22 July 2013

To Skill or not to Skill?

Teaching ICT skills ...

Pickering (2007), found that a focus on skills and fixed knowledge to be acquired was criticised by the teachers in his study, although Daly et al (2009), citing his findings, conceded that:

“Clearly, ICT use demands that teachers acquire certain generic skills (p 27).” 

Understandably, there is a general hesitancy by tech integrators to embrace ICT skills teaching, as it tends towards,

superficial, one-off and ‘box-ticking’ approaches which emphasise the development of functional skills and relegate pedagogical development to teachers’ ‘spare’ time (Daly et al, 2009, p 41).” 

Now, somewhat ironically, the situation seems to be becoming reversed – with the emphasis very much upon the development of pedagogical skills and the relegation of ‘functional development’ (skills) to teachers’ ‘spare’ time.

So teachers are now effectively expected to acquire skills,

by studying manuals, talking to each other, talking to the instructor, and seeking out other locally available experts” (Mishra & Koehler, 2006, p 1038). 

The problem is this ‘grappling experience’ (ibid) or ‘productive failure’ (Kapur & Bielaczyc, 2012), while a powerful way to learn, if not managed carefully, can become a tedious, frustrating process. "Good pedagogy should challenge not frustrate" (ibid) but it is difficult to judge when it is better to let people ‘wrestle’ or to mitigate the potential tediousness of a long process of discovery, by providing a ‘short cut’. The challenge of managing this ‘zone of proximal development’ (Vygotsky, 1987) is significant, the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by their need to engage in independent problem solving (trouble shooting) and the point at which they know they cannot proceed any further without ‘expert’ guidance, or collaboration with more capable peers, a 'knowledgeable other' (ibid) – or even, or perhaps more likely, students.

Frustration is common with digital technologies,

any given technology [tool] is not necessarily appropriate” (Mishra & Koehler, 2006, p 1040). 

The plethora of software available to do even the most basic of tasks, means that even choosing an inappropriate tool can turn a task from a challenge to a crisis, like attempting to using Photoshop for image cropping, which is tantamount to using a Ferrari to deliver milk. What is likely to occur, is a situation where,

teachers were so caught up in learning how to use the tools that they lost sight of the design tasks.” (Angeli and Valanides 2008, p 10). 

The “cognitive load” (ibid, p 9) imposed by learning how to use the tools was so high, that teachers were left without enough “cognitive resources” to attend to the actual exercise.

Although skills training is clearly vital to being able to integrate technology into teachers’ practice, more often than not teachers are plagued by an unconscious incompetence - they ‘do not know, what they do not know’.  Despite the proliferation of literature expounding the virtues of an integrated model, mention is rarely made of any consideration of a prerequisite skill set, one of these rare examples follows:

“The model assumes the existence of ICT standards [...] At a basic level these would include: basic ICT literacy, such as familiarity with and confidence in using the Windows operating system, basic word processing, PowerPoint and data software such as Excel and SPSS, software installation, and knowledge of the Internet such as how to use the Internet for resource searching, downloading and uploading files, communication via emails, video calls or web cameras.” (Hu & McGrath, 2011, p 54)

Balance is clearly critical here – one where an articulated skill set is defined that can be acquired within an authentic, integrated context. How much teachers know about technology makes a big difference in their uses of technology. Once technology is truly integrated, teachers and beliefs and knowledge are changed as well (Fisher et al, 1996). New pedagogical knowledge and practices emerge from the integration of technology, but only when teachers reach a certain level of technological understanding.

Unfortunately with the pendulum swinging well and truly away from a skills focus, we are in danger of throwing out the proverbial baby with bathwater, an issue alluded to in the recent Nesta report,

the lack of emphasis upon [ICT] skills, is a concern (2012, p 55).” 

Change? What change?

A common objection here is that digital technologies develop at a pace of change that is impossible to manage/keep up with, and so any focus on skills is futile. However,  if you consider this carefully you have to ask yourself how much has the way we USE digital technology really changed though? I have written about this dubious assumption here, but the truth is that yes, of course aspects of ICTs like processor speed and storage capacity have/are changing relentlessly yes, but use?

Not so much.

The same could be said of planes, trains, automobiles - more capacity, greater speed. Changing capacity is not the same as changing capability.

So, having decided that we do need to consider what teachers should know about technology, we must consider how much they need to know to even be able to begin.

