Aigner Picou, a program director at the Learning Agency Lab, spent a lot of time talking to teachers in 2020. She was part of a team researching how to build a better writing feedback tool. Think of programs that can automatically generate suggestions or scores for students based on their writing.
During those conversations, Picou started hearing teachers describe the same challenge over and over again. No matter what grade level they taught in middle or high school, teachers had students who struggled to use a digital learning platform or to type without painstaking hunt-and-pecking at the keyboard.
“It actually was such a frequent comment that I started asking the question if teachers didn’t bring it up,” Picou says. “We assume that students are digitally fluent because there’s way more technology around us than ever before. At the same time, when it comes to typing or using a platform in the learning context, a lot of times students aren’t receiving any sort of formal computer-skills training.”
Picou says it’s time to do away with the misconception that students will grasp tech tools simply because they’re growing up in a digital age. And that has changed how her own team thinks about the design of an algorithm they’ve developed.
“Tools just needed to be way more user-friendly than they were,” Picou says. “They have to be engaging—and really so easy for students to access and use, and for teachers as well.”
It turns out that students do have digital skills, but not necessarily the digital literacy they need to do their schoolwork. Sometimes what they know from using consumer sites transfer—like Zoom, for instance—but not always.
“Sometimes it’s not even that actual writing process that’s causing students the challenge. It’s the time that it takes for them to type on a keyboard because they’re not used to five-finger typing,” Picou says. “Some [teachers] have students who have written full essays on their phones.”
There’s a difference in the way students use a device to scroll through YouTube videos versus understanding the information delivered in a lesson, Picou adds. The first is passive, and the other requires careful engagement.
One teacher running an asynchronous class reported that some students did fine until it was time for a quiz, where they would score a zero.
Students may think they can scroll through and read a question for a test or quiz quickly, as they do with other tools, Picou says. “It’s almost like the way I would scroll through Instagram.”
That’s something that Josh Flaherty can attest to in his classroom at Community Lab School, part of the Albemarle County Public Schools system in Virginia. In addition to serving as the high school’s lead teacher and IB coordinator, he teaches math.
“This idea that kids, especially high-school-age kids, are digital natives and can easily learn digital tools, that’s largely not borne out by evidence,” Flaherty says. Yes, they can play video games or use social media, he adds, “but they’re not necessarily good at things they’re not familiar with.”
Flaherty says students are willing to figure out problems that pop up with learning platforms on their own. When the pandemic pushed classes online, he says, they figured out how to group chat on Zoom with friends who were in different classes. But that level of dedication only transfers to lessons if they’re interested in the topic.
His school district has a one-to-one device policy, so students get a laptop on the first day of school once they enter sixth grade. Even with that boost to students’ digital literacy, he still steers clear of any tech tool that requires a lot of orientation upfront. Flaherty says students need a low bar to entry so they can dive right into the activity.
“The more front-loading you have, the more interest you have to have,” Flaherty says. “That’s where the teaching comes in, designing activities that are interesting to them—that have a place for student voice and student choice.”
Helping Teachers Help Students
In the International Literacy Association’s “What’s Hot in Literacy” report published in 2020, 49 percent of literacy professionals said they wanted more professional development on “using digital resources to support literacy instruction.” That surprised the researchers, who also reported that professionals were split over whether digital literacy was receiving the appropriate amount of attention: 26 percent felt it deserved less attention, while 25 percent felt it should get more.
For her part, Picou says her conversations with educators show that a digital tool’s usefulness goes beyond the interface. After all, there’s no value in giving feedback on writing if students can’t understand it.
One of the particularly determined teachers Picou spoke to tried out a writing platform that gave users no grading rubric. The teacher went through 90 revisions before she got a perfect score.
A key question to ask, Picou says, is How does the tool respond to students? “If they’re working in this tool that has a score, and there’s no explanation on how to get a higher score, it can be super demotivating.”