Today I had the great privilege of presenting the keynote address at The University of Lincoln’s Ed.D student conference. As a PhD student myself it provided me with an opportunity to develop my own skills and also to share some of my experiences with students who are just beginning the PhD journey. I wanted to use my blog to share a summary of my presentation and also to provide references for the reports and projects I mention throughout.
Three areas make up the background to the DigiLit Leicester Project and later the foundation upon which I would build my thesis work; Digital Practice, Professionalism and Professional Development.
Digital practices are increasingly embedded into everyday life and a growing majority of us rely heavily upon our personal technologies for communication, organisation and our interactions with the world. Alongside this shift in cultural practice has been an increased recognition of the importance of digital literacy as a key skill for engagement within modern society, a recognition which is reflected in educational agendas. As early as 2006, the European Union (EU) Council proposed Digital Competence as one of eight Key Competences for Lifelong Learning.
‘Key competences for lifelong learning are a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes … They are particularly necessary for personal fulfilment and development, social inclusion, active citizenship and employment.’
The Key Competences agenda catalysed many other European studies that focused on digital literacy, and their importance in enabling learners to thrive in modern society. Here in the UK, we have seen work carried out by the UK digital skills taskforce, the select committee on digital skills and most notably, changes to the ICT curriculum implemented by the Secretary of State for Education. In January 2012, Michael Gove announced that the existing ICT curriculum was to be withdrawn as it was no longer fit for purpose, with a new programme to be in place in 2014. The draft of this new programme anchored the curriculum in digital practices:
‘A computing education also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves, through information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world’
The content of the new curriculum is then broken up into three main aspects: Computer science, ICT and digital literacy. The inclusion of digital literacy at the interface of policy and practice suggests a growing acknowledgement of the need to formalise provision of related skills and knowledge within compulsory education. This has certainly been echoed in the report, Make or Break? The UK’s digital future, in which the Select Committee for Digital Skills call for digital literacy to be recognised as a key skill alongside literacy and numeracy – noting that it is in itself an ‘essential tool that underpins other subjects and almost all jobs’ (2015, p.47).
So what does it mean to be digitally literate?
The first definition of digital literacy was provided by Paul Gilster and gave a very broad explanation noting that digital literacy is ‘the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers’ (1997, p.1). You will notice that Gilster does not refer to specific technologies, but rather the ability to make best use of a range of media and resources. Given the rapid pace of technological change, it can be seen that digital literacy represents a key skill in coping with these changes and embedding new technologies into existing practices in order to improve them. Later definitions become much more specific and skills-based, a good example of this is taken from the Futurelab handbook on digital literacy across the curriculum:
‘To be digitally literate is to have access to a broad range of practices and cultural resources that you are able to apply to digital tools. It is the ability to make and share meaning in different modes and formats; to create, collaborate and communicate effectively and to understand how and when digital technologies can best be used to support these processes.’
It can be seen here that this definition builds upon Gilster’s earlier work, by focusing it more towards the school environment. Creation, collaboration and communication are all key elements of learning, and in particular ones which can be easily measured within the classroom. The authors also note the importance of understanding when technology has the ability to enhance practice and also, therefore, when it doesn’t. This is key within an educational context as learning should be about the message not the medium through which it is conveyed.
There are many other definitions available, though these two provide an example which is both brief and encompassing of the range of interpretations. One thing that the DigiLit project identified, was that there is still a shortage of information to support school staff in understanding how best to integrate digital literacy into their teaching practice – despite the growing interest at policy level. To help remedy this issue, devised the following definition to give some clarity to how digital literacy translates into the classroom:
‘Digital Literacy refers to the skills, attitudes and knowledge required by educators to support learning in a digitally-rich world. To be digitally literate, educators must be able to utilise technology to enhance and transform classroom practices, and to enrich their own professional development and identity. The digitally literate educator will be able to think critically about why, how and when technology supplements learning and teaching.’
This recognises the importance for staff: first, in developing the skills to utilise technology purposefully within the classroom; second, in critiquing the underlying knowledge and attitudes that enhance their existing practices; and third, in being positive role models for the critical use of technology. What we wanted to do here was strike a balance between the broad and the specific, by offering areas of practice within which digital literacy is implemented without being prescriptive. This allows individual school staff to interpret this guidance in the most suitable way for the needs of their learners, subject and school.
