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Reflections on facilitating digital skills learning: Focus on the learning, not on technology

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

In our previous blogposts, we reflected on our learning in the Embedding series, including the monumental transition of embracing digital skills as foundational learning and the way digital skills assessment keeps learners at the centre of digital skills work. Throughout our work, we have kept in mind the four guiding principles articulated in the Digital Divide Practitioner Tool from Calgary Learns, one of which is to focus on learning, not on technology.

In this post, we explore promising practices around facilitating digital skills learning. 

Assessment always matters

We know the importance of being responsive to learners’ needs and keeping learners at the centre of our programming, but what does that look like when we’re talking about supporting digital skills learning?

It looks like ongoing, intentional, and informal assessment that asks questions like:

  • What device do you use?
  • What do you already know how to do?
  • What else do you need/want to use technology for in your daily life?

These kinds of questions focus on what really matters for the learners. From there, practitioners can use their own professional knowledge to deliberately choose the right kinds of scaffolding, tools, activities, and support to fill in the particular gaps identified. But if we don’t know what learners already know and can do, we miss the mark.

For example, if a learner only uses a smartphone for everything and has no access to a laptop or desktop, then typing practice in a computer lab is not likely to meet their needs for digital skills learning. Thoughtful assessment of what the learner already knows, what device they use, and what they need to be able to do, would highlight the more relevant, authentic skills needed to reach their goals.

Assessment “is a process and a practice, not just a checklist.”

Click here for more on digital skills assessment in our previous blogpost.

Being responsive is crucial to building skills and confidence

Facilitating any kind of adult foundational learning demands knowledge of individual learners’ needs, as well as a keen eye to notice what is happening. The same holds true for facilitating digital skills learning. Sometimes when using technology, there is a small but significant gap or issue that is holding someone back from accomplishing their task or goal. Noticing what is happening when learners are using technology, recognizing knowledge gaps, and understanding how skills build on each other, can go a long way to providing responsive support.

For example, in our cohort, a practitioner recalled this situation:

 “I had a gentleman the other day and… he was about to move his whole computer to make more room for his mouse because he’d run out of desk space when he was trying to go across the screen. He had no idea you have to pick (the mouse) up, then put it down again. Like those little things that we take for granted.”

A practitioner shared another example of a learner who was frequently frustrated when trying to enter a password. While working with the learner, the practitioner was able to see that when the learner was typing, his pinky finger kept pressing a letter on the keyboard accidentally. This simple issue was causing intense frustration, but it required some mediation to help the learner understand that every letter counts and an extra letter in a password will make it not work.

It is this kind of responsive, supportive, and intentional noticing that offers learners the support they need to build their digital skills and confidence. Even if the idea of accidentally pressing extra letters is absent from a formal digital skills inventory or curriculum, a wise practitioner will spot it and use the moment to fill a gap, then return to it later to reinforce it, then circle back to it again later to show learners how far they have come.

One practitioner in the Digital Divide Project explained their approach to being responsive this way:

“I supported people with whatever strategies they were willing to try to overcome these barriers.”

Meaningful professional development reinforces good practices

Practitioners in the Embedding series found that our reflections and discussions reinforced and reinvigorated the many good practices they are already doing, such as:

  • engaging in assessment conversations early and often, in ongoing, intentional ways
  • offering one-on-one support to learners where possible
  • making digital skills learning simple, useful, and meaningful for learners by breaking down skills, making them explicit and visible, and relating them to learners’ daily lives
  • meeting with learners before programs begin, in the community, if possible, to develop relationships and understand learners’ digital skills, strengths, goals, and access to technology
  • reflecting on the digital skills needed for learners to engage in programming using the devices they have access to. This means working with the devices they will be using and breaking down their goals into the prerequisite skills needed to engage meaningfully in programming. (Click here for more information on breaking down goals into prerequisite skills in our previous blogpost.)
  • front-loading digital skills work (in other words, engaging in digital skills work early in programs) so that learners can be more successful. This is a particularly good way to use the time that learners may experience if they are on a waitlist for a program.
  • valuing “in the moment” learning, which recognizes the importance of learning that is relevant, meaningful, and authentic, and which allows practitioners to respond to the people in the room

The reflection and reinforcement of good practices that took place throughout our Embedding series led one practitioner to say that the work we were doing was:

 “…Opening up my mind!”

That is exactly what the Digital Divide Project from Calgary Learns has been working on with practitioners: opening up our minds to new ways of thinking about and practicing digital skills learning in adult foundational programming. It is a process. It is a practice. It is an art. And it takes a thoughtful, intentional approach to make it happen.

In our next blogpost, we will look at challenges practitioners face as they embed digital skills learning. And we’ll share resources to support practitioners and learners as they continue opening their minds to new ways of engaging with digital skills learning in adult foundational programs. 

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