Digital Literacy is New… Digital Literacy is optional … Busting the Myths!

Following up on my previous post where I attended a public talk given by Bryan Alexander and Alex Grech, I have decided to write a bit about digital literacy and my thoughts about what this digital literacy monster. Both Bryan and Alex were also leading the National Digital Literacy Conference held in Malta on the 20th November 2015. The title of this post, is a snippet I borrowed from Bryan Alexander’s talk on Digital Literacy and its deconstruction.

Digital literacy has been overused and abused by many people who want to impress education policy makers. I know this is a strong statement, and I am maybe generalising. But I feel that digital literacy is not about teaching technology in schools, or teaching technology to our student teachers. When someone becomes digitally literate, then that someone starts understanding more the impact of technology on non-digital living in society. So digital literacy, and becoming digitally literate involves skills that are much broader, and run much deeper than learning about office applications or how to use the interactive whiteboard. So how do we do it in practice? How do we become digitally literate? I don’t think and I don’t believe that taking lessons, or formal training is going to help someone become digital literate. Becoming digital is about the experience, it’s about immersing yourself in the virtual realm – not unequipped with basic skills… these basic skills do not include knowing how to use tools or applications, but they include skills related to communication, the practice of ethics, knowing how to understand and interpret information, being critical of information, creation and production, problem-solving… so if these are the underlying skills for a successful digitally literate citizen, what’s new in digital literacy? So many people might say that digital literacy is a new subject – to be taught in a way that a language or a science subject might be taught… here’s whats new… No digital literacy is not new – it’s about bringing all the skills which we should be targeting in education and which absolutely everyone agrees should be what education is about, and applying it to the digital medium, which primarily uses the Internet as the network connecting people, information and multiple media together.

Is digital literacy optional? No – it shouldn’t be… as teaching shouldn’t be just about teaching content. Teaching is about instilling a love and passion for the subject, it’s about kindling curiosity about knowledge, it’s about helping someone else connect their own dots to create a meaningful experience. Living in today’s society implies some kind of digital knowhow… but digital knowhow is not being digitally literate… my 6-year old can meddle around with my smart phone or with my laptop but is he digitally literate ?- No! He still needs to develop crucial skills related to his social, emotional and cognitive growth that would make him digital literate… can school help him become digitally literate ? I am still hoping (am I being utopic?) that yes… but it will only happen when schools and policy makers, start deconstructing the monster of digital literacy, and viewing it for what it really is… applying the right skills (there are many of course… but these are 4 general umbrella skills associated to digital practices: communication, critical approach, creation and collaboration) to the digital and online medium.

 

Child’s play

Browsing through my Facebook feed, I noticed that a colleague posted this article which caught my eye – The Joyful Illiterate Kindergarteners of Finland. What prompted me to actually read the article more than the title, was the fact that I have a 6-year old son. Since children start school late in Finland, I got this mental image of my son, school and the word joyful… and I knew that in Malta, and for my son, joyful is not how he would describe his scholarly experience.

Let me first start by reflecting a bit on the article. Even though the author compares Finland to the US, I find that in Malta we can compare ourselves with the type of instruction he describes as being characteristic of US schools. Just yesterday I was discussing with another parent about the extent of ‘literacy’ that our children are being subjected to. In Finland, according to the author, the concept of literacy, whether this is numerical or language-related, is integrated into daily playful activities. Even dragging sticks in the mud, and pretending that the children are building dams, can lead to various literacy skills if the teacher intervenes at the right moment. Children at that level are not only exposed to physical activities, but they carry out serious play that can affect (in a positive way of course) the children’s cognitive, emotional and social development. Some children cannot communicate with others, not because they are not able to but simply because they haven’t been given the necessary space for them to develop this.