Given the focus on staff development for both the KEP and my PhD, it has proven important to understand current perceptions of teacher professionalism. The current Conservative government have yet to publish any papers relating specifically to teacher professionalism, though a speech last year by the schools minister, Nick Gibb, made it clear that the new government will be continuing with their vision for education as laid out in the coalition government’s 2010 white paper The Importance of Teaching, which identifies the best teachers globally as top graduates, trained with a focus on classroom practice.
Whilst The Importance of Teaching (DfE 2010) did not explicitly present the government’s definition of professionalism for teachers, it did make repeated mention of certain characteristics from which we can infer the government’s principal interests. In particular, the paper identifies three key aspects of a professional: an academically able and high achieving individual; someone with a practical knowledge of teaching skills; and someone with a sound subject knowledge. Here we can see a continuation of the perspectives that drove policy change under the Conservative government of the 1980s. The current Conservative government views the key concern of teachers as a need to focus on practical classroom skills, rather than theoretical, pedagogic understanding. This is also demonstrated through their interest in recruiting the top performing graduates of specialist subject areas, which, it could be argued, makes the assumption that strong subject knowledge is enough to teach effectively, without taking educational and social theories of learning into consideration.
These three characteristics were further developed into a more explicit position statement, as the preamble section of the revised Teacher’s Standards.
‘Teachers make the education of their pupils their first concern, and are accountable for achieving the highest possible standards. Teachers act with honesty and integrity; have strong subject knowledge, keep their knowledge and skills as teachers up-to-date and are self-critical; forge positive professional relationships; and work with parents in the best interests of their pupils.’
The statement extends the aspects identified within the 2010 white paper, adding the notion of self critique, which builds into the government’s interest in teacher accountability; that those working within education are responsible for the development of their learners as well their own continuing professional development. This is reflected in the traditional Conservative ‘hands-off’ approach, with the government handing over more responsibility to individuals and organisations in the form of self-management.
In an attempt to create a clearer baseline of expectations for teacher’s professional conduct, the new standards themselves were reduced down to eight statements, compared to the previous sixteen in the core standards alone. These standards replaced the previous QTS and Core level standards, whilst the higher level stages were discontinued as seen unfit for purpose. Reducing the standards to one-size-fits-all guidance could be seen as an attempt to give teachers the opportunity to exercise their professional judgement more in relation to their professional conduct. However, they were seen as a backwards step by many experienced teachers, by undermining their roles and ignoring the professional accomplishments of teachers at all stages of their careers (Goodwyn 2012).
Which leads us into the third topic of this discussion. According to Helsby (1999), there are three main categories of PD for teachers: initial teacher education, continuing professional development and work-based learning. The focus of both the DigiLit project and my thesis lies in the latter two categories, concerning the on-going learning and development of in-service school staff.
In just the last year we have seen some important events unfold within CPD in the UK. Based on the findings of the OECD’s 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey, the government announced plans to intervene in teacher professional development. The TALIS survey highlighted that UK CPD was of highly variable quality and that opportunities for teachers to engage in deeper professional learning were lacking. In response, the government announced its intention to support the creation of:
- an independent College of teaching
- a new fund to support high quality, evidence-based professional development
- An online platform for knowledge sharing
- a new non-mandatory standard for teachers’ professional development.
We are still waiting on most of these, but the New Standards for Teachers’ Professional Development were released earlier this month along with guidance documentation. You can see the standards here on the screen. The accompanying documentation identifies professional development as a relationship between Leadership, Teachers and Providers of CPD. This links with Opfer and Pedder’s (2011) identification of 3 key systems involved in professional learning: the individual, the school and the activity. Leadership, Teachers and Providers can be seen as the agents of these three key systems and so the relationship, and more importantly the communication, between these groups is critical to ensuring that CPD supports positive, lasting change. In fact, overall I would say that the standards are very much in line with the leading research findings around effective CPD – what I was hoping for personally was that they would go beyond this, push the boundaries, and teach us something new about the government’s view of professional development but this was not the case.
The standards are clear and concise, which is very helpful to schools and individuals and I was happy to see that the guidance acknowledged that designing high quality CPD is a very complex process. However, I feel that for many staff, much more guidance is still needed, in order to adhere to these standards. For example, the first standard discusses a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes. In order to ensure that CPD is having an impact on pupil outcomes, professional development programmes need to be designed with impact in mind – evaluation cannot be effective if it is considered only at the end of a programme. Therefore, effective CPD needs to consider the intended outcome for pupils within the design stage of the programme and to work out how this can best be measured. Schools need to be supported in developing their evaluation of CPD and how it is built into the design of a larger professional learning strategy for the school. The second standard makes note of robust evidence – as a PhD student, I know all too well how hard it can be to find research that is relevant to your needs – where to look? how to access? how to comb through the overwhelming mass of other information? – more needs to be done to make high quality educational research easily accessible to school staff. I have considered the standards in more detail in a previous post if you would like to read further.
