Special Report
Ed-Tech Policy

Movement Grows to Assess Students’ Digital Literacy

By Robin L. Flanigan — March 10, 2014 6 min read
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A handful of 10th graders from Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, Mass., recently gave a formal presentation for an audience of educators during a technology conference at nearby Mount Holyoke College. The students offered short, hands-on lessons for teachers, familiarizing them with various digital tools, applications, and simulations that could support their work in the classroom.

“What could be better?” said Alexia Forhan, a science teacher and technology coach for the 1,150-student vocational school. “Education used to be about learning something and spitting it back to me. Now, it’s about understanding and application. The more students teach me and others what they know, the more I feel they’re truly learning.”

The Assabet sophomores demonstrated an awareness of multiple technologies, competence in using data analysis, and other digital-literacy skills that a growing number of educators and technology advocates say should be taught and assessed more regularly by K-12 schools. No longer just about how to use digital tools to gauge abilities in core academic areas, assessments, in their opinion, need to also measure a mastery of more abstract skills—ones closely aligned to the technology skills students will need to succeed in the workplace.

Helping to drive the conversation about how to gauge those kinds of digital-literacy skills are two state-led consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—that are developing assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards.

Jacqueline E. King, a Smarter Balanced spokeswoman, said the fact that its assessment will be available online in 2015, and will involve the use of digital-literacy skills in answering questions, is “heightening the focus” on needing to know where students stand in that area.

Digital Learning Standards

The International Society for Technology in Education crafted standards outlining the digital skills students need to succeed in the modern world. Those standards include:

Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.

a. Apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes
b. Create original works as a means of personal or group expression
c. Use models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues
d. Identify trends and forecast possibilities

Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.

a. Interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media
b. Communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats
c. Develop cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with learners of other cultures
d. Contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems

Students apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.

a. Plan strategies to guide inquiry
b. Locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media
c. Evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks
d. Process data and report results

Students apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.

a. Plan strategies to guide inquiry
b. Locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media
c. Evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks
d. Process data and report results

Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.

a. Advocate and practice safe, legal, and responsible use of information and technology
b. Exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology that supports collaboration, learning, and productivity
c. Demonstrate personal responsibility for lifelong learning
d. Exhibit leadership for digital citizenship

Students demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems, and operations.

a. Understand and use technology systems
b. Select and use applications effectively and productively
c. Troubleshoot systems and applications
d. Transfer current knowledge to learning of new technologies

SOURCE: International Society for Technology in Education NETS·S, 2007

William De’Wayne Simpson, an instructional-technology coach and journalism teacher for the 1,000-student Charles Carroll Middle School in New Carrolton, Md., judges his students’ abilities to use digital tools to communicate and work collaboratively by keeping the classroom atmosphere relatively quiet.

“I like to force them to be silent while allowing them to work together as much as they want,” he explained. “They can use Google Docs, IM with Draft, or a hashtag on Twitter to leave notes for each other and collect information, and along the way, I assess who seems to be flowing with it, who’s an avid learner, and who’s struggling. One of the biggest things to realize is that it’s not always about what the kids know about technology, but their comfort level with what they don’t know, and then being able to figure it out using whatever devices are put in front of them.”

Strengths and Weaknesses

While testing a variety of digital-literacy skills is important, there’s one standard for learning in a digital age that stands out for Darri Stephens, the director of digital learning for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization known for research-based ratings and reviews of media and technology used by children.

“The more important conversation needs to be larger and one that’s framed around digital citizenship,” she said. “It’s not just about assessing answers as right or wrong, but about really delving into a more nuanced realm of student behaviors and attitudes and perceptions.”

Common Sense Media provides a comprehensive K-12 curriculum that helps teach and assess around topics such as Internet privacy and security, online copyright issues, and digital footprints.

Digital citizenship, in fact, appears to be an area of strength for many students. For the past four years, the Texas Computer Education Association, a membership organization based in Austin, has partnered with Portland, Ore.-based digital-curriculum and -assessment provider Learning.com to offer Texas schools a technology-literacy assessment at no charge.

Results generally mirrored those found when the provider assessed elementary and middle school students nationwide: Students earned solid marks in digital citizenship and technology operations and concepts, but did not do well in online research and information fluency, critical thinking, and problem-solving. The assessment blends interactive, performance-based questions with multiple-choice, knowledge-based questions. Nearly 137,000 8th graders in 224 of the state’s 1,227 public schools and charter districts took the assessments in 2012-13.

Wendy Drexler, the chief innovation officer for the International Society for Technology in Education, a Washington-based membership association that promotes effective uses of educational technology, would like to see more alternative assessments that take into account evaluations from students, peers, and teachers. She says standardized assessments alone may not paint a fair picture, given that educators have such varying levels of knowledge about synthesizing and creating digital content, collaborating in a digital environment, and identifying other skills students are increasingly expected to develop.

“When you take all of those high-level processes and throw them at teachers, it can be overwhelming,” Ms. Drexler said. “We really need to provide tools to teach and assess complex learning processes in different ways.”

Meg Jimenez, the principal of the 700-student John H. Niemes Elementary School, an environmental-science and technology magnet school in Artesia, Calif., said students introduced to many digital-literacy concepts in 5th grade are, by 6th grade, “given the freedom to choose which application best suits their needs and are performing this task with command.”

During a recent classroom visit, she observed 5th graders learning about collaboration and decisionmaking through an interactive multimedia presentation on weather patterns. A group of three students created “screencasts"—digital recordings of computer screen outputs—to explain their research, then assigned a quiz they’d developed for classmates to get immediate feedback.

“We’re really pushing for students to explain their thinking process,” Ms. Jimenez added, “and they all have their own ways of doing that.”

Real-World Skills

The Digital Youth Network in Chicago—a nonprofit organization that partners with libraries, schools, and after-school programs to teach digital-literacy skills to youths—gives students the chance, showcase-style, to use digital-literacy skills to address a challenge. Using a digital storytelling curriculum funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations, students are measured on whether they’re able to use a digital format to demonstrate their point clearly.

“I could teach you to write, but how do you use that ability to write to communicate?” said Nichole Pinkard, the founder of the Digital Youth Network, which is sponsored by DePaul University, in Chicago, where she is a visiting associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media. “It’s the same thing with digital literacy. Their ability to make use of technology is a skill that’s going to communicate their understanding in the real world.”

Ms. Forhan, the science teacher from Massachusetts, uses Nearpod, BrainPOP, and other technology tools with built-in assessments to keep track of her students’ progress as they work at their own pace on a variety of tasks.

“The beautiful thing about all of this is that these quick assessments allow me to give them immediate feedback,” she said. “They can see what’s taking place, have rich reflection, get into that higher-order thinking, then go back and make changes as needed. The more we continue to immerse ourselves in this, the easier it’s going to make our lives.”


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