18 April 2014

Digital Literacy 'Coaches' – What Do We Do?

An existentialist consideration of the role of a 'tech integrator'*.

I'm a 'Digital Literacy Coach' (DLC), a 'pedagogical technologist' (Woo, 2012) would probably be a more accurate description; that is a pedagogical coach who specialises in digital technologies. We're a rare, but fast growing breed in any TELE (technology enhanced learning environment) where the tech in question is digital, ie screens, because let's face it, all teaching environments are enhanced by some kind of technology even if it's just paper and pen/cil.

I commonly find myself on the receiving end of a blank faces; uncomprehending, incredulous, somewhat vacuous expression when I give an answer like this. Especially if the person in question is a student, or a parent. Something like,

You're a ... pedagogicawhat?
"A what?" "so, ... what do you do?"

So, 4 years of research, and 1 Master's degree later, here it is. My answer.

Studies (McGarr & McDonagh, 2013) indicate that for many schools, the provision of even one person who has this kind of role is rare. Unfortunately, it is more common to commit vast amounts of expenditure on ICTs, while skimping on financing the expertise that would enable teachers to make effective use of them. If a choice has to be made, it would be better to purchase less equipment and instead utilise the released funds to employ at least one skilled facilitator, a DLC. Without this kind of investment, expensive hardware will most likely languish in cupboards (Nesta report, 2012).

Providing technical skills training to teachers in the use of technology is not enough (Ciampa & Gallagher, 2013) and teaching skills in isolation does little to help teachers develop knowledge about: how to use technology to teach content in differentiated ways according to students' learning needs (TPK); how technology can be used to support the learning of specific curriculum content (TCK); or how to help students meet particular curriculum content standards while using technologies appropriately (TPACK) in their learning (Harris et al 2009; Mishra & Koehler, 2006); this is where having a dedicated ‘coach’ is essential.

Teachers need professional development in the pedagogical application of skills to improve teaching and learning (Carlson and Gadio, 2002). One of the most effective ways to help teachers take advantage of, and integrate technology is to provide ‘situated’ professional development through the provision of dedicated technology facilitators. These are known by many titles, eg DLCs, ICT Coordinators, Tech Integrators; all of which place far too much emphasis on the digital-technological for my liking. I think it is perhaps better to described the DLC role as that of a pedagogical coach, but one who has a profound understanding of the affordances of digital technologies. The emphasis being, first and foremost, on the pedagogical aspect of the role, the technology supports pedagogy - not the other way round. This is why, despite the multiplicity of syllables, I feel the best description of this role is that of a ‘Pedagogical Technologist’ (Woo, 2012).

These are dedicated teachers who support individualised (Hixon & Buckenmeyer, 2009) authentic technology integration; mentoring; 'just-in-time' support that addresses teachers' needs; individualised instruction; observation of technology integration in practice (or what I prefer to call FOCUS lessons), and self-directed learning (Jacobsen 2001; 2002). This approach goes beyond skill centred strategies (teaching the use of tools) and emphasises the importance of helping teachers develop and use technology to teach curriculum content using specific pedagogical approaches that support successful technology-enhanced teaching and learning (Mishra & Koehler, 2006).

Perhaps another question we should ask is, what happens if you NOT have a DLC? Fullan and Donnelly answer this question nicely:

"Study after study has concluded that the impact of digital technology has been stifled when there is no emphasis on the pedagogy of the application of technology as used in the classroom. this phenomenon has been recently documented by steven Higgins et al. in a large meta–analytical study on digital learning. When teachers are not taught how to use an innovation, how to adapt to the model, and provided with on–going support, they revert to their traditional behaviours and practices. And, if professional development is stacked at initial launch, it risks neglecting the need for continuous reinforcement and upgrading." (p19)

So DLCs emphasise pedagogical application of technology. And how do DLCs do this? Well, they... 

Synthesise, problem solve, filter... 

