Students struggle with digital skills because their teachers lack confidence


young student with laptop

Australian teenagers are increasingly struggling to achieve the basic level required in information and communications technology (ICT). In 2014, only around half (52%) of students in Year 10 achieved the minimum standard of digital competence.

Examples of where students struggled include: searching for relevant resources on the internet; using a web browser history; creating tables and charts; sorting data in a spreadsheet; displaying hidden toolbars; inserting images; changing font formats and colours; and using animations and page transitions effectively.

There is a risk that a large proportion of students may be left behind, at a time when digital competence is becoming central to future employment.

Why are students struggling?

When the Australian curriculum was introduced, digital competence was seen as a skill that all teachers from Foundation to Year 10 level (not only those with an ICT specialisation) were expected to use. This includes the use of a range of digital tools, teaching digital technologies in their classes and being aware of how these technologies can be used for teaching and learning.

A digital technologies strand has since been endorsed in the curriculum, further emphasising the importance of teaching school students digital competence.

Research shows that one reason students could be falling down is actually to do with teachers’ lack of competence in this area.

Many Australian teachers feel they lack the level of digital competence envisaged to deliver the curriculum.

We need more explicit teaching of digital competence through professional development for teachers. This is also important in teacher education programs.

Not only are school leavers entering university with lower-than-desired digital competence, but if they graduate as teachers and still lack the confidence to properly incorporate ICT into their classes, the next generation is less likely to become digitally competent. There is a risk of fuelling a downward spiral.

Digital test needed for teachers?

The parallels with teacher numeracy and literacy levels are striking.

Literacy and numeracy tests are being introduced for teacher registration as a result of perceived low literacy and numeracy levels among school students.

However, NAPLAN data suggests that, at Year 9, the percentage of students reaching minimum standards are 92% for reading, 80.5% for writing and 95.7% for numeracy. These rates are much higher than for digital competence.

If we are to follow that path, digital competence tests should also be required for teacher registration.

Universities need to embed the explicit teaching of digital competence into teacher education courses.

Similar to many language and literacy programs run at universities, Monash offers opt-in sessions on topics from how to use an electronic whiteboard to augmented reality. Each session includes hands-on, direct instruction, with examples of how these can be integrated into every subject in primary and secondary school.

Only through an embedded and explicit approach can we strive to increase the minimum standard in digital competencies above the current 52%.

Author Bios: Amber McLeod is a Lecturer in Education and Kelly Carabott is an Assistant Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University