Skills mapping and audits

"A potential barrier to ICT CPD is staff not knowing what the gaps are in their own ICT knowledge. Many schools have found an ICT audit mapped to the curriculum a valuable tool in helping staff to gain a clear indication of the ICT skills, competencies and pedagogies they need to have." (Becta, 2009, Point 81)

In order to avoid the skills element having a negative impact on learning, at the end of a unit of study, or even the end of the academic year, the teachers ‘traffic light’ the ICT core skills matrix to identify which skills have, or have not, been acquired, in order to determine which skills may have need to be focused on explicitly in other authentic contexts in the future.

Example of a skills audit - post reflection

This is not a question of skills vs pedagogic integration. Teachers and students need to acquire ICT skills before they can start to harness technological expertise for the purposes of student learning. This re-purposing of the TPACK  (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) framework, ensures that the focus remains pedagogically centred, but balanced and facilitated by clearly articulated ICT core skills.

In most organisations, what gets monitored gets done. When a school devotes considerable time and effort to the continual assessment of a particular condition or outcome, it notifies all members that the condition or outcome is considered important. Conversely, inattention to monitoring a particular factor in a school indicates that it is less than essential, regardless of how often its importance is verbalised.

The continued reluctance to engage with this issue should be resisted, as Becta's contribution to the Rose Review (2009) emphasised,"[ICT skills] should be regarded as an essential skills for learning and life, alongside literacy and numeracy." (Point 91) With warnings regarding the possibilities of neglecting this vital area:

“… there are two significant dangers: the first is that young people will develop an incomplete and unreflective capability, unsupported by adult guidance, with risks both to their learning progress and their safety. The second is that a digital underclass, lacking opportunities for wide-ranging use of technology, will be permanently excluded from a world mediated by ICT." (Point 94)

An impoverished generation?

Unfortunately I often, in fact usually, see students, teenagers, the so-called ''digital natives' using their state of the art machines in ways that are, quiet frankly surprisingly rudimentary. Attempting to construct a table of content manually, using a calculator instead of a spreadsheet for managing multiple interrelated calculations, relying on MS Word for, well nearly everything, except for when they are using Keynote—poorly. Why? Because no one has taught them the fundamental skills they need to use these beautify shiny machines they've been given.

A broad and balanced range of ICT competencies that span the domains of text, audio, image, video, data (and possibly control/coding) are in danger of becoming the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater. Practices to mitigate this must be carefully managed so that authentic opportunities for the acquisition of core ICT skills are planned for that are pedagogically centred, and concept driven not skills driven, but that do not neglect these skills.

"In Sweden, young adults ages 16–24 topped the charts in an assessment of technology skills that was administered in 19 countries. Participants were asked to perform tasks at three levels of difficulty: to sort e-mails into folders, organize data into a spreadsheet, and manage reservations for a virtual meeting room. Fewer than one-third of U.S. young adults could complete tasks more complicated than sorting e-mails, a performance that put them at the bottom of the list of performers from the 19 countries."
(Educational Leadership, 2014)

In the 'bad old days'  classes of students were taught a broad and balanced set of ICT skills, within the confines of a lab, in entirely contrived contexts, that were inauthentic, but were successful in at least teaching the students the basics. Now, with the understandable shift away from skills based lab teaching, to the far more appropriate integrated model, there is a very real danger that in so doing we will accidentally impoverish an entire generation of students, by expecting them to acquire foundational ICT skills through a process of little more than exploration and serendipity. Sure, we have an authentic context, but no understanding of the competencies or types tools that are necessary to function within them. To further compound the problem, this process is managed by teachers who are often less competent with ICTs than their students, in contexts where the main stakeholders are unaware of the key ICT skills they need to work effectively, and where there is no one who has the expertise to bridge the gap between ignorance and expertise.

This is not an approach to skills development we would countenance in any other area of the curriculum, and yet, in what is widely regarded as the most essential form of literacy, digital literacy, (alongside language and numeracy) it is. Yet another barrier to authentic integration looms, the barrier of a generation of students with an under developed ICT skill-set, ironically, despite the proliferation and availability of screens. Surprisingly, even those who should be the most likely providers of ICT skills teaching, tech integrators like me,  are often the most reluctant, due to their paralysing fear of a return to the ‘bad old days’ of skills teaching in isolation, they opt instead to restrict the skills sets of their students, to those learnt through a process of exploration and discovery, oriented around word processing, social media, and web browsing.

ICT skills do not have to be an either/or choice, using reflective practices, and building awareness of the prerequisite tech skills that are foundational for all learners in the 21st century, we can avert an impending crisis, by providing our students and teachers with screens and a broad, balanced range of skills to use them effectively.

