Apparently there’s a problem with digital skills in Australian schools. Only 52% of Year 10  students achieved a minimum standard of digital competence, and the teachers tasked to help develop that competence feel they aren’t competent. Closer to home, I’ve previously pointed out that the pre-service teachers I work with are far from digital natives harnessing digital technologies seamlessly to achieve the learning, teaching, and life goals.

Given the perceived importance of digital competence, then something must be done. Otherwise “we run the real risk of creating a generation of digitally illiterate students”.

But what?

Mcleod and Carabott suggest

explicit teaching of digital competence through professional development for teachers. This is also important in teacher education programs…

digital competence tests should also be required for teacher registration

What do I think of those suggestions?

Well they certainly have the benefit of being familiar to those involved in formal education. Expanding as they do existing ideas of testing teachers.

But I’m not sure that’s a glowing recommendation. There’s an assumption that those familiar practices are working and should be replicated in other areas.

Limited views of knowledge – blame the teacher

Beyond that they seem based on a fairly limited view of knowledge. Di Blas et al (2014) talk about the knowledge required to integrate digital technologies into teaching as having

consistently been conceptualized as being a form of knowledge that is resident in the heads of individual teachers (p. 2457)

The type of view that sees the problem with a perceive lack of digital competence to be fixed only by filling the heads of the teacher with the necessary digital competence, and then testing whether or not it’s been filled appropriately. If it hasn’t been filled properly, then it tends to be seen as the teacher’s fault.

The limitations of this view means that I don’t think that any approach based on it will be successful. (After all, a deficit model is not a great place to start).

A distributive view

In this paper (Jones, Heffernan, & Albion, 2015) some colleagues and I draw on a distributive view of learning and knowledge to explore our use as teacher educators of digital technologies in our learning and teaching. Borrowing and extending work from Putnam and Borko (2000) we see a distributive view of learning and knowledge focused on digital technologies as involving at least four conceptual themes:

  1. Learning/knowledge is situated in particular physical and social contexts;
  2. It is social in nature;
  3. It is distributed across the individual, other people, and tools; and, that
  4. Digital technologies are protean.

How does this help with the digital competence of school students, teachers, and teacher educators? It suggests we think about what these themes might reveal about the broader context within which folk are developing and using their digital competence.

Schools and digital technologies

Are schools digitally rich environments? Each year I teach about 400 pre-service teachers who head out into schools on Professional Experience for three weeks. During that time they are expected to use digital technologies to enhance and transform their students’ learning. As they prepare for this scary prospect, the most common question from my students is something like

My school has almost no (working) digital technologies? What am I going to do?

Many schools are not digitally rich environments.

If they do, then digital technologies are often seen in ways that mirror reports from Selwyn and Bulfin (2015)

Schools are highly regulated sites of digital technology use (p. 1)…

…valuing technology as

  1. something used when and where permitted;
  2. something that is standardized and preconfigured;
  3. something that conforms to institutional rather than individual needs;
  4. something that is a directed activity. (p. 15)

As teacher educators with large percentages of online students, our digital environment is significantly more rich in terms of the availability of digital technologies. However, in our 2015 paper (Jones, Heffernan, & Albion, 2015) we report that the digital technologies we use for our teaching matches the description from Selwyn and Bulfin. Our experience echoes Rushkoff’s (2010) observation that “instead of optimizing our machines for humanity – or even the benefit of some particular group – we are optimizing humans for machinery” (p. 15). More recently I worked on a paper (Jones and Schneider, in review) with a high school teacher that identified the same problem in schools. Digital technologies that were inefficient, got in the way of effective learning and teaching, and failed to mirror the real world digital technology experience.

How do students and especially teachers learn to value and develop their digital competence in such an environment?

In the recent paper (Jones and Schneider, in review) we wondered what might happen if this environment was modified to actually enable and encourage staff and student agency with digital technologies. Allow people to optimise the technology for what they want to do, rather than optimise what they want to do to suit the technology. If this was done:

  • Would it lead to digital environments that were more effective in terms of learning and teaching?
  • Would it demonstrate the value of digital technologies and computational thinking to teachers in their practice?
  • Would this improve their digital competence?

If you could do it, I think it would positively impact all of these factors. But doing so requires to radically rethink a number of assumptions and practices that underpin most of education and the institutional use of digital technologies.

I’m not holding my breath.

Instead, I wonder how long before there’s standardised test for that.


Blas, N. Di, Paolini, P., Sawaya, S., & Mishra, P. (2014). Distributed TPACK: going beyond knowledge in the head. In Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 2457–2465). Retrieved from

Jones, D., Heffernan, A., & Albion, P. (2015). TPACK as Shared Practice: Toward a Research Agenda,. In L. Liu & D. Gibson (Eds.), Research Highlights in Technology and Teacher Education 2015 (pp. 13–20). Waynesville, NC: AACE. Retrieved from

Putnam, R., & Borko, H. (2000). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning? Educational Researcher, 29(1), 4–15. Retrieved from

Selwyn, N., & Bulfin, S. (2015). Exploring school regulation of students’ technology use – rules that are made to be broken? Educational Review, 1911(December), 1–17. doi:10.1080/00131911.2015.1090401