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K9 ate my homework: Digital illiteracy in the classroom

Over the past decade, I’ve been helping others make the most of technology. Helping folks to be more confident with digital tools. So by the time my eldest child started pawing at my phone and iPad, I took a keen interest in how he did it. I promised myself then, that I’d pass to my kids, a level of digital literacy that enables them to be confident with technology today and in the future. Since my boy has started school, I have to trust the teachers to carry on what I’ve started. However, I have some doubts. Doubts that arise each time I come to help him with his ‘online’ homework. This is set fortnightly via Moodle, the open source Virtual Learning Environment and I can guarantee that each time we sit down at the computer, there is something amiss. Inappropriate, archaic resources, proprietary software and broken links to name but a few of the obstacles we have to navigate just to get the task done. I wondered if it’s just me being overly picky or whether there might be more widespread issues?

I spoke with fellow parent, Bev Dunn who runs a volunteer homework club for a few of the children. This, however, is not your standard homework club. This club is scheduled every Wednesday to coincide with the Moodle homework. It seems i’m not alone with my Moodle woes. Bev tackles the problem by accessing Moodle as a group, therefore collectively signalling errors and problems as they go. “A lot of the time, Moodle gets in the way of the children completing their homework. They just want to get it done and not have to find ways to complete it.” She adds, “Most of the learning resources they add on there are external anyway which makes me question why do we even use it?“ Bev sees Moodle as a learning resource in itself, and not a very good one. Of course, Moodle is merely the online environment in which students and teachers engage and access content. Part of the problem, it seems, is how Moodle has been sold to schools and how it can be used effectively.

Head of ICT at another school, Drew Buddie is an enthusiastic Moodle evangelist who thinks teachers don’t make the best use of the platform. “One of the best features of Moodle is the forums where teachers and students can actually engage and collaborate.” He points out that “Too many schools use Moodle simply as a place to store files.”

Moodle can be utilised in many different ways and a definition of the platform can be tricky. Also, It can take a degree of creativity to get the most out of it. Perhaps it shouldn’t be seen or sold as a one stop shop for online learning. In the right hands, and with enough time it has been proven to be an outstanding platform. But not all places of learning have either the expertise or time to make it work. Furthermore, the platform has been around for nearly a decade and it’s starting to show it’s age.

Rob Sharl teaches design and user experience at Birmingham City University and feels that design and ‘user experience’ are often neglected when it comes to online educational tools. Amazon, he argues, is the kind of online experience that teachers and learners should receive as standard. User recommendations, one-click purchases, multiple levels of reviews… I agree! The ‘Amazon experience’ is proven to bring people back time and time again. “Why are all other online experiences evolving while we’re stuck with Moodle? The tools we use to augment teaching and learning should be invisible allowing us to simply teach and learn.” Rob has introduced a service called MiniGroup to his lessons. An online collaboration platform which allows him and his students to share content, communicate and collaborate with ease. It’s not free or open source like Moodle but it works!

Perhaps there is this growing trend amongst Higher Education educators who are seeking alternative ways to ensure their learners keep up with the ever changing digital world. Karl Hodge teaches digital journalism at Leeds Met. He has chosen to use Google apps instead of Moodle with his students. “Moodle hasn’t evolved much in the past eight years and it has been overtaken by more UX based collaborative services.” he adds, “Also, most educators aren’t developers. They don’t have time to experiment with platforms.”

Perhaps the trend is apparent at primary and secondary levels too thanks to the Drew Buddies of this world and Lisa Stevens, a primary language educator and consultant from Birmingham. Lisa is one of a growing number of digital advocates within education who uses social media to share best practise and new ideas. She mentions Teachmeet as a good example of what can happen. Teachmeet is a group of teachers and educators that have got together to share ideas on and offline. “Once people attend a Teachmeet, they’re sold; it’s persuading them to give up their evening to attend.” However, she tells me we may have some way to go. “I still see ICT in the classroom as an excuse, more of a ‘babysitter’ and this needs to change.” Lisa also warns about ‘device time’. “Children don’t write as much using pen and paper, and that will always be an important skill until examinations are digital.”

The gap between the good and the bad of online learning is widening. I think it’s down to those enthusiastic educators to keep showing the way forward. Those who stay ahead of the curve, curate the best and share effectively. And yes, teachers are more stressed than ever and don’t have time. But I think the argument for good digital literacy is sound. It can save everybody time if it’s done right. This argument needs to be won. Whether Moodle can compete with the new wave remains to be seen. I pray that the educators and learners have more of a say in these critical choices and that the usual suspects don’t sell education down the digital toilet.

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