Digital literacy: The role of teachers

First published here:

Photo courtesy Digital Equalizer programme

In India, teachers have traditionally pushed textbook knowledge at students. Digital technologies, in contrast, require teachers and students to pull and process information themselves, limiting pedagogical use of ICTs. Should ICTs in schools then be introduced when there is a demand from teachers, and not be pushed in by the creators of technology? This article explores the possible consequences of a less-than-thoughtful introduction of ICT into our public schools in the name of digital inclusion.

Literacy, digital or otherwise, can be potentially empowering only if it serves to inform, educate and raise critical awareness. Given that so far the nation has failed its most disadvantaged children by not ensuring their right to education and literacy, advocacy for large-scale introduction of information and communication technology (ICT) in education must be examined from many angles. Discussing the situation of ICT and education in Nepal, Shields (2011) argues, “While the discourse surrounding technology and development appears lofty and idealistic, on closer inspection there are many unanswered questions and perhaps fundamental flaws in its reasoning.”

Like the English language, the use of the internet too seems to be a marker of privilege. Initial discourse around the internet celebrated its potential to democratise the sharing of information, but “this was not the trajectory of the net in India, where it arrived, as with most technological imports, as a part of elite, expensive technology, available only to a select few…” (Jayaram 2006). Analogous to the demand for English-medium education, the clamour for ICT-enabled education (“computer education” in everyday parlance) seems to arise more from a desire to acquire the symbols of privilege than for truly educative purposes.

On the other hand, arguments about the need for ICT in education coming from the state must also be treated with a degree of scepticism. Many of these arguments arise from the nation-state’s perceived need for skilled workers who can deal with the new technologies and produce the low-end bits and pieces required to make the ICT devices rather than for truly educative purposes.

A third set of arguments about the need for ICT (in) education arise from poorly substantiated claims about the educational efficacy of ICTs. Even in countries where the use of ICTs in education is more prevalent and better studied, research has yet to produce any definitive, replicable findings on its benefits. For example, in an extensive study of technology in Californian schools, Cuban (2001: 133) found “no clear and substantial evidence of students increasing their academic achievement as a result of using information technologies”, and ultimately concluded that “the investment of billions of dollars over the last decade has yet to produce worthy outcomes”. Other studies have found that any benefits associated with ICT are highly contingent upon how technology is used and that effects vary greatly according to age, gender and socioeconomic status (Attewell and Battle 1999; Wenglinsky 1998). This paper will examine some of these complex issues related to teaching and the possible consequences of a less-than-thoughtful introduction of ICT in our public schools in the name of digital inclusion.

Teachers in Indian classrooms are often perplexed about how they should change their pedagogical strategies in order to retain students’ attention and remain relevant in the age of information overload. Traditional teaching continues to rely on the prescribed textbook. The textbook may be prescribed by the state or central boards of school education or, in the case of private schools, they may have been prescribed by the school authorities. Teachers do not choose the textbook that they would use in their classrooms. Krishna Kumar‘s description of “textbook culture” described the dominant role played by the textbook in school classrooms (Kumar 1988). Schooling is structured around the study of the prescribed textbooks and examinations conducted on their basis. The term “textbook culture” signifies not only this control on “products of learning” but also includes the regulating effect of textbooks on what transpires within the classroom between teachers and pupils and on the process of learning itself (Sarangapani 2003: 124). Clarke (2001: 102) spoke about the teachers’ own acceptance of the textbook as important in instruction and wrote that the primacy of textbooks was unambiguous for them.

Vijaysimha (2010) described how teachers primarily taught in order that students would be able to write the expected answers to questions based on the lessons in the textbook. Teachers transacted the lessons in such a way that even while they were elucidating the lesson, they verbally emphasised the key information that the students would be expected to remember. The verbal emphasis was further reinforced by catechism-like questioning wherein the students chorused this information in response to the teacher‘s questions. Questions were then written on the board and answers to these were also written on the board for students to copy, memorise and reproduce at the time of examinations. The main objective of the lesson was to transmit the content of the lessons as presented in the textbook and teachers did not critically examine textbook content and did not expect students to engage with the textbooks directly. Teachers treated textual information as something that they needed to read out and explain to students and did not seem to consider students capable of working independently with the textbooks.

