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Reflections on embedding digital skills learning in programming: Focus on being flexible.

Author – Monica Leong, Digital Divide Project consultant and Embedding Digital Skills in Learning series facilitator. 

From the Embedding Digital Skills in Learning series and the Digital Divide Project 

In our previous blogposts, we reflected on what we have learned in the Embedding series, including embracing digital skills as foundational learning, keeping learners at the centre of digital skills work, and focusing on learning, not on technology as we facilitate digital skills learning. 

Throughout our work, we have kept in mind the four guiding principles articulated in the Digital Divide Practitioner Tool from Calgary Learns. In this post, we highlight the fourth guiding principle: being flexible.

“To be flexible means to be ready and able to adapt to different circumstances. Practitioners in the adult foundational learning community know the value of being flexible because it is a crucial part of responding to learners’ needs.”

In this post, we outline several challenges that practitioners discussed in our series. And we share tips and resources available to support practitioners to be flexible, embrace digital skills learning, and respond to learner needs and strengths.

Challenges we explored 

Assumptions about, and gaps in, digital skills and knowledge

In our discussions, we noted how many assumptions we make about what people can do online and with digital technology and tools. Adult literacy practitioners are well-versed in anticipating fragmented skills in foundational reading and numeracy; we also need to expect them in digital skills learning.

“Avoid making assumptions about learners’ digital skill levels. Digital literacy skills are on a continuum. Learners (and practitioners!) may have fragmented digital skills (e.g., might be able to record and share a TikTok video but not yet able to download an app to use at work). Assessing digital skills at intake and across the learning means that unidentified gaps will not become insurmountable barriers.”

(From the Digital Divide Practitioner Tool from Calgary Learns)

We can make assumptions about what is happening without realizing it. But taking the time to challenge our assumptions and reflect on them can help us see the situation with new eyes.

“… if a student doesn’t join on Zoom, is it just like, oh, they forgot, or is it oh, are they trying 20 times but they can’t get in?”

“It just opens your eyes to things that you just, yeah, you just don’t even think about.”

Resource constraints

Participants in our series mentioned that not everyone has the time to reflect on embedding digital skills learning as we did. Time constraints, staff turnover, and heavy workloads mean that practitioners may not have the resources they need to reflect on their practice and build their confidence with technology and digital skills learning. Other constraints may also be challenging for practitioners.

“We still have a ways to go – there are not enough computers… (we need to) rethink groupings of learners…”

While we are not in the same panic mode that we were at the height of the pandemic, practitioners can still find themselves in a crunch for the time, energy, and resources they need to support learners.

“There’s tons and tons of resources out there. But when I’m talking to a teacher who’s kind of like in a crunch of like, “Oh, I need this skill now for my next class,” they’re kind of in panic mode… I found a lot of pushback from teachers who are kind of like “No, I don’t want to go and comb through all the resources to find a good one.”

Getting stuck and frustrated

In a previous blogpost, we mentioned the emotional responses that may arise when working with technology. Things can get frustrating quickly, for learners and practitioners.

“It makes me think that so much of this digital skill stuff is actually very little things. It’s not like, oh, digital skills – it’s such a big thing. It’s like it’s just a zillion little things, in so many ways…

…It’s little things but it’s also little things that have to be done in a sequential order. So, if you get stuck on step 3, you have no hope of making it to step 10. Even if you could do steps 5 through 10, if you’re stuck on step 3, you’re stuck.”

Looking at challenges with new eyes

The digital landscape we live and work in now can seem frustrating and overwhelming. Digital literacy with adult foundational learners can seem too big to tackle. Where do we even start?

Fortunately, our conversations with practitioners have shown us that when we look at the situation with new eyes, we can find ways to think through digital skills learning. Here are some tips:

1.    We don’t need to be experts in everything. We are all learners in the digital landscape. No one knows everything and technology changes rapidly.  

 “Be kind to yourself and let learners see that you are also learning…. When something does not go according to plan, view it as an opportunity to learn and try again with more information – not a failure but a graceful stumble. Model how to learn from mistakes. Notice the positive growth and learning that comes from persisting through challenges and issues.

 “You don’t have to be a master before you introduce a new piece of technology but make sure you have a basic understanding so you can guide learners in how to use this tool in this way in this learning environment.”

(From the Digital Divide Practitioner Tool from Calgary Learns)

 2.    Start with the people in the room. Keeping learners at the centre involves understanding where they are at, what they want or need to be able to do, and what kinds of digital skills learning to focus on. Sometimes as practitioners accessing professional development, we hope to answer the question, “What am I going to do on Monday?” 

As we focused on keeping learners at the centre of our work through digital skills assessment, we concluded that what we do on Monday all depends on who is in the room on Monday. Responding to the needs of the learners you are with that day requires flexibility. We may not be able to predetermine what we will do, but we can definitely prepare ourselves to have access to a wide array of tools, knowledge, and practices that allow us to respond wisely in the moment to learners’ needs and goals.

 3.    Understand and share with learners that digital skills build on each other and are transferable. When we identify skills gaps, we break those skills down into their parts and fill the gaps in small steps. This builds a solid foundation from which to further develop learners’ skills and confidence. With repeated practice and explicit instruction, we can help learners recognize how digital skills and vocabulary are transferable across tools or platforms. For example, vocabulary words such as “delete” and “archive” appear in multiple apps and programs on phones, tablets, and desktop computers.