Now let’s flip back to Malta, and to our children’s current instruction. My son is a 6 year old attending a primary school. Never mind the hours that the article refers to where the children have to sit and write (so that they can improve their literacy skills!!!). It seems that in Malta we are driven by this ever increasing need of getting children flowing down the academic avenue right from when they are born. I don’t know whether this is our ingrained culture or whether we truly believe that we are indeed helping achieve higher levels of education by starting the infamous writing and reading early on in life. But just one look at our number of graduates, or maybe at our levels of early school leavers, or those who opt out of certification-led examinations at the age of 16 or 18, is for me enough to get me thinking whether the way we are approaching early and primary education is the right way. I have heard teachers (at all levels of education) complain that there is nothing they can do if the syllabi they are given are rigid and require the traditional, teacher-driven approach (to manage to “teach” all the syllabus on time), leaving the children in a state of passivity as they read and write (I ask – where’s the play?) …. so whilst the Finnish counterparts of my son’s age category are out there playing, building dams and going on outings, singing and being joyful, our children are doing written homework (after school) only to go back to school, to write more and then sit and do more written and reading exercises.

Now I have to admit it has been a long time since I’ve actually sat inside a primary classroom and observed what goes on. What I know is what I gather from colleagues, and also from what my son tells me. However I do find myself rather baffled. Are our policy makers, and decision takers – or maybe those people who draw up syllabi, aware that when they speak about increasing literacy standards, there are other ways of improving literacy? Are these people aware that people do learn from play and fun and that these are  ultimately not just buzz words but that is quite real? How can we expect to change cultures at a higher education level, when the moment our children start going to school we start telling them that play is not and cannot equate to learning?

I heard a story recently by a colleague – where a school administrator was talking about decreasing (the already severely dwindled) school outings, as these were evidently not useful to increase the benchmark test assessment (similar to PISA) results in a subject (he was referring to 9-10 year olds). According to this person, traditional teaching using workbooks is what would raise literacy levels and not outings. My 2 cents worth is that whilst in academia and research we speak at a certain frequency, those people out there who are in contact with or who are responsible for whoever is in contact with our children, are really not tuned in on the same frequency. We’re talking two completely different languages, and we’re both convinced that each is saying (and doing) the right thing.

What is right? What do parents want? What do policy makers want? What do teachers and school administrators want?

I sincerely don’t know at this point. What I do know is what my child wants … he wants to play. Last time he looked at me and very solemnly he told me : Ma, are you a teacher? I said yes… His reply was … so I deserve more of a rest than you because guess what? it is us children who spend all day working hard at school. I didn’t reply.

tag cloud

My #TwistedPair challenge: it’s all about Spiderman & Paolo Freire

No intro needed!

No intro needed! Source: http://tinyurl.com/on8jxal

I have recently been invited by Prof. Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) to take up the twisted pair challenge, and as I was thinking about it, my 6-year old son walked in wearing his spiderman costume (despite the fact that carnival is far away):) My son loves super heroes… he is always changing his future plans, from wanting to become Spiderman to Batman to the Flash – and he has the costumes to morph into any one of them as befits the occasion. Seeing him always makes me wonder about his future and wondering about his future makes me think about teachers, not only those who I teach, guide and follow, but also about the future generations.

“Not everyone is meant to make a difference. But for me, the choice to lead an ordinary life is no longer an option.” – do you know who said this? Spiderman aka Peter Parker of course – way back in 2002.

I think this quote very much applies to teachers. Not everybody is born to make a difference in the world – but teachers have no choice – their profession demands it. Does this sound rhetorical? Cheesy? The matter of fact is that teachers count. One aspect of my job is that I get to meet and listen to the voices of those who will become teachers in the near future. And sometimes these voices don’t sound so convinced that they can really make a difference in the lives of the people they will encounter and teach on the way. And I feel that most of this arises from the fear of making changes or of embracing those restless, dissonant souls who are searching for much more than becoming merely passive recipients.

