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Reflections on digital skills assessment: What it means to keep learners at the centre of digital skills work

Author – Monica Leong, Digital Divide Project consultant

In our first post of this series, we reflected on what it means for programs and practitioners to embrace digital skills as foundational learning. 

Embracing digital skills as foundational learning is a guiding principle that has emerged in our work. It recognizes the fertile learning spaces at the intersection of reading, writing, and digital skills. Adult foundational programming, whether it is delivered in person or online, has an essential role to play in building the digital skills needed by the people who come to our programs. Those skills are no longer optional; they are a critical part of the new learning landscape. 

But if we are to embrace digital skills learning,we need to unpack what that means for our programming contexts. What does it mean for learners and for practitioners to embrace digital skills learning? How can we engage in this work with all the demands on our time? And how can we bring a learner-centred, strengths-based mindset to the conversation? 

Start with digital skills assessment

A great place to start is to ask ourselves three questions:

  1. What do we know about the digital skills learners already have?
    • This question keeps us focused on the strengths adults bring to their learning, the areas where they may feel some confidence already. We also want to consider the kind of access they have to devices and the internet. (see Supporting and Accessing Technology from the Digital Divide Practitioner Tool)
  1. What do we know about the digital skills learners want and need? 
    • This question helps us focus on breaking down the prerequisite skills that are needed for learners to do the things they want and need to do in digital spaces; things like applying for a job online or attending language classes online each require many different skills and the confidence to use them.
  1. How do we know what we know about learners’ digital skills?
    • This question keeps us focused on the process and the practice of meeting learners where they are at through relationships, conversation, and observation. And, like the other questions above, this question requires us to check our assumptions about what we know (or what we think we know).

Interestingly, these questions are really all about assessment. But sometimes the word “assessment” can be scary or can bring up grand ideas of complex, formal tools and spreadsheets.

In our conversations in the Embedding Digital Skills series, however, we have found it more useful to think about digital skills assessment as:

  • Grounded in conversation and relationships with learners
  • An informal and ongoing exercise, not a one-and-done event
  • An intentional process and practice that helps us understand where learners are at and where they want to go

As we discussed assessment in this way, our group noticed that we already do a lot of digital skills assessment, but that we could improve on the ways we do it and make it a more regular, intentional practice in our work. 

Quick fix? 

It’s common to want a quick solution when we are faced with challenges, so it’s not surprising that some of us (myself included!) look for that one website or that one survey that we can simply “give to the learners” to figure out what they can do, need to do, and want to do with digital skills. But while there are many tools to help us, there’s no ultimate tool that’s a “one size fits all” solution. 

So what does it look like in real life?

The good news is that, as adult foundational practitioners, we are experts at engaging learners in conversation to learn about their needs and strengths. And that’s where we, in the Embedding series, have landed with digital skills assessment: using informal assessment tools and conversations with learners that get at the heart of their strengths and needs. And with simple and thoughtful tools to support that practice, we can track learners’ progress in their skills and confidence. 

Four thoughts on engaging in digital skills assessment 

The ongoing, intentional practice of digital skills assessment can look different depending on many factors. In our Embedding series, we have had practitioners working in a variety of contexts including with larger groups or one-on-one, both in person and online in regularly scheduled programs as well as on demand, walk-in learning environments. That’s a wide variety of contexts to accommodate, but we have noticed consistent threads in our conversations:

  1. Use informal assessment

We don’t need large scale, standardised tools to understand where our learners are at. We need to engage in thoughtful conversations and processes that open up opportunities for learners to show what they are confident doing in digital spaces. 

Through intentional and informal assessment, we can keep track of what learners can do, need to do, and want to do. We can use simple checklists and open-ended notes to track those skills. And we can go back to that information later, after repeated practice over time, to remember and celebrate progress with learners. 

  1. Break down goals into prerequisite skills

In our Embedding series, we liked the idea of having a “simple checklist” to articulate the goals and tasks that learners can do, need to do, and want to do in digital spaces. But we also found that it takes a lot of thought to break down a goal or task into all the prerequisite skills needed to accomplish it! 

For example, if a learner’s goal is to be successful in learning online in a language class that uses zoom, there are many parts to that goal. Much of it involves skills specific to zoom (think of all the functions available in zoom!), but there are other parts to that goal too, that are broader than zoom specific skills. Do learners also need to use a Learning Management System (LMS) or a Google folder system? Do learners need access to an email account? That one goal of taking a language class online involves many skills and tasks in which learners need to build confidence. 