As Clarke (2001: 56) wrote, “… teachers accept it (the textbook) without conflict as the basic and possibly only tool for instruction.” Further, teachers explicitly managed the ways in which students used their textbooks within the classroom. This tendency to direct students’ use of textbooks cut across school types. Teachers from government schools, private schools, as well as teachers in international schools gave explicit instructions for the use of the textbook within the classroom. All the observed teachers preferred to control the flow of information and did not expect students to read the textbooks and process information for themselves. In the case of the government high school classrooms, where teachers had the students read out from the textbook, they invariably paraphrased the text. The implicit belief here was that as teachers their role was to mediate between the textbook and the student (Vijaysimha 2010). The underlying assumption behind the textbook-based pedagogy followed in our schools is that textbooks contained authorised information that does not need to be critically examined and that the teacher’s role is to help students become conversant with important bits of information. The importance of various bits of content is decided by the emphasis given to these in the examinations and its ultimate relevance or lack of it is not for the teachers or students to decide. Teachers defend their unquestioning acceptance of textbook content by saying that writers of textbooks must have checked their information and based it on the syllabus guidelines provided by the examination boards.

Teachers do not perceive themselves as members of a scholarly community who “must understand the structures of subject matter, the principles of conceptual organisation and the principles of inquiry…” (Shulman 1987). If teachers do not transcend the textbook by their own admission (Vijaysimha 2013) and mostly prefer to control the information flow from textbook to students, then their discomfort with ICT usage can be expected.

In the present situation, one often hears teachers complain about how students are no longer interested in what is being taught in the classroom. With students having access to information through various media, teachers no longer feel confident in their role as sole dispensers of information. The related aspect to be considered is teachers’ capabilities to use ICT in truly educative ways. The problem of teachers’ use of ICT-facilitated pedagogies has at least three aspects—teachers’ capabilities to use technology; the uncritical adoption of ICT mediation in education; and finally, teachers’ beliefs and perceptions about children from marginalised groups.

At the basic level, many teachers themselves do not have sufficient access to ICT to be able to use it with a great deal of confidence. Even where schools have embraced such technology through the use of smart boards and other devices, the actual use of these in the classroom needs to be studied, both in terms of how these tools are being used and the purposes for which they are being used. In a study about teachers’ use of smart boards in a private school it was found that 40% of the teachers used the boards just once or twice a week, 20% used them more frequently, and 20% preferred not to use them at all. Teachers’ competency to operate computers may be an important barrier to their adoption of ICT for teaching. Lack of suitable content, unfamiliarity with technology, and issues related to language were cited for teachers’ preference for conventional teaching strategies. Discussions and observations of Class 6 students indicated that chalk-board interaction was preferred by students because it allowed a two-way communication during class and the teacher could explain in the vernacular languages, unlike the smart class setup (Vijaysimha and Umesh unpublished). This study supports this conclusion: “The need for teachers’ professional development is clear, but enabling teachers to adapt their pedagogical reasoning and practices in response to learning opportunities provided by ICT is likely to be a very difficult and complex process” (Webb and Cox 2004).

The prevalent pedagogical culture does not encourage teachers or students to pursue lines of inquiry and critically examine the information that is now easily available through different digital media. The veracity of this information is not subject to scrutiny. Even those who do not have direct access to the internet are at the receiving end of a lot of mediatised information in the form of advertisements, videos and social media content. Information “goes viral” and very few receivers have the necessary dispositions and skills to sift through the content and decide about the validity and significance of the information that is pushed at them. When it comes to schools, teachers who accept textbook content uncritically are quite likely to accept content on the internet without questioning the sources and quality of information that is shared. The internet has become a tool for the spread of hyper-nationalist propaganda that is probably responsible for the rise in sectarian tension and violence. In the absence of education that promotes rational thinking and dispassionate analysis, digital communication can easily lend itself to cynical manipulation by vested interests. While “new” media such as the internet has enabled modes and query that are unavailable in mainstream print and television, a study by Chattarji (2009) provides examples of the ways in which prejudices are circulated and normalised online. The sources and quality of content that is made available for educational purposes through the use of smart boards or other devices bypasses the checks and controls that regulate state-produced textbooks. Digital content that is used for educational purposes needs to be examined and analysed and processes of critical review instituted before sanguinary measures to promote digital inclusion are up-scaled.

Thirdly, there is ample evidence that teachers in many countries subscribe to a deficit model regarding the learning abilities of children from marginalised groups. Teachers in Bengaluru also employed a deficit model for explaining the lower achievement of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Teachers’ explicitly stated beliefs about their students showed that they viewed these students as deficient in many of the skills, attitudes, and prior knowledge required to do well in science, math or English. These teachers felt that the students in government schools in the city could not be expected to score well in these subjects. The deficit model used to explain the low levels of school achievement of the underprivileged children in government schools and private schools absolved the school or teachers of any complicity in the students’ underachievement and placed the blame on the students, their parents, and their communities. In this view, the students were seen as not having the needed personal and family resources required to succeed. The views held by the teachers about students reflected widely-held stereotypes that children from the lower social class/caste groups lack the capacity or “merit” to perform well in high prestige subjects like mathematics, science and English (Vijaysimha 2010). Teachers’ beliefs seem to act like self-fulfilling prophecies, for these were the subjects that had a greater proportion of failures among the disadvantaged groups. It is highly likely that teachers would extend such notions to learning from and about computers in the case of underserved children and thus perpetuate the digital divide even if equitable access to technology is provided.