Paolo Freire

Paolo Freire
Source: http://tinyurl.com/pspjqc5

And here comes in Paolo Freire, whose own restless soul wanted to bring education to the poor, by empowering them with critical thought through literacy. These words – critical thought, literacy, empowerment – they seem to slide off certain tongues. Sometimes colleagues, researchers, administrators, policy makers seem to use them as buzz words – could it be that maybe they use them to show that they know such words exist? But to implement them in practice – ah now that is the real challenge – is left up to the teacher as she inhabits her classroom space. And invariably I have seen those same teachers who write wonderful words about these words, fail to rise up to the challenge – most often as they are driven by syllabus restrictions, and administrators or heads breathing hotly down their necks but also because it’s easy to reproduce the kind of teaching that they were taught by. It is this that they know and are familiar with – I’ve been there myself – this approach can give you assurances that you can retain control – control of the class, control over what goes on in the minds of the learners, control that then reaches its apex when the students sit for their exam, and obtain a passmark, through all the effort that you (not them) have put in. One quote by Freire which really hits the mark here, and which I usually share with my own students as future teachers is this (from the Pedagogy of the Oppressed) :

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other…”

Knowledge is not achieved by transfer no matter which tools are used for that transfer. We need to change our actions to match our words and truly work towards becoming more critical – starting with ourselves and our perspectives.

So there we go, all of us who are teachers but who are first and foremost, educators who are passionate about diffusing positive energies for creating inquiring, inquisitive minds, that can deal with innovation and invention we need to follow in the steps of our super heroes to be able to bring about a change in the world we live in, for today but also for tomorrow. And for the sake of all the 6-year olds out there who still believe in super heroes, let’s all act like one – and as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker  – “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility!”.

#PASCAL2015 – Some thoughts and reflections …

IMG_3508

The view of the sea in Catania

This is the second day of the PASCAL conference 2015 which is being held in Catania.

First of all a few words (or sentences) about Catania – it’s Mediterranean! very very Mediterranean with its wonderful climate
and the beautiful surrounding sea, cultural richness, and crazy crazy driving.

IMG_3517

The courtyard seen from the Aula Magna of the University of Catania

The Universita’ degli Studi di Catania, has been a very gracious host, providing a very nice setting for a great kick off to the first day of the conference yesterday.

I have to say that this is the first conference I am attending in a long time, where education is really at the focus of the discussions. Usually the conferences I attend, tend to be more on the computer science with a side of education. But here education is being discussed from all its multiple facets and perspectives and this is fresh! Technology is being granted ubiquitous credit as its use is subtly implied and definitely visible in many aspects of the research being presented. Technology becomes the underlying foundation for the research practices impinging on the real societal issues being discussed here.

On the first day, we had two very good keynote sessions, the first one being delivered by Professor Piyushimita Thakuriah, from the University of Glasgow, focusing on big data and its impact on the urban economy. In essence big data can be defined as that data which is being continuously generated by humans but which has not really been designed for research purposes. Most often we are designing research processes so that we collect specific data which we need to analyse to answer a specific research question or address a problem. Big data starts from the data. The data is out there – being generated. The question is: how can we harness it and use it to help society grow and overcome its many rising challenges? Professor Thakuriah, describes this process as the Big Data process, a pyramid structure where urban infrastructure can feed the data analytics for knowledge discovery to ultimately lead to an impact on the urban economy itself. So as an example – in Malta we have this huge traffic problem – did I say huge? let’s make it massive. Weather predictions, Twitter or Facebook data, can be used to predict traffic conditions identifying the areas that would suffer the most, thus finding strategies to overcome the challenges. Of course one actually does need to get down and tackle the problems in a pragmatic tangible way once these have been identified but the use of this lurking data, can certainly help to that extent.

The keynote that followed was from Professor Ronsisvalle from the University of Catania. His keynote that was about the Future of the University was just brilliant. It was sharp, witty and funny in the right measure – and it struck some chords. Professor Ronsivalle started his keynote by questioning the realistic nature of the universities’ objectives and targets for their professors and their students. The reality is that some of these expectations are not really realistic IF we want academia to work and function according to its true spirit. Unfortunately speaking from the perspective of the Maltese experience the pressures on University and Higher Education from society are huge – and these are in my opinion partly due to the fact that there is ignorance about the roles of the academics. Such enlightenment can only come through the dissemination of what universities actually do. Again speaking from my own experience at the University in Malta, I would say that the university tries quite hard to push its message across society through a variety of initiatives and events. But my concern really is that this message is still not coming across as it should be, at times giving more rise to polemics. Of course I am not saying that there is no room for improvement and that we can’t be criticised but the issue here is that community outreach needs to be more pragmatic – more tangible.