The NETS are not enough

While useful as overarching standards,  I do not believe NET Standards are enough on their own - they are too generic to be of practical use in ensuring a broad and balanced curriculum; they are descriptions of (any) curriculum, not applications of digital technologies. Remove the token references to ‘digital’ and ‘technology’ and you're left with a description of curriculum, but nothing which in and of itself actually requires the use of ICTs, or more importantly, that could not be achieved without the use of digital technologies at all. For example,

“Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology” (NETS(S) 2007, strikethrough mine).  

To use the analogy of literary genres/strands (which I find helpful, but you could use science and mathematics strands just as easily) they need to be specific to the nature of the sphere of experience. Literacy genres are, NETS are not.

They need to be specific not generic. Yes you can argue that English literature is a 'subject' and ICT no longer is; this is just semantics. Who cares what we are defining them as now, we all know that just a few years ago 'IT' was a discrete subject, and it still is based on the definition of 'subject' it's just not 'discrete' anymore…

subject: a branch of (technological) knowledge studied or taught in a school, college, or university.
discrete: individually separate and distinct.

ICT is a 'subject' that is now integrated - and should be subject (see what I did there?) to the same rigorous checks and balances of any other 'subject'. The same argument can easily be made for English language, or Science, or Mathematics - these are core competencies that are applicable and a prerequisite for success in any domain in the 21st century. So call them what you like and distribute them how you will - but a broad and balanced education requires that the essential elements of these subjects are not neglected.

We should not neglect opportunities to read and write, for example, realistic fiction, or physics or shape and space in Mathematics, I believe the same applies to what could be called the 'digital domains' or literacies of ICTs, such as, text, image, video, audio and data (with coding/control waiting in the wings) - none of which the NETS explicitly describe or mandate, thereby rendering them useless as a means to articulate the effective use of digital technologies.

To put it another way - we're talking about students becoming holistically literate, that literacy has to incorporate 'multiliteracies' including language, scientific/methodological ways of thinking, mathematical literacy and of course digital literacy. ALL of these can be defined as 'subjects', all of these could also be (and arguably should/could be) taught in an integrated way. Just because we've chosen to integrate a subject, does not mean it should be treated less rigorously - integration should not mean invisibility - at least not for teachers. (I'd argue invisibility would be great from a student's perspective, but so would it be for maths and science et al - they don't see it as a 'subject' it's just another natural (for them) way of thinking and working)

So we have mandatory strands in each of these literacies that we expect all students to have multiple experiences with during their time in school, ideally in each grade, scoped and sequenced properly - I can't see how a student could be considered to be mathematically literate if, say, they had never been taught how to multiply, or in science, never experimented with forces, or in English, never read or written poetry, or in terms of digital literacy, never learned how to edit or use video. None of the strands in these subjects are left to chance, or to ad hoc integration. We carefully design authentic ways to ensure they are all experienced, all I'm arguing for is that we do not allow exceptions, especially not for one of the core competencies of the 21st century.

Put simply, if we believe that articulating a coherent scope and sequence of essential skills in the domains of language and mathematics are necessary, then how much more so in what is arguably THE prerequisite skill set of the 21st Century? 

For a PDF version of our ICT skills scope and sequence matrix, click here.

An example of a section of our ICT skills matrix

Vitamin D (VITAD)

Five Essential Domains: VITAD: video, image, text, audio, data - 'Vitamin D' 

Just like all subject domains, tech has its own overarching domains or strands that are an efficient way to organise the essential skill sets needed for true digital literacy.  We should not neglect opportunities to read and write, for example, realistic fiction, or physics or shape and space in Mathematics, I believe the same applies to what could be called the 'digital domains' or literacies of ICTs, such as, text, image, video, audio and data (with coding/control waiting in the wings) - none of which the NETS explicitly describe or mandate, thereby rendering them useless as a means to articulate the effective use of digital technologies.

Digital Illiteracy... 

An easy easy way to recall these essential areas is with the acronym 'VITAD', 'vitamin digital', now when you're considering whether not you can consider yourself, your students or any 21st century citizen to be truly digitally literate, how do they measure up to VITAD?
  1. Can they view, edit, create, compose with video?
  2. Can they organise, edit, resize, manipulate, incorporate image?
  3. Can they browse/read/search text? Are they proficient at word processing, commenting, curating  texts?
  4. Can the manage audio files, organise,  edit, create, compose audio using multiple audio tracks/sound effects?
  5. Do they know their way around a spreadsheet, Can they organise data efficiently, perform basic calculations using functions and formulae, analyse, synthesise, and model data?
When, and only when you can confidently answer yes to all the above, then, and only then can you call yourself digitally literate!

