Did you hear? There’s been a huge explosion in digital technology, and students today are right in the very center of it.
93 percent of 12-17 year-olds have computer access at home, 78 percent have their own cell phone; and 74 percent state that they go online occasionally via a cell phone, tablet, or other digital gadget.‚ÄîTeens and Technology, 2013
Which is why digital literacy‚Äîthe ability to effectively use all these shiny new tools to create, connect, think and understand the increasingly digitized landscape‚Äîis what many believe must be an integral part of every school curriculum.
‚ÄúStudents need‚Äî and deserve‚Äîfor us to catch up quickly, to let go of the past, and to critically examine whether what we do is indeed supporting the development of their digital literacies.‚Äù‚ÄîNo Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait, 2013
So, what’s happening in local Jackson-area classrooms? Are students getting access to digital tools even in public schools? And, more importantly, are they being guided in effectively and responsibly using and benefiting from technology through digital literacy education?
Welcome back to this series on the state of digital literacy in Jackson, Mississippi schools, an exploration of whether students are getting the skills they need to succeed. This blog series is grounded in research I conducted as a graduate student at Jackson State in 2014-2015. Admittedly, a master’s thesis is a lot to cover in a few blog posts. So, overall, I’m going to hit the highlights. And if you would like to go deeper into the subject, I invite you to refer to the thesis itself.
Let’s start with a little background information: despite its many benefits, a large share of students aren’t being taught digital literacy in schools nationwide. Why? Well, first there is the digital divide, the marked division between those who have access to technology and those who don’t. And, even with the explosion in technology, school districts here in Mississippi and elsewhere continue to lack the funding to provide laptops for every student.
Mississippi is considered the ‚Äúleast wired‚Äù state in the nation, where, according to 2011 census figures, over half of residents have no Internet access at home, 41 percent have no access at all, and where schools are so lacking in technology use, the state scored a failing grade on a 2013 report card published by online education advocacy group Digital Learning Now‚ÄîIn Mississippi Schools, Access to Technology Lacking, Uneven, 2014
Teachers’ perceptions of technology also play a major role in how it’s integrated into the classroom. On that point, some educators seem to welcome digital tools, while a sizeable number don’t.
A 2012 teacher survey found that little more than half agreed with the statement, ‚ÄúI am happy to embrace new technology‚Äù and only 50% agreed with, ‚ÄúI’m motivated to try new technology to improve learning.‚Äù‚ÄîThe Impact of Technology and Teacher’s Perceptions of Changes in Student Learning, Aggen, 2012
The reason? Some educators simply aren’t schooled up on technology themselves, or don’t like the distraction-factor of having these devices in the classroom. And indeed, digital-tool-use without the guidance of digital literacy can be a major source of distraction.
In my study, several other factors were explored as well, including the recent implementation of Common Core State Standards, the receptiveness of administrators, and more.
9th grade is a big year for digital literacy
After consideration, it was decided that interviewing 9th grade teachers would be ideal for my research. Ninth grade is a pivotal year for students, as it’s the last year to begin digital literacy efforts and ensure that they have enough time to gain understanding for success in school, college, and career.
A 2011 study by Moeller and Reitzes suggests that in-school efforts should begin by at least 9th grade, because ‚Äúit can take four or more years from the time new technologies are introduced to the point when changes can be observed in students.‚ÄîIntegrating Technology with Student-Centered Learning
My research also coincided with the start last fall of a one-to-one technology initiative in Jackson Public Schools with the goal of providing each incoming freshman with a new Apple MacBook Air.
Parameters of the study
In-depth interviews were conducted with a total of 15 participants‚Äîseven public school teachers and eight private school teachers. Educators in the sample group came from three different public schools within the Jackson Public School District as well as five different Jackson-area private/parochial schools. A complete breakdown of the sample by school, discipline taught, age, and years of teaching experience can be found on page 34 of the thesis.
Bottom line, it was critical to have a balance of public/private school educators to illustrate the differences there. And, by and large, public school teachers are more impacted by the digital divide than their private school counterparts are.