On the matter of communities – I think that my take home key word for this conference has been Communities. Most of the presentations I have sat through yesterday afternoon and this morning focused on the following keywords: Communities, Collaboration, Engagement. It is possible that one of the ways, in which to really get the message across is that of actively involving and engaging specific sections of communities to tangibly reach solutions to problems and challenges that are affecting the local society.

Sometimes, we have to come off our high horses and remember that our primary role as academics, is to research ways on how to improve the quality of life in society and to inform, guide and help the implementation process for this.

On this subject, tomorrow I will be speaking about the possibility of using MOOCs and alternate reality games to engage citizens more actively in societal issues. More to come in the coming days…

Education is Broken … let’s fix it (not) with the technology glue …

This really good article written by Kentaro Toyama and published via The Chronicle of Higher Education. In his article Toyama, traces his own journey into his experience with the integration of technology for learning.This has been a conundrum which many policy makers have been faced with ever since technology started making its ways in education. The author clearly points out that the success of the use of technology, especially in education, doesn’t really depend on the technology or on the device, or any other tool. It really depends on the user – the teacher, the student, the parent. Education then starts to be perceived as a mesh of responsibility that needs to be carried by everyone who is involved. What we have instead is this… the policy maker decides on the use of a particular technology, the technology is implemented (fully or maybe not) in the classrooms, the teacher has to make use of it (even if he or she has to create makeshift activities to fit it in an existing structure. The end result seems to indicate that teachers become unhappy as they speak of technology that is foisted on them, the students are still pretty much disengaged, and lifelong learning becomes just rhetoric.

Last week I overheard a conversation between two teachers, as it inevitably turned to technology and how it’s affecting them. One teacher told the other that she doesn’t really use the Interactive Whiteboard because after all she sees no point in using it. The other told her that she’s lucky to have an Interactive Whiteboard “at least” because she had to move the portable projector around to be able to project something in her class. They were muttering that they couldn’t keep up with all the changes they were supposed to be doing in their classroom. They mentioned that the next upcoming change is a learning management system and after that – who knows? They just gave up because in the end, they said, the people who decide on all of these changes, leave them to cope with them. And without the right supporting structures, who would monitor them to see what they are doing?

Maybe I shouldn’t generalise from just one conversation, and maybe there are teachers who really are struggling to fix education as best as they can. However I think the educational structures in general are not helping at all. In education there is more lacking than just tools and devices. How long will we keep teaching that ICT is all about devices, or all about how to use office applications? How long will we take to realise that that the digital era we live in is so much more than the technology?

Gamifying Education – who will it really work with?

I have just come across this infographic – making me think. In general I am not against gamification myself. I do actually try it out with my own students, using 3D GameLab to gamify my quests. In fact this year I really would like to write a bit about how my students, who will be teachers, feel on the issue of gamification in education. My question though is… let’s take the school setting, will gamification only work with those learners who have a predisposition to schools and learning, or could it be successful with those young people, for whom learning is perceived as a burden which they can definitely live without? Could we use gamification to really entice young people not to drop out of school? Could we really use gamification with both young and adult people who have severe literacy difficulties? Sincerely… I don’t really know.
Gamification Infographic

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

#MaltaBLT – My blog for the second workshop day!

The second day of the workshop has once again proved to be quite interesting and hands on where we have had the opportunity to brainstorm and explore ideas – the key terms here seem to have been – get wild, get creative! We have had the opportunity to come up with our own questions and provide answers (quantity more than quality applied here!) in the most creative, yet time efficient way as possible. Here is a short summary, from our group that was only made up of 2 people:) myself and Antoinette – but we fared fairly well I would say.

Hard at work! Workshop participants...

Hard at work! Workshop participants…

However the vibe around the room was quite exceptional – fun and dynamic would pretty much sum up the session. Thinking about what connected passion, engagement, learning and technology, we emerged with a question that asked ‘How might we lead people to the frame of mind that can connect learning to the technology?’ We came up with 20 possibilities that could somehow direct us to the question, the most popular of which turned out to be get learners into teachers and teachers into learners (swap roles). This was closely followed by creating authentic settings, and involving students, teachers and parents in a Wiki project.

