A 21st-century educational system requires the effective and authentic use of the digital technologies that permeate society to prepare them for the future — for both students and teachers. For educators, understanding how best to utilise these digital technologies in our work is central to our collective future.
While there has been a significant focus on how we can assist learners to become proficient in these things, the emphasis on assisting educators to embed these new and digital literacies into their personal work processes has not always featured as strongly.
Digital fluency is the term most recently embraced by the New Zealand Ministry of Education to describe the state of being fully ‘at ease’ with digital technologies, demonstrating the technical, social, legal, and moral understandings that enable individuals to be successful and safe in a digital world. This concept is illustrated further in the diagram below:
The progression from proficiency to fluency is characterised by the development of knowledge, skills, and understanding familiar to most educators. The first level involves activity to ‘fill the gaps’ in one’s level of personal skill and knowledge (e.g. learning how to use software or manage devices etc.), resulting in what might be referred to as digital proficiency.
At the next level (digital literacy) the user is likely to be applying these skills with understanding, ‘consciously competent’ in terms of the actions and decisions being made.
The goal of digital fluency is characterised by the notion of ‘unconscious competence’, where everyday activity involving digital technologies is ‘assumed’ and undertaken as a matter of course, without conscious effort or decisions.
As educators, we need to be concerned about the opportunities we are creating for our learners to achieve this ‘state of being’, but equally, it needs to be something that we are also striving to achieve within our own professional (and personal) lives.
In the hectic world of schools and classrooms it can often be difficult to find the time to work on these things. The four suggestions below provide a starting point for educators to work towards being digitally fluent in their work:
1. Create and curate your digital identity
The concept of a digital identity is something that many educators will be familiar with as part of a cyber-safety programme for our learners. But, how seriously do we take it for ourselves? As educators, we spend a lot of time being concerned about the way we conduct ourselves in front of our students and parents, including the way we dress, the things we say, and the way we say them. We consider such things as important in presenting ourselves as professionals — but how much of this carries over into our online activity, and the digital identity that others know us by there? While many of us have accounts on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, for example, there is often little or no consistency in the way we present ourselves in these contexts. Even more, there is often a greater inconsistency between the way we present ourselves in these spaces and how we’re known “in the real world”.
A digital identity is something that you ought to be cultivating with as much care as your face-to-face persona. Failing to do so will mean that how you’re portrayed online will be the product of what others are saying about you and how they interact with you (and you with them). When someone searches for you online, that’s what they’ll find; instead of the digital identity that you’ve taken as much care to create and curate as you do in your physical life.
Take some time to consider carefully how you prefer to be known online — what image(s) will you use for your profiles, and what things will you say about yourself. It’s worth making a bullet point list of these things and keeping them safe on your computer so you can refer to them when setting up (or editing) your profile in the various sites you are a member of. Aim for consistency.
Some people make the mistake of thinking they can create both personal and professional spaces, keeping the activity within them separate (e.g. Facebook for family and LinkedIn for work), and while this can be a useful way of distinguishing between what you’ll use the spaces for, remember that in the online world both are equally discoverable, so your identity needs to be considered and well managed — as does the activity you engage in in these spaces. Many have been caught out posting criticisms of colleagues or making socially inappropriate comments on what they consider to be a ‘personal’ space without understanding this.
Take control and develop the digital identity you wish to be known by.
2. Manage your digital workflow
Information overload and the loss of important digital information are two concerns for many educators, but these can become an excuse for avoiding many forms of digital behaviour.
The promise of digital technologies has always been that they would make things easier and less time consuming, yet, for many educators, that promise appears to be a long way off. A significant problem here has been that much of the time our use of technology is rather haphazard and unconnected, focusing on the use of a range of discrete and apparently unrelated applications.
The key here is to take control of and manage your digital workflow. In just the same way as a physical office has procedures and routines that create efficiencies in the way information is organised, stored, and managed, the same should apply in the digital world.
A good starting place is to do a stocktake of the digital tools and environments you use and consider…
- Are your digital tools and environments your primary way of working? (…or, are you duplicating much of what you do in both the digital and analogue world?)