‚ÄúTeachers of the lowest-income students are more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest income students to say that students’ lack of access to digital technologies is a major challenge.‚Äù‚ÄîMore Than Half of U.S. Public Schools Dont Have Adequate Wireless Access, 2013
Looking first at teachers’ views of technology
Teachers’ perceptions of technology have a direct bearing on whether and how they effectively integrate digital literacy in their classrooms. To that point, a large majority (11 of 15) 9th grade school teachers in the sample expressed highly positive views of technology use. And this was on both sides, public and private.
‚ÄúI think that it is definitely beneficial to our students as they prepare to compete in a technological world.‚Äù ‚ÄîPublic school math teacher
A private school English teacher noted that technology has greatly expanded possibilities for student and teacher engagement: ‚ÄúI just think it’s extremely advantageous. There’s so much more you can do in the classroom, so much more‚Ä¶ available to the kids.‚Äù
In the Jackson Public School District, where the 9th grade laptop initiative was launched on October 7, 2014, perceptions of technology were generally positive in how students have been able to engage with their laptops. One public school art teacher stated, ‚ÄúGiven the amount of technology that’s in our world, students need to be using technology as they learn.‚Äù A public school English teacher echoed that view: Technology ‚Äúshould be utilized. It’s the world we live in.‚Äù
Some teachers defined digital literacy more fully than others. As a public school art teacher stated, it’s ‚Äúbeing able to express yourself‚Ä¶ using laptops to ‚Äúresearch, to find, to make…‚Äù
The proof is in the digital pudding
Without exception, all of the public and private school teachers offered evidence of digital literacy projects and activities occurring in their classrooms. However, the type and level varied widely. A majority of the private school teachers (seven of the eight sampled) stated that their schools had established iPad or laptop initiatives for 9th grade or earlier which enabled them to have digital literacy thoroughly integrated.
However, one of the most significant findings of this study is that there was a clear difference between public and private schools in the type of digital projects taking place. Due partly to the fact that the 9th grade initiative in Jackson’s public schools had been launched only a few months prior to this study, teachers related that not much of the training has reached the level of true ‚Äúdigital literacy.‚Äù
For example, a number of public school teachers spoke of basic technology tasks, such as composing and sending emails, performing web searches, taking notes on the computer, and downloading videos.
Yet, one the most comprehensive examples of digital literacy in the study came from the public school side‚Äîa collaboration between an art teacher and a science teacher that enabled two classes to come together for an engaging science-news-scriptwriting and art-video-creation project.
This art/science project serves as an example of the ‚Äúfurther dimensions‚Äù made possible when digital technology is paired with traditional subjects, as detailed in Multimodal literacy: What does it mean for classroom practice?, 2010
As the science teacher described: ‚ÄúWe had the students pretend that they were journalists, interviewing a creature…. And so they were in partners, one of them had to be the creature, one of them had to be the interviewer, and they basically had to do research on their computer to answer the question so they could have a conversation in character.‚Äù
The project had students working across two subjects in entirely new ways, as the science teacher related:
‚ÄúI’d make them submit the script to me before they could start filming, but then she (the art teacher) actually taught how to do the videos…I followed through on their script, did their script editing and so we were kind of able to space out the work across those different subjects.‚Äù
The art teacher described how the laptop initiative has expanded possibilities: ‚ÄúWe couldn’t have assigned this project before‚Ä¶ ‚Ä¶And now we can push them to do things like make a film because they have this technology.‚Äù
Technology With Digital Literacy Helps Reach Students In New Ways:
- Private School English Teacher: Enables reaching ‚Äúall the different learning styles that are out there‚Ä¶visual learners‚Ä¶touch learners, and ‚Ä¶oral learners.‚Äù
- Public School English Teacher: Laptops appear to give students a sense of ‚Äúbuy-in to their education a little bit more: ‚ÄòNow, I have an opportunity.‚Äù’
- Public School Science Teacher: ‚ÄúOne of our kids’ main problems is the ability to communicate‚Ä¶ One thing MacBooks have allowed us to do is communicate in writing.‚Äù
Next in the series, we’ll examine how students are responding to digital literacy in the classroom, and look at the obstacles and challenges educators, both public and private, face. Hint: the digital divide comes into play on both sides.