IMG_2959

Write your thoughts moment – our 20 thoughts moment!

In the end our rapid prototyping project turned out to combine all these three elements by proposing a national public Wiki project, that would be themed around the various forms of literacies and that would allow parents, teachers and students to collaborate using one single platform. This ‘social project’ would help people connect the dots between learning and technology, using a medium everyone is familiar with… sounds fun isn’t it? Doable? Well we think it’s not impossible – however it’s not without its challenges. Once more kudos to @peterford for making us think, do and collaborate in a fun and engaging way!

The rapid prototype of our national public Wiki project.

The rapid prototype of our national public Wiki project.

Musings of a mum and a … teacher

Cowboy Breakers SketchI have a 4 and half year old son. The recent developments in his schooling  are making me think and re-think constantly about our education. When I was younger I had a passion for horses, and I used to go to an equestrian centre here in Malta for a couple of months. I used to do nothing much than take basic care of one horse there, and then be able to ride for a bit. However I did notice one practice in training which they used to do with the younger foals. It is called ‘breaking the horse‘. This is a lengthy process at the end of which the trainer would be able to ride the horse.

Now, I find it extremely like what is happening to my young son in his first year of formal schooling. Last year, he still attended a play school, which was completely different. I think that if I could summarise play school I would say, my son used to have extreme carefree fun. They used to go for short walks, have picnics, have some public speaking activities among themselves. They had the craft and the art and all the activities of course. They cooked, they painted and they made all sorts of stuff from recycled material (learning about recycling in the process). They of course were encouraged to sit down properly whilst eating, and during morning circle time but essentially that was all the sitting they had to do – and after all the activities I am sure even my energetic son would have wanted to sit down. However this year, the practice seems to be completely different. It feels like the school are ‘breaking’ the children so that they can be trained in the practice of class-based schooling where they have to sit down invariably for a period of time, with no chatting or talking, and listening to what the teacher has to say. Doing what the teacher says and doing it well, is, I would assume what many teachers would wish for. So the children are being ‘prepared’. Unfortunately it seems that my son, is not really accepting this ‘preparation’ without a fight, because he seems to be causing some kinds of stirs at school.

I think he still hasn’t adapted to the system. My mum part wants him to express himself and find knowledge and learning in freedom. But the teacher in me, can recognise that if any student does not conform to the present education system, then that student will be lost. It’s a survival of the fittest if you want to succeed in life (and don’t have family friends or resources which would give you a push in the right direction). And if you fail in education because you don’t adapt and let yourself be ‘broken’ then you stand little chance for achieving your dreams – unless you stumble across a spot of luck. As a mother, I don’t feel I should count on my son’s luck – so I feel torn between urging my son to follow all the rules of schools and the classrooms, and punishing him when he doesn’t follow them and the distinct feeling that I dislike that education is simply reproducing children who have to sit down and be told what to do and how to behave. I already feel the helplessness of a someone whose son may not be exactly academically oriented, and yet has to feel and share his pain of having to adhere to what someone thinks is in his best interest for learning – such as tracing alphabet letters, numbers and colouring in. I have hope that somehow the path to learning will be relatively easy going but maybe I might have to prepare myself that I might encounter a number of ‘hurricanes’ on the way…

Another wonderfully inspiring talk by @SirKenRobinson

“The dropout crisis is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Sir Ken Robinson. ” What it doesn’t count are all the kids who are in school, but being disengaged from it, who don’t enjoy it, who don’t get any real benefit from it”. Call me rhetorical but these are, in my opinion, words of wisdom that apply not just to America, but to many other countries, including Malta. All the problems we are seeing here, and all the problems that are yet to come can not be seen as the malady, or the sickness but a symptom of this “disengagement” that students are manifesting from school and worse still, from learning. Students are equating learning with schools and teaching, and are therefore simply shutting down to learning – learning is what ultimately would benefit the economy – learning is what ultimately contributes to a ‘knowledge society’. If a society, as a whole is a learned society, a knowledgeable society that can critically reflect upon problems, that has the ability to find solutions, and that has this wonderful sense of wishing to contribute by creating something new, then of course we certainly don’t need any standardised tests to tell us that we’re doing well. We would be doing well, as a whole country and we would certainly show it. Maybe I am being ‘utopic’ here, but unless we start shifting the way we think and rethink different directions in education, we will continue to wallow. As Sir Ken Robinson says, “Children are not, for the most part suffering from a psychological condition… they are suffering from childhood” !!! – and this really goes to say, that if we keep expecting all our kids to sit down for hour after hour, listening, and listening, then we should expect nothing else but disengagement – manifested in a variety of different ways.