The DigiLit Leicester Project began in September 2012. It lasted for two years and focused on supporting secondary school teaching and teaching support staff in developing their digital literacy knowledge, skills and practice. The project had three key objectives:
- To investigate and define digital literacy, in the context of secondary school based practice;
- To identify current school staff confidence levels, and what the strengths and gaps across city schools are, in relation to this definition;
- To support staff in developing their digital literacy skills and knowledge – raising baseline skills and confidence levels across the city, and promote existing effective and innovative practice.
The project focused on those members of staff who work with learners; senior leadership with a teaching role, teachers, classroom assistants, specialist provision and library staff. The project ran in the context of Leicester City Council’s Building Schools for the Future Programme (BSF), in which 23 of the city’s secondary schools were rebuilt or refurbished. As many of the building projects were not complete until 2014/2015, the framework was designed to support staff both in new and existing buildings. While the project as a whole was designed to ensure staff have the skills and confidence to take advantage of the new infrastructure, systems and equipment the programme will provide them with, it was also designed to support staff development within existing schools, with significantly less flexibility in the use of and access to technology to support learners.
The key element of the project was the development of a digital literacy framework:
The DigiLit Leicester framework was used to create an online survey, which was carried out in both 2013 and 2014. All staff who support learning in the 23 Leicester schools were invited to complete the survey. In 2014, a total of 701 people completed the survey; that is 39% of the 1,780 eligible members of staff.
Recommendations for areas of focus and activity in work relating to the use of technology by school staff were developed in line with the strengths and gaps indicated by the 2013 survey findings. These recommendations were used to drive and frame a range of opportunities for staff and schools. Between January 2013 and September 2014, the DigiLit team led on six events and projects, and 21 school-led projects were undertaken.
The 2014 survey results contributed a clearer understanding of the current digital literacy confidence levels of secondary school staff, provided comparisons against 2013’s survey findings, and provided new recommendations.
The comparison between the 2013 and 2014 survey data showed that a statistically significant change had occurred in the levels of confidence rated in five out of the six digital literacy strand areas. However, this change in confidence ratings had not occurred at the lowest confidence level of the framework, but rather around the middle, suggesting that staff with the lowest confidence had not made as much progress as the other staff in the project.
This sparked a number of questions for me. Why had the DigiLit Leicester project, and the professional development events associated with it, supported some staff and not others? What elements of professional development had a positive impact on staff digital literacy? What impact are current professional development strategies having on staff digital literacy? Once I had found a question that I wanted to explore further, I knew that I was ready to embark on PhD study. I began by reflecting on my personal goals for the thesis, what I felt it was important to achieve:
VALUE: I want to share, and perhaps justify, my belief that Digital Literacy is critical to supporting staff in their use of technologies for all teaching and learning purposes. That through a focus on developing confidence and a general attitude towards working effectively with technology in the classroom, we can build a foundation upon which more specific educational technology skills can be developed.
VOICE: I want to create a faithful representation of the viewpoints of the staff that work alongside me. I did not begin this thesis with an answer, only questions, and it is my belief that school staff are the best placed to provide the data from which an answer can be drawn. I do not want to underestimate their knowledge and expertise in this area.
VOCATION: I want to develop something which is of practical use – rather than theory alone. This may take the shape of a policy document, a training programme, etc. Given that school staff will be volunteering their time to participate in my research, I feel that it is important for the contribution of my thesis to include a practical element which will be of value to staff.
The original aim of my research was to investigate current professional development strategies and their impact on the development of secondary school staff digital literacy. However, through my literature review and initial data collection, issues relating to professional identity and status, and how these effect expectations of professional development, have also been explored.
I am taking a grounded theory approach in order to produce a reliable interpretation of teacher voice by presenting the theory that emerges from their data, rather than imposing my personal views onto the research setting and the guiding principle behind grounded theory is that theory is emergent, rather than predefined. Grounded theory requires the researcher to be open to the possibilities of the data being collected, but it is also important to be able to identify concepts of theoretical significance so having a background in the research area, as I do, gives me an advantage, and strengthens my theoretical sensitivity. I am also working within a constructivist GT approach – which acknowledges that the theory is not generated in a vacuum separate from the data collection, but that the researcher constructs the theory through their interaction not only with the data but also with the individuals from whom the data is collected.
