Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Many of our students are neither digital natives nor digitally literate

Yesterday I attended a session with three different presentations focused around “student voices and their current use of technologies at USQ”. There was some very interesting information presented. However, I have a few reservations with aspects of the research and especially with some of the conclusions that have been drawn. I’m hoping to reflect upon and post more about this when I have some time. But an experience just now reinforced one of my reservations and is worth a short sidetrack.

A largish survey of students found that all of the students had some form of access to the Internet. Given that it was an online survey, this is perhaps not surprising. But that’s not the problem I particularly want to address here.

The big reservation I have is that one of the conclusions drawn from this work was that our students are “Digitally literate and agile”. My experience suggests that this is not the case.

My experience

The course I’m currently teaching has 300+ students, mostly 3rd year Bachelor of Education students, spread throughout Australia and the world. 200+ of these students are online students. i.e. they generally don’t set foot on a campus. The course itself is titled “ICTs and Pedagogy” and as you might expect we’re pushing some boundaries with the use of ICTs. Attempting to model what we espouse. Some examples of that include, amongst others

  • Students are required to set up their own blog and use it as a reflective journal.
  • They are required/asked to sign up for Diigo and join a course Diigo group
  • We’re using Diigo’s annotation facility to mark up online readings and the assignment pages.
  • They are encouraged (but not required) to join Twitter.
  • We use Google docs for shared content creation.
  • The course Moodle site is heavily used including the discussion forums leading to a lot of email traffic (this is picked up below).
  • We use a range of ad hoc activities to demonstrate different ICTs.
    e.g. a version of the “weather Flickr” activity of @courosa

Many of the students, especially the online students, have been studying online for 3+ years. Some of the earlier courses these students have completed encourage them to engage with different ICTs e.g. developing a webquest or creating digital stories.

So, obviously these students are “digitally literate and agile”?

Some gaps in digital literacy

Here’s a quick list of some of the questions/problems students have asked/had in the first three weeks of semester

  • Not knowing what their university provided email address is.
  • Not knowing to look in the junk folder for a confirmation email.
  • Not knowing how to add a link using one of the WYSIWYG editors provided on web-based services such as Moodle, WordPress etc.
  • Not knowing that you have to “right/ctrl” click on a link to download a file rather than display it in the web browser.
  • Not knowing about email filters.

The last point is a big one. It’s fairly common for students taking four online courses to get a lot of email from the discussion forums for those courses. This flood of email messages take over the Inbox and lead to confusion and missed information. Many of these students have been experiencing this for 3+ years. Yet, almost none of them knew about email filters.

Perhaps one of the most successful learning activities in the course was a Google doc that was created for the students to list the problems they were having with the course and any suggestions they might have for tools or practices that might help solve those problems. The following image is a screen shot of a section of that document about email filters. Click on it to see it bigger.

email filters

This particular activity was combined with reading about Toolbelt theory and encouraging the students to start building their toolbelt. To have them start taking control of their problems and identifying how they can solve them.

Not digital natives

Perhaps the major mistake (one of many) I made in the design of the first few weeks of this course was that I assumed that the students were far more digitally literate than they appear to be. Not only that, as someone who is fairly “digitally literate”, I assumed that they would have the experience/knowledge to be able to implement the “Tech support cheat sheet” without much prompting.


When we are designing our learning experiences we (i.e. I) cannot assume that they are “digitally literate and agile”. I need to give more thought to scaffolding these experiences and perhaps exploring ways to better help them develop what @irasocol describes as an essential survival skill

knowing how to pick the right tool for the job and moment, how to use that tool well, and how to find new tools

I also think there’s a lesson here about research methodologies. Research methodologies – e.g. surveys and focus groups – that capture insights from people divorced from the actual activity (e.g. the “current use of technologies at USQ”) – are going to overlook important insights. That limitation has to be kept in mind when drawing conclusions and recommendations for action.


The absence of a search function – my current big problem with a Moodle installation


Visualising the blog network of #edc3100 students


  1. I must admit, I constantly wonder where the independent learners are. People seem to be either scared of or apathetic about exploration of new technologies. It’s not just technology either, there seems to be an ingrained learned helplessness in a lot of areas, where people are spoon-fed and feel entitled to help through every aspect of their “learning”. I’ve had a big grump about it lately. People need to learn how to learn.

    • this is kind of related…..I’m *nearly* a registered Ed Qld teacher and am wondering why all this fuss is made about ICTs in Ed Qld when most of it isn’t even accessible by students here anyway! This is annoying me to no end, especially when I connect with wonderful teachers all over the world (including other Australian states) that are able to enhance their teaching by using ICTs such as Twitter, Skype, Flickr etc. My 10 year old son loves ICTs and I’m obviously one of those parents that promote it and teach it to him….at home he has a far greater variety of ICT access than the Year 11 & 12 IPT students I taught on prac last semester! That’s a joke & no surprise that there are major gaps in ICTs of students when they enter University (especially straight from High School).

      • G’day Elke, Congrats on you imminent registration. I feel your pain. WIth the rise of the Australian Curriculum and its expectations, the mismatch between expectations and resourcing etc is becoming more obvious. The only real positive I can see in all this, is that the pressure from society will mean it will eventually change. Hope to hear more about it over coming years as you head out there.

        • Hi David. From my prac experiences I know that my passion for ICTs, unblocking internet & BYOT will be loved or hated by my future colleagues, there doesn’t seem to be a middle-ground. Change-agents here we come! lol

  2. Spot on, as usual. I discovered some time back that Ed masters folk had really poor digital habits (as I prefer to call them). So I ended up building the research kitchen wiki.

