An examination of secondary teachers’ beliefs about digital literacies

Ruday, S., Conradi, K., Heny, N., & Lovette, G.

Whether or not we’re comfortable with–or have fully embraced–technology’s place in the English classroom, it is here to stay.  At present, 100% of American public schools have at least one instructional computer with internet access (Gray & Lewis, 2009) and 93% of adolescents regularly engage in digital literacies (PEW report, 2009). Indeed, integrating digital literacies in the classroom is in keeping with suggestions to weave students’ interests, popular culture, and out-of-school literacies into our classroom instruction (e.g., Alvermann, Hagood, & Moon, 1999; McGill-Franzen & Botzakis, 2009; Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999; Worthy, Moorman, & Turner, 1999).   Further, calls to engage our students with digital text come from national organizations’ standards such as the National Council for the Teachers of English (NCTE), the International Reading Association (IRA), and the Common Core Standards.

But despite the ubiquity of these literacies both inside and outside the classroom and despite standards at both the state and national levels, we know very little about English teachers’ beliefs and attitudes towards digital literacies (Hutchison & Reinking, 2011; McGrail, 2006).  Specifically, how and why do they make the decisions they do regarding the inclusion of digital literacies in their instruction? An investigation of this topic can both provide insight into teachers’ decision making processes and reveal influential factors related to their technology use.

In this study, we explored secondary English and Language Arts teachers’ beliefs about digital literacy.  For the present study, we join others (e.g., Beach, Hull, & O’Brien, 2010; O’Brien & Scharber, 2008) in adopting the position that digital literacies involve both the understanding and the representation of ideas using multiple modes and employing digital tools.  In other words, we believe digital literacies involves communication mediated by digital technologies. In order both to ascertain and better understand teachers’ present beliefs, we invited them to participate in a focus group. Our study addressed two questions:  (1) What do teachers say they are doing? (2) What (standards, administrative pushes, values, efficacy, convenience, desire to please) informs these decisions? At this session, we engaged in a conversation about the changing nature of literacy and the relationship of technologies to literacy.  We ended with a discussion of the challenges teachers face.

Data sources included results from the focus group session and an open-ended survey. Results suggest teachers hold a complicated view of digital literacies, expressing both great enthusiasm for its potential and serious reservations about its current implementation in the classroom.  In general, four themes are emerging. Three of these point to a general enthusiasm for digital literacies, and one points to a lack of contentment regarding control of how digital literacies are being integrated.

Teachers embrace the importance of “speaking both languages.” Without dismissing the role of traditional literacy, all teachers acknowledged that for students to be literate in the 21st century, they must also be fluent with digital literacies. This includes the ability to not only successfully navigate and critically evaluate online sources, but also to publish their own sources taking advantage of the multimodal affordances enabled by technologies.

Teachers acknowledge the relevance of digital literacies to student lives. The participants maintained that using digital literacies increases the relevance of the language arts curriculum.  One stated that digital literacies validate students’ online literacy practices, and allows even those who struggle with in-school literacies to see themselves as readers and writers.  Other teachers identified digital literacies as a means of using popular culture to increase student engagement.

Teachers appreciate the potential of digital literacies in maximizing student learning, particularly as it relates to differentiation. The participants highlighted how digital literacies (1) helps them instruct students of different ability levels, (2) facilitates the participation of students who are reluctant to share in class, and (3) creates activities that appeal to “active” students.

Teachers express a lack of control regarding the inclusion of technologies. Though teachers acknowledged the importance of teaching students digital literacies, they admitted feeling that technology integration was beyond their control, intimating that including technology is often not their choice, but rather a pressure from the administration.  They shared a general expectation to “just include technology for the sake of technology” and expressed a resentment towards administration and county officials who spent resources on equipment, but not on training, and who failed to connect the technology-use with standards relevant to their instruction.

Ruday, S., Conradi, K., Heny, N., & Lovette, G. (in progress). “I can’t put the genie back in the bottle”: An examination of secondary teachers’ beliefs about digital literacies.