Digital literacy and digital competency 

Essentially what I am advocating for, is an expansion of what we mean when we describe someone as 'digitally literate' in much the same way as we would when we describe someone as 'literate' or 'numerate'—we don't mean that we expect them to write like Shakespeare, or calculate like Einstein, in the same way digital literacy doesn't impose a skill set like that of Bill Gates, all it should mean is that, they are competent. For example, by the time our students complete their primary school education they should be 'literate' in language, number, and with digital technologies. That is why the skills matrix stops at Grade 5, by that point, if they have mastered all of the skills articulated within the matrix, they are digitally competent, competency meaning they have acquired knowledge of the key tools available in each domain, from word processors to spreadsheets, and the skills to use them effectively:

"In contrast to a view of 21st century skills as general skills that can be applied to a range of different tasks in various academic, civic, workplace, or family contexts, the committee views 21st century skills as dimensions of expertise that are specific to—and intertwined with—knowledge within a particular domain of content and performance. To reflect our view that skills and knowledge are intertwined, we use the term “competencies” rather than “skills.” (Pellegrino et al, 2013, p3)

Having established that foundational set of competencies, they are now well equipped to develop them further, with guidance or independently, but most importantly they are equipped, they know what they know, and they know what they don't know, and they have the capacity to extend their competency further in any of the domains should they need to or wish to.

When & How do we teach/learn these skills?

Any attempts to make time after school for any form of CPD are likely to be ineffective. ‘Training’ and ‘Courses’ do not really take account of the actual needs of teachers,

“there can be no one size fits all training (Hu and McGrath, 2011, p 50)”. 

When teachers can see the explicit relevance of the technology to enhancing their practice, their motivation increases, along with willingness to make the effort and to find the time to change (Daly et al, 2009). A core set of ‘little and often’ strategies are all you need; 4 strategies that are described here.

ICT skills have never been more essential, and learning these are far from futile, they are fundamental—but the mode and medium you use to facilitate the acquisition of these skills by teachers is critical*. 

*Whatever you do, don't try and teach these skills in didactic after school 'courses'. 

Pellegrino J W, & Hilton M L (Eds) (2013). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. National Academies Press.


  1. Good share, Sean: your skills audit is an innovation that leads to more technological pedagogical innovation in lessons. It's the gift that keeps on giving, and thankfully, this innovation has taken hold in your school. In reading about the skills audit in this blog post and in your dissertation, particularly section 4.15 (pasted below), I wonder at what kind of meetings did you first introduce the skills audit? Did you introduce this idea water-cooler style, through casual encounters? Or perhaps you introduced this at formal meetings, perhaps that elusive GCC meeting.

    I also wonder at what meetings these days do you use to perform the skills audit? Judging from the excerpt below, a team of teachers suggests you perform skills audit at Team Time, but if this audit leads to curriculum change decisions, perhaps, this is not the meeting -- or the best meeting -- for skills audit. Maybe the excerpt below points to those elusive GCC meetings that you and other school stakeholders attend.

    In order to avoid the skills element having a negative impact on learning, at the end of a unit of study, teams were asked to ‘traffic light’ an ICT skills matrix to (Appendix 11) identify which skills had, or had not, been acquired, and to see which skills may need to be focused on explicitly in other authentic contexts in the future (Figure 8).

    1. Funny, the skills matrix is perceived very differently by 2 different parties: pedagogists, curriculum people, and teachers generally all see it's value, but, where I work at least, the other DLCs treat it with not much more than quiet disdain, or uneasy tolerance at best.

      We introduced it formally at a whole staff meeting, then they broke up into grade level teams, and large teams into smaller subsets of about 3-4 teachers, to enable discussion to take place around the specific descriptors. This is usually in the form of, "What is that?" More than why is that there, but it can be the latter as well. The discussion is recorded on A3 sheets print outs of the skills matrix, as they 'traffic light' with highlighters how they feel their students coped with those skills this year, if at all. Along with the odd annotated comment. This now happens once a year at the end of the year, in the next few weeks in fact! Now we do the reflection with individual teams, one team at a time, in grade level meetings. As years go by and skills are better balanced and coverage improves, the reflection becomes less critical, but as you know, the curriculum is always shifting, it is a protean thing, and with these changes some skills that maybe were well attended to can become neglected, and others can become over emphasised at the expense of other skills. Like now infographics seem to be sweeping the school like a virus—something I struggle to accept, such a retrograde/replacement form of tech use if you ask me. SAMMS? Not really.

      The curriculum change decisions follow much later, as we need to analyse all those sheets and collate the data into one doc, which we consult to highlight areas of strength (or over emphasis - yes word processing I'm looking at you), areas needing development, or areas needing urgent action.

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