 4.    Consider the digital skill building activities we engage in. A simple framework for thinking about how we might integrate digital skills into programming considers these different levels of use of digital skills:

  •  Explicit skill instruction: This is where learning a particular skill(s) is the main focus of specific lessons and activities.
  • Instructional routines: This is where technology-centred activities are used regularly in classroom routines, such as using text messaging for class communications, or collaborative documents for brainstorming or group writing.
  • Skill application projects: This is where learners use their digital skills in technology-rich projects to practise skills and concepts. Think of learners using a variety of media and digital skills to create slides, graphs, or videos. Application activities focus on real world, authentic uses of digital skills that reflect learners’ lived experiences.

Using this framework, we can approach digital skill building with more clarity, respond to learners’ strengths and needs, and tailor our choice of activities to an appropriate level of use of digital skills for the adults we work with. Being clear about what level we are working at avoids jumping too far too fast. For example, if we jump into an activity that applies skills that learners are not confident with yet, it might end up being frustrating for everyone.

 5.    Engage in digital skills learning across different contexts. If you are not involved in online program delivery, or a program specifically focused on basic digital skills, it can be tempting to think that all of this digital skills work doesn’t really apply to your program. But in our series, practitioners came from many different adult foundational learning contexts and they quickly felt the importance of integrating digital skills across a wide variety of programming options. We also recognized how embedding digital skills can look different in different contexts.

For example, in a large, online LINC program, learners might need to focus on getting online, communicating with the practitioner through different digital channels, and navigating the learning management system. Whereas in a 1-on-1 setting, for example with an adult re-entering community after a period of incarceration, the learner may need help to understand the shift to online life and the basics of the digital device the learner has access to, and how they can use it to meet their needs, especially in contexts such as applying for jobs and government services.

Flexible thinking allows practitioners to respond to learners’ needs and strengths as well as the particularities of the learning context they are working in.

6. Get the professional development and support you need. The new learning landscape is a complex world. We are building our own digital skills while helping others build theirs, too. We are using the tools at our fingertips and trying to recognize how they are – or are not – accessible to all. While many of us may be hungry to improve our skills and comfort with technology, we need to be clear about what we are looking for.

Are we looking for tips on how to use a specific digital tool? That might sound like, “How can I use zoom rooms more effectively in my online class?” or “How do I use this new learning management system at our agency?”

Are we looking for a deeper understanding of the intricacies of online delivery of programming? That might sound like, “How can I keep learners engaged in online programs?” Or “How can we create safer learning spaces online?”

In the Embedding series, we focused on understanding and experimenting with what it means to embed digital skills learning into programming. That sounded more like, “What does it mean to embrace digital skills as foundational learning? How do we embed digital skills learning across a variety of programming contexts and why does it matter?”

Answering these questions takes time and requires a mind shift. Over several months, we considered the questions and built our confidence in a supportive community of practice that engaged in conversation, experimentation, and reflection.

Participants said practitioners need access to step-by-step guides, personalized support, and empathy to overcome the fear of technology. And they need time to engage and practice with digital skills, and to develop the comfort and confidence they need to engage in facilitating digital skills learning while also being a digital skills learner themselves.

Recommended resources to support skill building for learners and practitioners

Tool for digital literacy assessment and learning

·         Northstar Digital Literacy: contains free digital literacy assessments of everything from basic computer and internet skills to social media and career search skills. 

Tools to develop digital skills (basic to advanced)

The following sites are widely recognized for their free resources containing lessons, activities, videos, and self-paced modules to develop digital skills.

·         Digital Literacy Program for Adults | ABC Internet Matters (abclifeliteracy.ca) – look for the Resources page to find free resources to improve digital literacy skills.

·       Wisc-Online – has a Basic Computer Skills MOOC, or online course; Includes self-paced learning activities with audio. 

·         DigitalLearn.org – free self-paced e-learning courses with video lessons on a wide variety of digital skills, and with additional tools and resources for trainers 

·         GCFLearnFree’s Computer Basics e-learning includes text-based tutorials and a YouTube playlist

Ongoing professional development resources

Digital Divide Practitioner Tool from Calgary Learns, including the following tipsheets:  

Digital Inclusion Playbook from AlphaPlus – see especially “Chapter 9: Don’t reinvent the wheel! Ready-to-use resources”

Edtech TA Library | Create Adult Skills Network – provides searchable access to a large repository of free resources, strategies, lesson plans, digital skills frameworks and webinars

The Bridges Digital Skills Framework from the EdTech Center at World Education offers free webinars and workshops as well as a searchable Digital Skills Library and the Playbook for Fostering Digital Resilience in Adult Education

LINCS Community | Adult Education and Literacy | U.S. Department of Education – free to join the Integrating Technology group with access to resources, webinars, and discussion board

Conclusion

The Embedding Digital Skills in Learning project at Calgary Learns worked with practitioners to understand the challenges of digital skills work and to find strategies and resources to move forward. Since the pandemic shifted life online, many of our facilitation practices have changed and we have developed new routines. The Embedding project aimed to create space to critically reflect on our practice and to support practitioners in their new ways of being, doing, and facilitating in adult foundational programs, all in the service of meeting learners where they are at and building their skills and confidence to meet their goals.

“This really reinforced for me the good practices we’re doing in our program”

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