So articulating the list of prerequisite skills is a big task. Currently in our conversations, this is the place we have arrived at, the place where we need to take some time to articulate the skills needed to accomplish a task online or in our in person programs. In some contexts, sharing that list with learners may be appropriate and engaging. In other contexts and with other learners, that might be an overwhelming list. 

But for programs and practitioners themselves, having a thoughtful list of the skills required to complete tasks is a useful tool, and it offers the bonus of having smaller steps on a journey. We know it takes time and repeated practice to develop new skills. Having smaller steps allows learners to celebrate their progress along the way. 

  1. Check our assumptions 

In our conversations at the Digital Divide Project, we have found how easy it is for us to make assumptions when working in digital spaces! We make assumptions about what skills people may have, we forget to think about what devices or tools people have access to or not, and we can often overlook how many steps it takes to accomplish something in the digital space. Here is a short video that unpacks some assumptions we bump into in digital spaces.

As we take stock of the many skills needed for adults to accomplish their goals in digital spaces (such as navigating a city transit system, applying for jobs online, filling in government forms, or learning language online), we need to use a digital literacy lens to “see” the skills and steps that we might otherwise miss. For this work, we can take inspiration from the Digital Literacy Audit Tool, a tool designed by Calgary Learns to support organisations as they reflect on their service delivery through the lens of digital literacy, equity, and access. With a digital literacy lens and thoughtful reflection, practitioners can avoid assumptions and uncover the prerequisite digital skills adults need, which may otherwise go under the radar and cause unintended challenges. 

  1. Use models to develop your own thoughtful tools

Here are some tools we have found that offer models of simple checklists and larger lists of digital skills. These tools can support practitioners in the process of breaking down prerequisite skills needed for learners to accomplish their specific goals, and can offer ideas about what a “simple checklist” to use with learners might look like. 

ABC Connect for Learning from ABC Life Literacy Canada

According to their website:

ABC Connect for Learning is a digital literacy program that offers free resources to those looking to improve their digital skills.” 

Look under the Resources tab for tools that can support practitioners as they break down prerequisite skills for tasks. These resources can also support learners as they learn how to use the skills! 

For example, check out Zoom-iOS.pdf (abcconnectforlearning.ca), a pdf showing how to use zoom on your iPhone. A resource like this might help practitioners when they are thinking through the functions and skills needed to participate in classes on zoom with an iPhone. 

ABC Life Literacy Canada also has workbooks on many different topics with simple checklists that look like this:

This image, for example, shows a short, simple checklist of things that adults need to be able to do when applying for a job using the Indeed website. Each one of those tasks requires a list of digital skills to complete, but as part of an informal assessment with a learner, this kind of tool can offer an entry point to the conversation. The thoughtful practitioner can use the informal assessment to understand where the learner is at and what their goals are, and then can refer to their own larger list of prerequisite digital skills that are required to accomplish this task. 

Digital Literacy and Access Survey

(clicking the survey link will force you to make a copy of the form, which you can then adapt as needed)

This is a survey using a Google form created by Rachel Riggs from the EdTech Center (worlded.org) . A form like this assumes the users already have some digital skills, but it may be a useful tool for you to adapt as part of your digital skills assessment practice.

Digital Skills Resources from Terri Peters and Calgary Learns

This link takes you to a Google folder containing a wealth of resources that were created by Terri Peters in a Calgary Learns project with the Women’s Centre. There are many wonderful resources here, well-designed for use with adult foundational learners, including simple digital skills assessment checklists like this:

Can you see using this kind of a checklist geared toward the relevant skills for your learners? How might it support your conversations and work with learners? How might it support learners’ ability to see their own progress?

Going forward

At the Digital Divide Project, we continue to reflect about our evolving work with adult foundational learners in spaces that are both digital and in person. So far, it is clear that digital skills are crucial, foundational skills for life, learning, and work. As foundational practitioners, we are committed to assessing what we deliver, and in the new learning landscape, our delivery includes digital skills. At the Digital Divide Project, we aim to focus on goals, not on technology. And we will continue to explore and reflect on the use of good tools and thoughtful practices, including informal digital skills assessments through conversations with learners. Whatever those conversations look like, they will focus on the strengths and confidence of the learners in using digital skills to accomplish their goals.

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