Digital citizenship, firewalls and the moral compass

March 27, 2012
Phil McRae, ATA Executive Staff Officer Government
Results of a Canadian study on technology and teacher–student relationships released

How digital technologies are integrated into Canadian classrooms, how they enhance learning and what effect digital media have on teacher–student relationships are the subjects of a recent national study.

The Media Awareness ­Network (MNet) of Canada has just completed the third phase of a research project called Young Canadians in a Wired World. The results of the first two phases, ­released in 2001 and 2005, respectively, presented research on how Canadian youth engaged with the Internet and digital technologies and highlighted the gap between what teachers and parents thought children were doing online and what they actually were doing. The study was among the first to shed light on the early influences of mobile technologies on society.

What did the most recent phase of the study find?

The most recent phase of Young Canadians in a Wired World found that our impressions of students’ abilities with and knowledge of digital media are often incorrect. As a teacher from Atlantic Canada said: "I don’t think students are all that Internet-savvy. I think they limit themselves to very few tools on the Internet. They’re locked into using it in particular ways and don’t think outside the box. ... I’m always surprised at the lack of knowledge that students have about how to search and navigate online."

Another common finding was that teachers are often unable to make full use of social media in their teaching practice because firewalls prevent them from ­accessing services such as Twitter, Skype and YouTube. This is an important finding—if we are to teach students to be critical consumers and thoughtful citizens in a digital age, teachers need to be trusted to make pedagogic decisions on the application of techonology.

The study also found that young Canadians need to learn digital literacy and citizenship skills in their classrooms and schools, across grade levels and disciplines. Teachers noted that they spend little or no time teaching students how to use particular technologies; instead, they teach students how to access, understand and use content. If this is to be successful across the profession, then teachers need appropriate professional learning opportunities, digital resources, supports and conditions of ­professional practice.

The study also revealed that teachers with greater seniority give their students more freedom to take chances and to teach themselves (and each other). Many teachers acknowledged the importance of mentors in helping them bring digital media into the classroom, particularly given the shortage of PD time and resources. These findings identify a need to put more emphasis on the pedagogical experience, curricular knowledge and classroom management skills of teachers than on their age or tacit knowledge of digital technologies.

Teachers identified five main obstacles to media literacy:

1. Pressure to teach technical skills instead of digital literacy skills

2. Impulse to revert to "drill and kill" teaching methods

3. Potential for digital technologies to cause disruptions in the classroom

4. Shortage of PD opportunities to learn how to integrate digital media in the classroom

5. Internet filters and bans on personal digital devices such as tablets and smartphones

Despite the above obstacles, respondents overwhelmingly noted that digital media provide tremendous opportunities for teachers and students, as long as students can engage critically with media and consider the ethical ramifications of what they do online. As one elementary teacher put it: "The biggest skill students need is a moral compass."

Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Teachers’ Perspectives can be found at www.media-awareness.ca.