We sat down with Dr Laura Larke, researcher at Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute to get her insights into how the world of online and digital is changing the world of education.
What do you see as the biggest barriers to pupils learning new digital/tech skills?
Definitely teachers not having enough time to sort through all of the information and resources available on teaching these skills, as well as not having enough time during the school week to teach frequent and rigorous lessons that build upon each other over time.
This is completely understandable, given the enormous burden teachers face in terms of curriculum breadth, testing, and funding. However, given that children (and young – i.e. primary school-age – children in particular) have varied and often educationally-shallow experiences with digital technology outside of school, this makes the provision of quality, consistent lessons in school all the more important.
How can schools overcome these barriers?
As a school, consider what is most important for your students to get out of their computing or ICT lessons. Is it technical skills? Social skills? Citizenship? Developing their self-identify? As students age, digital technologies will also grow as the medium for various important aspects of their life, from a place to do homework and play games in the early years, on to a place to communicate with friends, act creatively, share and debate their views with others, and “learn to learn.”
This means that teachers in the earlier years may want to focus on basic digital literacy alongside teaching developmentally appropriate social skills such as telling the truth, being kind to others, and asking for help from an adult. Older students, in turn, will need to learn more complex social skills (such as how what they do online affects others), digital skills (like how to protect their privacy online), and information skills (e.g. how to decipher the truth from misinformation and disinformation, also called “fake news”). Across the years, students are likely to enjoy exploring different digital hardware and software, and learning different digital skills (e.g. coding, robotics, graphic design) that provide them with opportunities to be creative and consider potential future jobs or hobbies.
Most of these skills and knowledge – even coding, through offline computing lessons – can be taught in part or in whole without access to expensive equipment. Many of these topics are already covered in theory by PSHE, just as traditional forms of literacy and numeracy are covered in English and mathematics. By bringing digital skills-based examples into these lessons – and, similarly, bringing English, maths, PSHE, and other subjects into computing lessons – teachers can combine the relevant aspects of these subjects. While these lessons will still require prep, hopefully by teaching two subjects with one lesson they can reduce the time and resources needed to teach, while also improving the rigour of digital skills lessons and bringing interesting, practical examples to bear on other subjects.
What role does life in school play versus life outside the classroom?
Schools provide students with consistency and are, by their very nature, more structured and focused than life outside of the classroom. I think a lot of damage has been done by this idea of the “digital native”; that is, that children today have been exposed to digital technologies since birth and therefore are more naturally skilled or knowledgeable about their use than the adults – or “digital immigrants” – around them. Extensive research has shown that this digital native/digital immigrant dichotomy is false and that children need quality instruction in order to become skilled, knowledgeable users of digital technology.
That is why I believe it is important that we remember that home life – for all of its importance in a young person’s social, behavioural, and academic development – will probably not be where rich learning in digital skills happens for most students. That leaves schools largely in charge of their digital skills and knowledge development.
How large a role will coding likely play in pupils’ lives once they leave school? Should it be treated like any other subject?
I have been sceptical of the explicit inclusion of coding in England’s computing curriculum since the start so this response will not surprise anyone familiar with my work. With computers being trained how to write computer code – some of it even better than what humans can write, such as the machine learning code written by Google’s AutoML system – I do not see much job security in coding per se, especially at the level most students will be leaving school with. Broader digital skills will continue to be important for everyone and that is what I hope teachers will focus on: digital literacy, media literacy, and information literacy. Students may not need to use Scratch, Java, or Python once they leave school, but they will need to know what their data is being used for, how to tell whether or not that popular post on Facebook is “fake news,” and how to troubleshoot when their laptop crashes before an important deadline. Coding is one way of exploring these issues, but it is certainly not the only way.
What do you hope delegates will take away from your session?
That teachers are still the experts when it comes to education, even when teaching subjects they are less familiar with. Also that there is so much more to engaging with the digital world than just technical skills; social and psychological skills (e.g. empathy, resilience, self-regulation) are just – if not more – important.
Laura will be delivering a session on Industry 4.0: What do Schools need to know? at 15:40 – 16:00 on Day 2 in our Technology and Educational Resources Theatre.