education, Issue 53, pages 51-56.
Bawden, D. (2008) Origins and Concepts of Digital Literacy. In Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2008) Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices.
Buckingham, D. (2008) Defining Digital Literacy. What do young people need to know about digital literacy? Chapter 4, Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (Eds.) (2008) Digital Literacies. Concepts, Policies and Practices. Peter Lang, New York.
Collins, A. (1991). The role of computer technology in restructuring schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(1), 28-36.
Evans, J. (2004) Literacy Moves On: Using Popular Culture, New Technologies and Critical Literacy in the Primary Classroom. David Fulton.
Peppler, K. (2014) New Creativity Paradigms: Arts Learning in The Digital Age. Peter Lang.
Tyack, D. & Tobin, W. (1994) The “Grammar” of Schooling: Why Has it Been so Hard to Change?
Wheeler, S. (2010) What are digital literacies?
Wheeler, S. (2012) Digital Literacies for Engagement in Emerging Online Cultures.