Key to this role is synthesis. A DLC must consider the curricular goals, the talents and experiences of the team they are working with, the potential connections (support, reinforcement, or duplication) of related areas and skills, and how best to determine priorities. Tsai & Chai (2012) describe this problem solving capacity in terms of ‘design thinking’, where the ability to “re-organise or create learning materials and activities” and adapt these accordingly (ibid, p 1058) is seen as necessary to overcome a ‘third-order’ barrier of a lack of ‘design thinking’.  The DLC also reviews recent practice and tries to anticipate how best to implement future projects. As they begin to develop new visions, communicate them to colleagues, and contemplate how to realise these innovations, they enter the realms of strategic leadership and creativity within the profession (Gardner, 2006). Synthesising the current state of technological knowledge, incorporating new findings, and delineating new dilemmas are critical to the work of any DLC who wishes to remain current and relevant.

This role as filter is particularly important given the phenomenal proliferation of digital tools—on a literally daily basis, more tools with funky and not so funky names emerge into a market place already filled to overflowing with a veritable cornucopia of competitors. The DLC is all that stands between the teacher and a tsunami wave of digital applications, utilities and all sorts of 'Apps' boasting their pixelated promises to 'save you time' etc.  Neither can these just be ignored, as, not unlike the prospectors of old, sometimes lying in the sludge of similarity is the odd golden nugget of greatness. Yes, Apps like DoodleCast Pro, I'm looking at you. The DLC is the prospector who wades through the mediocre with filters of failure, seeking to route out all except the most worthy, which can then be brought back triumphantly and with considerable excitement to a, maybe not so interested team of teachers. Yet.

A ‘low power distance’ (Hofstede et al, 1991) is a crucial aspect of these roles, within a loose, decentralised hierarchy, where teachers are colleagues, not subordinates. A high degree of technological pedagogical knowledge (TPK) (Koehler & Mishra, 2009) is at the heart of this role—an understanding of how teaching and learning can change, when particular technologies [tools] are used effectively. This includes knowing the ‘pedagogical affordances and constraints’ of a range of technological tools as they relate to various disciplines with “developmentally appropriate pedagogical designs and strategies (ibid).”

Design (interventions)

Interventions significantly influenced by the need to use, "small wins to ignite joy, engagement and creativity at work (Amabile & Kramer, 2011).” Helping teachers making even small progress in meaningful work is a powerful stimulant to inspiring them to want to do more. If people are involved in meaningful work, and if they feel capable, and if they are helped to make even small progress, they become more motivated and ready for the next challenge (Fullan, 2013).

All interventions should incorporate three essential elements (Rodríguez et al, 2011) they should be first and foremost pedagogically centred, collaboratively designed, and expected to result in transference.

A focus on pedagogy has been shown to be effective in ‘freeing’ the practitioner from the myth that they need to be the ‘tech expert’ in the room, instead focusing on their classroom management skills, seeing technical “pitfalls as teachable moments” (Steve, 2011, p 16). This pedagogic model requires the definition and design of tasks for teachers and students, supported by ICTs. The interventions are how the pedagogic model is adopted, leading towards “autonomous implementation” (Rodríguez et al, 2011, p 84).  They are composed of planned activities, such as training sessions for teachers, practical experiences, and classroom observations (Rodríguez et al, 2010). In addition to this, during the intervention, the DLC continually monitors and evaluates progress in order to assess the suitability and efficacy of implementation and to determine the extent to which the pedagogical model is actually being adopted (Wagner et al, 2005). This is expected to lead to arguably the purpose of the entire initiative - transference, teachers who have adopted these practices to the point where they are intrinsic and habitual, where the vast majority teachers effectively and faithfully “carry out the intervention” (Rodríguez 2008).