The CCDS studies show that access to ICT is far from equitable and that the most marginalised have the least access. However, when it comes to education and digital literacy, access alone cannot ensure equitable outcomes. “A critical step toward that end will be transforming teaching and learning in schools. Among school laptop programmes, for example, the most successful in achieving positive outcomes for all students have clear and well-designed learning and literacy objectives; they are educational reform programmes involving laptops, rather than technology programmes per se” (Warschauer et al 2010: 179–225). Several studies indicate that the spread of digital technology is inequitable in terms of access to hardware as well as content (Haseloff 2005; Kamath and Kumar 2017). Unsurprisingly, inability to access content and networks based on the English language has marginalised sections of the urban poor (Kamath and Kumar 2017). Parallel to this is the phenomenon of internet addiction and usage that is considered less than healthy (Kamath and Kumar 2017), again indicating that mere access to ICT devices is not sufficient to make claims about the advantages of digital literacy.

Differences in communication media/technology make differing demands on the user. “Unlike print, radio and television, which are described as ‘push technology’, that is they push content to the media consumer, the internet is characterised as ‘pull technology’, with the consumer required to seek and obtain information. The ability to access content on the internet hence calls for a different set of technical and cognitive skills. These include the ability to go beyond linearity and handle navigational structures of varying complexities, to process messages, to take advantage of interactivity to participate in the process of information production, dissemination, and make use of the choices available to enhance the user experience. Lack of experience in this kind of decision-making environment can make media access extremely frustrating… Thus for accessing content online one needs skills going beyond mere literacy…” (Jayaram 2006: 305).

This insightful analysis of ICT in the context of journalism is clearly relevant to education. Textbooks, presentations and videos function like media based on push technology and these are the ones used by teachers. Teachers explicitly talk of pushing content into students’ heads while describing their role and functions. The unfamiliar demands of “pull technology” coupled with language issues offer a partial explanation for teachers’ limited pedagogical use of ICT. Active learners, on the other hand, would seek out information and are more likely to take advantage of pull technologies. Ideally, teachers should promote active learning and work with students to help them sift through information, check for validity, make inferences and develop arguments. This is what good teaching is all about and what education should focus on. ICT can be an accessory in the process, since it facilitates idea exchange and discussion in multiple formats. ICT usage by itself cannot be seen as a goal of education.

Mobile phones with internet have made it easy for voice, text and images to be circulated or pushed. There is one crucial way in which mobile phones differ from the older media like print, radio or television. With the older technologies, the means of producing text/visuals for dissemination was available to a limited set of people, but mobile phone technology allows a much larger number of people to produce these texts/images for circulation… in a way further democratising communication. Young people quickly develop easy familiarity with the new technologies, but “… there is still a great deal that these youth have to learn about how to process the information that they are inundated with via these new portals of information. They also need to develop the skills to be able to create information that can be shared via websites, digital photographs and film, and online journal spaces like weblogs (blogs). All of these methods of accessing, processing, and disseminating information can be loosely associated under the umbrella of 21st-century literacies” (Morell 2012: 301). In other words, digital literacies need to be developed, in addition to traditional literacies. This means that digital media studies will need to find a place in institutions of higher education, especially those that are engaged with teacher education. Simultaneously, teachers will need to be equipped first to develop into humane and knowledgeable professionals, and secondly into digitally literate citizens themselves.

If precious educational budgets are to be wisely utilised, it must be towards preparation and support of teachers—let ICT in schools be introduced based on demand from teachers, and not be pushed in by the creators of technology. This need not be interpreted as a statement against the use of ICT in/for education. The suggestion that teachers should pull ICT into their classrooms implies that educational demand for ICT should be created. ICT and its affordances cannot be ignored by educationists for the reasons cited above and for many other reasons not discussed in this essay. However, the onus is on the education community to respond adequately to the requirements of society for digital literacy. Young people are being shaped by the new technologies, but they can also use the new technologies to shape the world into a better place. As educators, we have to take responsibility to help shape the vision of a better society and help our youth use technology to actualise that vision.

Indira Vijaysimha is Associate Professor at the School of Education, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. She is also the founder of Poorna, a trust that manages an alternative school in Bengaluru.


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