Wonderfully inspiring and engaging as always – thank you Sir Ken Robinson.

Can there be too much of screen time? Too many computer games? I think not…

This afternoon I happened to be reading an article on the Sunday Times of Malta, in the Education page, where one particular author was describing how children’s healthy growth and development is attributed to their interactions with the “three dimensional first hand engagement”. In short the author was pushing for a more “healthy” physical environment expressing doubts and a certain perplexity about the time that our children spend in the virtual and online environment. Although everyone is entitled to their opinions and of course to publicize their school’s agendas, I always believe that an argument is healthy when it is viewed critically from both perspectives. I do suggest that the author and others who might find the subject of children, digital literacies and the virtual environment interesting, spruce up their reading habits to include works from authors such as Howard Rheingold, Henry Jenkins and Jaron Lanier amongst others.

I do admit and agree that many parents express a certain amount of worry when children seem to spend a lot of time in front of screens and interacting with seemingly ‘inhumane’ content – content that has nothing of the “human touch” we are so used to. The author in the article, looks back on the time when she was a kid  and she could play on the streets with other kids. This, I believe, reflects the thoughts of many, who like me and presumably the author as well, were kids two or three decades ago. However the world has come a long way in these two to three decades. The evolution that has happened in the way we, as humans communicate in these two decades, compares with more than at least two centuries since the birth of the first forms of telephone-based communication.

Quoting Howard Rheingold in NetSmart, “Digital Literacies can leverage the Web’s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic”. I find that this quote really summarizes my answers, when someone tries to push forward reasons why we shouldn’t include technologies and devices at school or when someone tries to stop the spread of social media in schools and in education. I was once shown a Facebook post, where a teacher, (more than one actually) were commenting on the use of games in the classroom. One particularly worrying update was this – “Games in schools!!! … what is education coming to? This is not the way we were taught and this is certainly not the way we should teach“. I find THIS post, more than anyone telling me that his son or daughter is spending time online, for two particular reasons. I would say that as a starting point, we cannot teach the way we were taught. The world has changed, the economy has changed, the society has changed, the community in which we are living has changed, and the expectations have changed. When I was a teenager, I remember that the job that was most popular amongst girls, was a job as a factory worker, a bank clerk or at most a teacher. I believe that the expectations, these days, in Malta and abroad are different; society’s needs are different, and in order to turn the wheel of our country’s economy it is important that the expectations change. So how can we, as teachers, affirm that we need to do things in the classroom the way things were done two or three decades ago?????

The second worrying issue is that these teachers, seem not to embrace the fact that change is not just important, but that preparing for change, is vital for the success of the individual and society in the 21st century. As Rheingold mentions, it is important that people acquire skills not just in terms of the content (from an academic perspective), but also in terms of how to best make use of those skills to work “in concert with others, in an effective way”. It is useless for teachers to say that the IWB is just a glitzy gimmick and keep refusing to integrate it in the classroom, just as it is useless for them to say that Facebook is “an unwanted distraction” in the classroom or that digital games are a “waste of time” and thus act as if these things do not exist. We, as educators, more than teachers, need to make sure that when our young people encounter these, beyond the classroom walls, they know how to deal with them, in a way that that they are empowered and not manipulated by the people behind the masses and overload of information that is thrown at us on a daily basis. My advice is this… let us not bury our heads in the sand. The reality is that we need to add a whole lot of skills which we need to help our young people acquire – and these are digital literacies, or rather the way in which our young people can start filtering and detecting the whole lot of crap that exists, and instead make critical use of it, in a way that is effective, efficient and that can lead us, as a whole community, forward. Let us embrace change in a way that can help us make the world a better place.