None of these attributes count for anything unless the ‘coach’ or ‘facilitator’ is a “pedagogical leader and champion” (McGarr & McDonagh, 2013)—a “charismatic individual who throws his or her weight behind an innovation, thus over-coming indifference or resistance... (Stuart et al, 2009, p 734).” These champions are “the individuals who emerge to take creative ideas […] and bring them to life” who “actively and enthusiastically promote the innovation, building support, overcoming resistance, and ensuring that the innovation is implemented (Howell & Higgins, 1990, p 40).” Confidence, persistence, energy and risk-taking are key characteristics (ibid). Champions can be distinguished from non-champions because they can communicate a clear vision, display enthusiasm, demonstrate commitment and involve others in supporting innovation (ibid). Champions are also an important part of the innovation process in an organisation (ibid; Rogers, 2003), and are “especially important in the implementation of new technology (p 3).” Loucks & Zacchei (1983) describe these facilitators as “cheerleaders” (p 29); building commitment early and maintaining it through constant encouragement; as ‘linkers’, bringing in outside expertise and ideas—linking resources and expertise; and trouble-shooters, helping teachers solve problems.

But for how long? Role obsolescence

The long-term viability of the role of the DLC needs to be considered. This marks my fourth year, and it is important to be wary of allowing the success of a TEL initiative to be dependent on one person’s expertise and determination to succeed. Certainly, in the earliest phase of implementation of a TEL model the need for a full time DLC is necessary, but the efficacy of this initiative will only truly be realised when, in effect, every teacher is a ‘pedagogical champion’, effectively rendering the role of the DLC obsolete. Implementation of change takes at least two years (Fullan, 1991), even then, with an infrastructure in place, it takes several years of effort before teachers start using ICT intensively in preparing and conducting their teaching activities (Feldman et al, 1999; Hakkarainen et al, 2003); only then can we consider that change has really become implemented, that it has ‘gone viral’, that there has been transference.

If we're doing our jobs properly, surely we should be aiming for obsolescence, to coach every teacher and student into a similar sense of tech capacity and familiarity as we have, to effectively make each one a 'mini me'—after all what originally qualified the teacher who became a DLC for this role, other than a profound sense of excitement about the potential of digital technologies to amplify and transform learning and teaching. 

By expanding the role of all of teachers who we have discovered, or successfully enabled, or even 'converted' to that of a ‘tech mentor’ or tech enthusiast' we can distribute this kind of coaching more effectively, thinner but wider. These teachers can work closely with a DLC to pilot pedagogically focused use of ICTs in innovative ways. If successful, these are shared with the team with the prospect of grade wide adoption and development. 

More is more

These roles, these 'tech mentors and enthusiasts' could 'go viral', they could conceivably evolve into many part-time DLCs at each grade level, in every department, lots of 'mini DLCs' everywhere, the more there are, the less 'non-contact' time they would need, until … well, until every teacher, every student is, in effect, a digital literacy coach. Reaching this utopian ideal would be the realisation of  “autonomous implementation”, the transference, described by Rodríguez et al, (2011; 2008). Where teachers have adopted these practices to the point where they are "intrinsic and habitual".

This state would not be sustainable without an inter-disciplinary, cross phase, school-wide network of DLCs could continue, develop and facilitate professional learning through a collaborative, peer-mentoring programme (Glazer et al, 2009). One situated in the practice of a teacher, familiar with the curricular content, and the everyday stresses and strains of classroom practice that a full time DLC is not, no matter how sympathetic they might be.

Of course that begs the question of who would/could co-ordinate, guide, support this network of pedagogical technologist, who would coach the coaches? Probably someone who already has a decade or two or more of experience with pedagogical technology, hmm, looks we're going to need a new name.

So, obsolescence? Bring it on. I look forward it.

*Or Digital Literacy Coach, ICT Coordinator, Technology Coordinator, Technology Facilitator, Pedagogical Technologist ... there are more... 


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1 comment:

  1. Gosh this was a hell of a read. I'm currently working with a network of international schools in a Pacific nation who are trying to bring about digital transformation in their schools, and I think I'll be sharing this post directly with the organisation's leadership to ensure they take the right steps early.