  3. Though all of our young people spend a huge amount of time ‘online’ the majority of that time is spend doing fairly routine tasks–responding to text type message on sms, twitter, FB and others and online shopping. This hardly surprising given the fact that most of their school experiences have still been based on the technologies that were comfortable to their teachers. …something of a self-sustaining feedback loop I suppose. It does not need to be that way.

  4. I am one of the students in your EDC3100 group. I thought I was reasonably digital literate but after spending three weeks in this course I feel like I have started from scratch, although I did know about e-mail filters…luckily!! This is the first University subject where technology has been really pushed. In all of my other subjects it has been the routine, mundane usage. Log into discussion forum, attend a Blackboard session and input the assignment. I have never really had to progress any further than that. I do understand that schools should be using technology more and this is difficulty for teachers who are completly out of their depth with computers let alone using twitter, diigo and online mind mapping. Perhaps universities need to look at how much technology they too are integrating. If the technology introduced here was used throughout various courses then it would not have been so daunting when starting this subject. I am sure there are many lecturers and tutors out there that are also a little scared of delving into technology!! Of course David this is certainly not you! LOL. I am overwhelmed by it all but also very excited to be able to learn about various pedagogical techniques that will take the children I teach into and hopefully through the digital age.

    • Thanks for the comment, Gen. You make a good point that resonates with a couple of other points made by other people, both here and privately. For most of us, we use technology to do what we need to do. If most courses are using fairly standard technologies that probably plays a part in what people know what to do. But it also doesn’t necessarily explain someone who doesn’t know their University email address (perhaps it does actually, might show how important it’s been to their study).

      Your point about the other courses not necessarily integrating ICTs as much, is one of the reasons behind the design of the course. The following quote from Sutton (2011, p. 43) drove some of the design of the course.

      but most of them said that they lacked the confidence to do so because, in their own view, they had not had a sufficient range of authentic experiences using technology in their own professional education they expressed a strong sense of contradiction between the ways they were asked to use technology within their teaching and the ways their own teachers—the faculty of their teacher education program—integrated technology into their classes.

      I do think that this is becoming less of a problem, but there’s still some space for improvement.

  5. Hi David,

    I’m another of your EDC3100 online students and used to think that I was reasonably ICT literate! Being a mature aged student, I’d gained most of my experience with ICTs in the workplace, starting with DOS and Unix based programs, through the introduction of email and into the wonderful world of Windows, and, of course Facebook!

    However, your course has opened my eyes to the resources or ‘tools’ available out there, I just had no idea.

    In the three weeks that I’ve been studying with you, I’ve been able to streamline my work in the other three courses I’m currently studying by using ICTs to organise both research and my own thoughts for assignments.

    I agree that the use of ICTs within the university environment is rudimentary in most cases; however I also understand that course leaders who have content of their own to teach, are not able to prioritise the teaching of an ICT for specific use within their subject.

    It would be wonderful if young people coming out of high school had the skills which enable them to be literate and agile in an ICT rich environment, however, this doesn’t appear to be happening at present,

    Perhaps a course similar to the one you are currently leading for Education students could be developed as an early elective or requirement for all USQ students in their first year of study. This would arm students with tools for success within the academic environment to which they are entering.

    I agree with your observations and concerns and look forward to seeing what others have to say on the subject.
    Kind regards,

  6. David,
    Thanks for addressing this topic. The issue that you raised about ‘assuming’ the prior knowledge and experience of the students is on that I resonate with the most. One of the integral components of my studies in the last two and a bit years has been that as educators that we are not to make assumptions on students. Missing-links in learning can occur with these assumptions.

    As with many of the students in EDC3100, I thought I had a grasp of many of the ICT’s that were available. I have been knocked back in my shoes, and have found the diversity in ICT’s available is overwhelming! I am slowly progressing through what you have introduced in this course, and hoping to utilising these in my assignments and in my future.

    Kind Regards,

    • G’day Amy,

      One of the questions I’m ponder re: EDC3100 is the balance between starting the course at the “prior knowledge” level of the incoming students with the benefit of the “Viking approach” where students have to learn to swim in the digital waters. It’s a balance I’m coming back to in coming weeks.


  7. Hi David,
    I’m not surprised. I’ve also noted that students who try blogging, often don’t get past the first post. Like using Twitter, I think you have to stick-it-out for a bit to really see how it works well. Twitter & blogging didn’t hit-me until I started to connect with more people around the world. I also think that the “Follow Me” & stats features make using WordPress more fun/interesting and that might be why so many new Edublogs blogs go nowhere (because you feel alone unless someone actually leaves a reply).

    Although taken in perspective these students might still be more technically *together* then some of the older generation teachers I’ve seen recently….I attended a presentation where the “seasoned” teacher was astounded by her mastery of using animated text in her PPT. Death by PPT old-school! What saved her presentation (in my eyes) was what she was saying was great/inspirational. 🙂

  8. Great post David and this meshes very well with my experiences. My feeling is that the core issue in a lot of digital literacy lies in people’s ability to read and understand what is on the screen in front of them. (Not just the content, the links and buttons surrounding it.) This and having the confidence to actually click on something to proceed.

    • I like the point about reading and understanding what’s on the screen. See that a lot.

      Makes me wonder about the “Tech support cheat sheet” and why some of us feel very comfortable following that flow chart, but for others it’s something that they can’t/won’t engage with. Is it confidence? Models of how the tech works? Other?

  9. As a 3rd Year Education student I can really relate to this. I started EDC3100 with quite a lot of confidence in my abilities and while I know I will eventually ‘get it’ it has been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I will have to think about my ‘gaps’, thankfully none of those listed in your post apply to me, but given the difficulty I am having with even simple tasks like navigating around my own blog, I am sure there is an equally number of basic deficiencies in my IT literacy.

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