Don’t mind the gap

Justin Beck, VP Education, Kaltura, explains why closing the teacher/student digital divide will never happen

Earlier this year the House of Lords digital skills committee published a report calling for the teaching of digital skills in schools to be treated as a third core subject, on a par with lessons in numeracy and literacy.

The committee also called for urgent action to support teachers who are not sufficiently well equipped to teach the new computing curriculum, insisting that no child should leave school without basic digital literacy.

This got me thinking. While of course I agree with the committee’s overarching goal of ensuring that UK PLC will be able to count on a workforce that is digitally literate enough to compete successfully on the world stage, I am not sure whether teachers will ever feel confident that they are sufficiently digitally literate to teach the subject.

Let me explain. My own organisation, Kaltura, recently published the results of our second annual State of Video in Education report, a global survey undertaken by more than 1,200 respondents involved in education. We were interested, amongst other things, in the perceived gap between teachers’ and students’ digital literacy levels across the whole education spectrum.

For the purposes of the study, we defined digital literacy as “the ability to locate, organise, understand, evaluate, analyse, create, and communicate information using digital technologies”. When we reviewed the results, we found a considerable gap between student and teacher digital literacy levels: 40% of respondents rated students’ digital literacy levels as ‘very good’ versus 23% for teachers.

Both common sense and the data highlight some concerns related to the divide between the comfort level of educators and the comfort level of students.  There is a common perception in the education community both here and abroad that this gap will close as newer, potentially younger, educators enter the system.  While it is true over the short term that the gap may close, the rapid and continued pace of innovation will consistently ensure a chasm between students’ digital comfort levels and those of their (older) teachers.

To steal a consumer example, take the new Apple iWatch.  I am a HUGE fan of Apple products – iPads, iPhones, iMacs, MacBook Airs. My office and house are literally littered with Apple products.  For years, I’ve been at the core of their target market: I diligently replace my phone every two years and am constantly researching their latest gadgets.  

But the Apple Watch has stumped me.  I just don’t get why I need it, what it can do for me, when so much of what it accomplishes sits just 2 inches away in my pocket, on my iPhone.

The launch of the Watch – and more specifically my subdued reaction to it – has made me realise that I am moving out of Apple’s core market of hip young things eager to buy anything that the company develops as soon as it becomes available.   

Which brings me back to the digital divide in education. As my Apple Watch example demonstrates, there is a ‘circle of digital life’, for want of a better phrase. The younger generation will take up where the previous generation falls off. We see this most clearly in the consumer technology space, but this familiarity with, and interest in, new technologies spills over into education and the world of work too. It’s just how things are.

Consequently, the digital divide between generations – in this case between the educator and the student – will never truly close. The educator will always feel less confident, familiar and comfortable with the newer digital technologies and approaches than the student, whose ability to locate, organise, understand, create and communicate digital information will always be one step ahead.

My recommendation for educators is to go with it. Embrace digital literacy by inspiring your students to think out of the box and explore new ways of doing things. Don’t be weighed down by the rigidity of historical expectations but instead embrace the power of the ever-changing digital environment.  Give students the freedom to complete assignments in new ways that expand their – and your – digital boundaries.

I recently saw a group of students create a fantastic video submission for an assignment instead of a standard written paper. The video project took much longer than the written paper would have done, because it necessitated mapping a timeline, writing and practising a script, filming and then editing the submission. But the interesting thing is that the students didn’t mind that it took longer: they were fully immersed and engaged in what they were doing. Furthermore they were pushing their digital boundaries and enhancing their digital literacy levels as a result. And they were taking their teachers along for the ride! 

In summary, I am not sure that teachers will ever say they feel confident and comfortable in teaching digital literacy, precisely because technology is always advancing. By accepting that educators will always be behind on the digital literacy curve compared to most students, we can focus instead on using their well-honed teaching skills to inspire students to think out of the box for digital-led assignments.

In this way, students can practise, shape, hone and improve their own digital literacy levels by trial and error, which is, after all, often the best way to learn. And teachers can offer a light touch, guidance and support – and perhaps be inspired in turn by the amazing digital work their students produce!