Sudden Shift to Online Learning Revealed Gaps in Digital Literacy, Study Finds

Oct 01, 2020

When schools abruptly moved online as COVID-19 swept across the U.S. this spring, teachers improvised and traded tips on what worked with colleagues. Many also ended up serving as tech support for students and their parents, who themselves struggled to learn new tools as well.

That’s a major takeaway from a survey of more than 700 teachers in 40 states conducted this spring, just after schools first shifted to remote instruction due to the pandemic. The study, done by education professors at Bridgewater State University, posed five open-ended questions: What has been your experience? What are your challenges? How are you solving those challenges? Who do you rely on? And what other information do you want to give us that we should know?

“Digital literacy became a theme in all of this data,” says Heather A. Pacheco-Guffrey, an associate professor of science education at Bridgewater State University who led the survey effort. “Digital literacy skills were not where they needed to be.”

One part of that was that students and parents often lacked the skills to join Zoom calls and collaborate in shared Google Docs.

“American kids and families are great at consuming tech, but not great at creating with technology,” Pacheco-Guffrey tells EdSurge. “We’re great at reading on our Kindles and our iPhones and all that jazz, but do children know how to type, can they actually create something with their own ideas?”

And so parents and kids largely turned to teachers to provide the tech support to get to classes and course materials remotely.

Meanwhile, those teachers often felt they lacked adequate tech training.

“The teachers talked about having to train themselves in the tech,” says Jeanne Carey Ingle, an assistant professor of elementary and early childhood education at Bridgewater State who also worked on the survey research.

Pacheco-Guffrey says that the data suggests that K-12 schools need to offer more, and different kinds of technology training.

“Districts need to provide access to teachers to professional development that are digestible and not [overly time consuming],” she says. “A 5-minute clip on how to open a Google Doc is much more useful than an hour on the Google ecosystem.”

Her conclusion: “This has huge ramifications for teacher preparation across the country,” says Pacheco-Guffrey.

Remote Improv

The survey also demonstrated the creativity of teachers as they improvised to keep instruction going remotely.

“The real message is that teachers are rock stars—they are resilient and they’re extraordinarily tough and creative,” says Pacheco-Guffrey.

One solution several teachers adopted was breaking their class up into small groups of five or so, and teaching live video calls with one group at a time to keep students more engaged. “They had to move away from this mentality of, “I teach 28 kids, to thinking, ‘I teach small groups at the time,” says Andrea Cayson, an assistant professor of elementary and early childhood education at Bridgewater State. “And the logistics of that are mind-blowing.”

And teachers found new ways to make themselves available, including one high school teacher who would leave her Zoom room open in the mornings as she prepared for class and let students drop in if they wanted to just hang out as they started their days.

But the teachers also realized that there were structural problems keeping their students from succeeding that they had little control over. One of the biggest was access to technology, including adequate Wi-Fi.

“Universal access is just not there,” says Ingle. “We make an assumption that everybody has access to Wi-Fi and everyone has access to internet and that is not true at all. It’s a social justice issue.”

The researchers plan to present their findings at the upcoming ISTE20 virtual conference, starting Nov. 29. ISTE is the parent organization of EdSurge.


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