Within this approach, my research design is influenced by Idrees’s (2011) four-stage model of theory development, which structures grounded theory into a simplified four-stage process, suitable for PhD study, without compromising it’s guiding principles and essential elements. The model provides a scaffold, supporting the researcher in carrying out grounded theory research in a style that allows for high-level planning without affecting the flexible nature of this type of research. I felt that this approach would help me to challenge my existing research experience and knowledge, whilst maintaining an achievable study.
In the initial stage of the research, The Uncertainty Stage, a literature review is conducted in order to contextualise the study. In this case, focusing on teacher professionalism and the role of professional development, existing professional development strategies and digital literacy, each developed within the context of education. This helps with the development of a broad research question, which can then be tested through a pilot study. The primary research question will then emerge from testing of the intended methods around the research question, and engagement with research participants.
Within the next stage, The Emergence Stage, the main body of concurrent data collection and analysis begins, identifying appropriate future samples as the data are gathered. Through constant comparison of new data to that previously collected, categories begin to emerge. This stage can be seen as the key phase within the model; containing many of the essential elements of grounded theory.
Having reached the point at which a core category has emerged, and initial ideas around theory are developing, the researcher enters The Ambiguity Resolution Stage and undertakes further data collection and analysis in order to clarify any remaining areas of uncertainty. This continues until theoretical saturation is reached, which ‘occurs when in coding and analysing both no new properties emerge and the same properties continually emerge as one goes through the full extent of the data’ (Glaser 1978, p.53).
In the final stage of the research, The Maturity Stage, theoretical saturation is completed, categories are refined and the literature is revisited in order to both consolidate the theory and situate it within its wider context.
I am currently in the midst of the emergence stage, and will be spending my summer consolidating my thoughts around my main body of data collection and analysis.
I have learnt two key things during the journey from the KEP to my PhD. Firstly, the biggest shock for me throughout the transition has been the change in structure. The DigiLit Leicester project was a lot of work, in a short space of time but I had clear goals and deadlines from the very start. With the PhD there is sometimes so much openness in the direction that I can take my work that I feel very overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin. I have by no means solved the struggle of PhD study, but I learned a few things along the way. Treat your PhD like a job, give yourself set hours of study and stick to them – in particular, give your self set hours each week in which to write and stick to those, make writing a habit so that it doesn’t become something you fear (and yes, I learned that one the hard way). Set yourself milestones and try to find a method of organisation that works for you. I found very quickly that an academic planner didn’t work for me – I couldn’t get over days of empty pages when I’d be doing the same work for a few days in a row so didn’t write anything in. It has taken considerable time but I now use a bullet journal – essentially a planner made up of to do lists to organise my time as it’s more flexible which suits my PhD working style better. So I think it’s important to find a way to give yourself structure.
Secondly, I believe that relationships have been crucial throughout both projects, in particular cultivating positive relationships in the field and maintaining them. Schools are notoriously hard to engage with as a student and at the beginning of my PhD I was concerned that without the encouragement of Council funding to support me, schools would not have the incentive to participate in my work (as I know that they certainly didn’t have the time). However, I had worked hard during the DigiLit Leictester project to support as many schools and individual staff members as I was able to and those relationships have been the key to my success in recruiting participants for my research. So I think that for fellow researchers I would emphasise the importance of positive working relationships – it really is who you know – because in the educational arena, they are the people who can help you to gain access to participants for data collection. If you don’t currently have any contacts who work in a school – look at volunteering, try connecting with educators via twitter or other professional networks. Another tip that I have picked up around recruitment is to consider what you can offer the school – so if you are going to do data collection, is the data you are gathering useful to the school – could you offer to write an anonymised summary of the data for the school? or provide recommendations to the school based on what you have collected?
Gilster, P. (1997) Digital Literacy. New York: John Wiley & Sons, inc.
Glaser, B. G. (1978). Theoretical Sensitivity: Advances in the Methodology of Grounded Theory. Mill Valley, Ca.: Sociology Press.
Helsby, G. (1999) Multiple truths and contested realities: the changing faces of teacher professionalism in England. In: Day, C., Fernandez, A., Hague, T. and Møller, J. (eds) The Life and Work of Teachers. London: Falmer.
Opfer, V.D. and Pedder, D., (2011) Conceptualizing Teacher Professional Learning. Review of Educational Research, vol.81(3), pp.376–407.