- Are you fully exploiting the opportunities that digital tools and environments offer through their integration capability that often saves time and duplication of effort? (…or, do you have multiple tools for similar purposes, none of which are able to share data between them?)
- Are you using ‘the cloud’ to its full potential as the place to go for applications and environments to work in, and for storing, managing, and sharing your digital files? (…or, are you still tied to using the applications on your personal device, and managing and storing your files there also?)
If you answered yes to each of the above, then chances are you are managing your digital workflow effectively, but if not, then you might like to consider changes to how you work.
For a long time we’ve been led to believe that we need to have “our computer”, and we use an installed application to create, manipulate, and save files on our machines. While this has been the way of the past, it becomes problematic when we work from multiple locations, or when our computer crashes and all of our applications and files are lost. It is now far less important what device we use — in fact, most people now use multiple devices to access, create, and manage their files. We need to think more about working in ‘the cloud’, where our applications and files can be accessed and managed from anywhere, on any device, and by any number of people that we may care to share them with. Whether you live on the Google world or the Microsoft 365 world, you can now use a cloud-based Word suite of applications for writing and planning, for all of your presentations, and for all of your spread sheet or publishing needs.
Transitioning to working in a cloud-based environment offers the following advantages:
- Your work is automatically backed up and less likely to be lost if your personal device crashes.
- The cloud-based applications provide a high degree of integration, so that files and data created in one area can be easily transferred into another — and, in many cases, automatically, so that an update you make in one area automatically flows through to another.
- You can work much more easily, both individually and collaboratively with colleagues and learners, from anywhere, at any time, and on any device.
3. Build your personal learning network (PLN)
As educators, we are all connected to other individuals or groups that assist us to keep current and grow in our professional knowledge. This may include more experienced educators who mentor us in our work, or members of a professional group such as a subject teachers’ association, for instance. In the digital world, our ability to expand and enhance this professional learning network is multiplied many times over.
Our memberships of sites may include Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Skype etc., along with our subscriptions to various blogs and curated spaces such as Scoop. They provide ways of connecting to people and resources that provide valuable sources of new ideas and information, along with opportunities to collaborate on a scale not previously imagined.
This is one reason why creating and curating a digital identity is so important. As you participate in these many environments, the people you interact and connect with will know you through what you say about yourself, what you share in these environments, and how you share it. In the online world, you have the opportunity to connect directly with the authors of books and papers that you have read, to participate in forums and groups exploring the ideas that they have written about, and to engage with them in forming or developing new ideas or insights.
Developing a professional learning network (PLN) won’t occur by serendipity, however. It takes a little planning and conscious effort.
Some ideas for getting started include:
- Set up a Twitter account and ‘follow’ some of the educators you know or have read about. Ask some friends for their recommendations. Start small and build your list of connections over time. Use an application such as Tweetdeck to monitor the ‘tweets’ you follow, and keep track of any direct messages or mentions you may get.
- Next time you find out about a conference or event that you think might be interesting, find out what its Twitter ‘hashtag’ is, and set up a column in Tweetdeck where you can follow the interactions from people who are attending the event. Use this as an opportunity to identify and ‘follow’ some of these people to expand your PLN.
- Set up a Scoop.it account and search for and subscribe to the ‘scoops’ of some others that you’d like to follow. Scoop.it offers a useful notification process that will let you know by email when there are new items added to the ‘scoops’ you are following.
- Subscribe to the blog feeds of educators (and other thought leaders) you find worthwhile. Most blogs will provide an email notification of new posts, so you don’t have to keep revisiting the blog to find when something new is posted.
As you establish and monitor activity in these environments, use the opportunity to identify the connections you’d find value in adding to your network.
Become a digitally fluent educator
The ideas outlined above may require some time to begin with, to simply become familiar with the new skills or knowledge to operate in the environment, or understand how they work (digital proficiency). More time is required to become familiar enough to apply them with understanding in your own context (digital literacy), so that, over time, fluency will develop and this sort of activity becomes part of ‘the way we do things’ in all schools and classrooms.