How important is teachers’ digital literacy?

  • How important is teachers’ digital literacy?

Does it matter if an RE teacher can’t create a digital spreadsheet and should every English specialist be able to code? In other words, is a lack of digital literacy likely to reduce someone’s standard of teaching in today’s world, whatever his or her subject – or do we risk being distracted from core pedagogical skills by focusing on faddy technology?

A survey carried out earlier this year by Microsoft and subject association Computing At School, (CAS) revealed two-thirds of teachers were worried their students knew more about computing than they did and more than eight out of 10 wanted more training after the first term of teaching the subject, introduced last September.

The figures were in sync with a separate poll of students, also carried out by Microsoft and CAS and published in January 2015, which showed more than half thought they knew more than their teachers about aspects of computing such as programming and creating websites.

Investment issues

The new computing curriculum has three strands, computer science, information technology and digital literacy; within this, coding is an element. One year on from its introduction, information gathered by software company MapR Technologies and released last month has found massive inconsistencies in how much schools are investing in training their teachers to deliver this element.

One in three schools (34 per cent) admit to spending nothing extra on teacher training for coding in the past year while in contrast, nearly one in four schools (22 per cent) has spent over £3,000, 11 per cent spent between £100 and £500 and 33 per cent spent between £500 and £1,000.

The number of teachers trained also varied. One in ten schools say they have trained no teachers at all while just over a third (34 per cent) have trained one to two teachers and more than half (51 per cent) have trained three to four teachers while 11 per cent have trained five to six teachers.

The new figures point to a massive gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ when it comes to access to technology skills – skills which are much needed, because while the new computing curriculum is not a ‘coding’ curriculum, software development is one of the top five most in-demand jobs globally and the number of students aiming for careers in the industry has fallen. It was to bridge that gap that the government launched the ‘Year of Code’ last year aimed at teaching Year 1 how to code while by Key Stage 3 pupils were expected to be proficient in more than two programming languages.

“Last year the government pledged £3.5 million on new curriculum training,” explains Paul Tarantino, director at MapR Technologies. “But this information shows that it’s simply not being filtered down so that every young person has a trained teacher. “It’s shocking to see such a huge discrepancy in what was said in the run up to the election compared with what these promises have translated to on the ground.”

Training ground

Aside from coding, training teachers to be digitally literate is something Helen Mathieson, an ex secondary head teacher and currently interim CEO of a multi-academy trust in Wiltshire believes in strongly, insisting that all teaching professionals need to have “high-level skills in digital literacy”.

“Every aspect of teaching and learning is embedded in the ability to use technology to enhance understanding and broaden horizons,” she says, adding, “Any teacher who is not digitally literate would suffer by comparison in terms of the reactions, responses and engagement of the students.”

Helen doesn’t believe government intervention is the answer to teachers’ digital literacy. “I think it is an area that must spring from the profession, the other sectors and from the industry – specifically, though, it must be a priority for trainers,” she observes. And she maintains there are no major financial implications to insisting on a basic standard of digital literacy for all teachers. “Other than the cost of inclusion in the teaching qualification course i.e. the cost of ensuring the trainers are trained,” she clarifies.

But, other than from BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) Helen agrees there is very little support available at the moment for schools and teachers to help them promote digital literacy for all staff members. “Those schools partnered with universities or with high level industry will have the ability to exploit that partnership but other than that the only resource will be from the schools’ budgets and those are shrinking,” she explains. “Already, there is a huge shortfall in the budgets available to renew hardware – look at the difficulties which are being experienced by those campuses built in the last eight years or so – all the IT systems technology went in at the same time and it’s now all obsolete, but who has the kind of money to renew and refresh?” she asks.

Looking to the future, Helen thinks that teachers’ digital literacy should be a base requirement in terms of qualification, “but more importantly, there is a need for an ongoing refresh qualification, easily accessed and recorded for CVs.”

Classroom reality

Interestingly, Helen’s wish for all teachers to be digitally literate may be starting to become a reality. Newly qualified teacher at an Inner London school, Sadie Philips, says digital literacy among trainee teachers is high on the agenda. “Not only can you expect dedicated computing curriculum modules, lectures and coursework but you’ll also be assessed on your ability to utilise technology in the classroom during formal lesson observations,” she points out. “It’s a big focus, with emphasis on promoting e-safety and how to make the most of technology in the classroom to engage children and enhance learning.”

Looking forwards, Sadie believes all secondary school teachers should possess a range of skills to deal with the digital age. “Twenty-first century literacy has evolved, with a broader range of devices such as smart phones and tablets that give way to different forms of expression and levels of interaction. A digitally literate teacher will possess a range of skills to navigate this connected world and have knowledge of the basic principles of computing devices and networks, as well as cyber security and looking after your digital footprint.”

And like Helen, Sadie believes that being digitally literate is an absolute necessity for today’s teachers, particularly when it come to keeping their students safe. “Teachers with a lack of digital literacy risk getting left behind if they don’t at least make an effort to keep up with advances,” she warns. “I think it’s important to embrace new technology and harness its potential in the classroom. The ability to find information on Google and evaluate its usefulness is far less important than instilling technological savviness.

“Children may well be technical experts with all the latest gadgets, but most are utterly naive about the potential consequences of social connections and interactions via the web. Helping young children keep safe in this ever-evolving, interconnected world has to be of paramount importance and if you lack the basic ability to engage in online communities and social networks, you run the risk of failing to teach children how to stay safe online.

“I believe digital literacy should be a regular feature on every school’s CPD agenda. The CAS network, backed by Microsoft, Google, BT and BCS The Chartered Institute for IT offers a broad range of training and practical advice for implementing the new computing curriculum and it also offers certification for those wishing to have their experience recognised.”

Moreover, Sadie believes being digitally savvy may also help teachers. “Digital literacy is something that needs to be embedded across the whole curriculum and enforced through regular CPD sessions,” she insists. “If you’ve got a bright young spark on the teaching team thirsty for some responsibility, assign them the task of keeping everyone updated about digital advances. Schools could (and should) run their own practical sessions in-house.”

As for the future, Sadie is enthusiastic about its digital opportunities. “Imagine the potential within the classroom – virtual tours of the pyramids with Google earth; regular Skype conversations with another class of children in Ghana; having a film screening for a movie, directed, produced and edited by children ... The possibilities are endless!”

Start here

Ashley Godfrey, Head of Computer Science and ICT at Hazelwick School, Crawley has some tips for teachers who are less than confident when it comes to the digital universe:

  • Invigorate the students’ learning experience by shaking up what you do on a lesson by lesson basis. Apply the skills you have in PowerPoint to other pieces of software to create ‘talking points’ and ‘springboards’ within the classroom.
  • Whilst remembering your own personal digital footprint, don’t be scared of social media – digital literacy is about the ability to participate in the digital age and safely bring social media into the classroom.
  • Follow key people on social media! If you’re on Facebook and Twitter as often as I am, following influential speakers and teachers can lead to some great lesson ideas and resources.
  • Look at the apps available to work alongside your daily routine and to manage your busy workflow.
  • Use online forums and communities to gather ideas and resources. Look all around the world – the ‘world wide web’ doesn’t limit us to the UK and if it works somewhere else it might just work here as well.
  • Be an advocate for good practice; have a well-structured and organised e-learning page and use it! If your school doesn’t have e-learning then look into free collaborative working sites and use them in the classroom.


Jon Buttriss is the CEO, BCS Learning & Development Ltd, The Chartered Institute for IT