When K-12 school districts abruptly transitioned to distance education in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the internet was a common discussion. Districts took different approaches to bridging the gap, doling out laptops or tablets to students and offering mobile Wi-Fi in some areas.
What to do with the technology made available, however, was a less common discussion.
“You can give people access to the internet and you can give them a device, but if they’re not sure how to use it or if their teacher isn’t comfortable with it, the devices can’t be fully utilized,” says Jennifer Hinga, a high school teacher and recent graduate of the master’s degree program in literacy studies.
That virtual classroom quandary compelled Hinga to research other ways a lack of digital literacy impacts what students and teachers are able to do and what opportunities it might take away.
Hinga is among a cohort of literacy studies graduates who found a way to better adapt to pandemic challenges in their own classroom while also collecting data that has the potential to influence the future of the teaching profession and boost student achievement.
Preparing so many scholarly articles with University students is not common.
"I was really looking to do something special with them. It was an ambitious idea, and it worked out better than I expected," says Piazza.
Their advisor, Dr. Susan Piazza, opened the door for students to turn those teaching challenges spurred by the pandemic pinch into opportunities to make an impact on the field.
“It started from earnest curiosity and based on the need to offer this action research class,” says Piazza, professor and unit coordinator of literacy studies. “Students agreed this was probably one of the most meaningful ways they could have conducted research related to their teaching experiences during a pandemic, because they got to process it all with each other, with me and with colleagues in the field.”
Piazza’s literacy studies master’s students generally finish their degrees with an action research seminar, where they pose research questions and collect data focused on literacy instruction in schools. However, the cohort completing the program in August 2020 became the first to take the capstone course during the summer, when most districts across Michigan had not had students in the classroom since March.
“They’d just experienced unprecedented COVID-19 transitions, and everyone was stressed out and getting ready to go back in September with so many unknowns,” Piazza says. “I decided, let’s do some survey research and see if we can understand how Michigan teachers are adapting their instructional practices and compare that with our own experiences in the prior spring term, which will inform how we prepare to go back to school in the fall—whether it’s virtual, face to face or hybrid.”
She devised a survey study, approved by WMU’s Human Subjects Institutional Review Board, to investigate experiences of teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic related to their ability to meet the needs of diverse learners through distance and online education. Piazza was concerned the shift to online and distance learning may be hindering teachers’ efforts to address issues of inclusion and equity that are typically a strong emphasis in their program.
“The overall focus is how do we meet students’ needs in pre-K through 12 settings during these unprecedented times, but I asked about literacy specifically and about diverse and traditionally marginalized learners as well as learners with special needs,” says Piazza.
Graduate students recruited hundreds of teachers from across the state to participate. They gleaned enough data to draft at least 20 research papers on topics such as vocabulary development, comprehension, motivation and engagement, digital literacy and individualized instruction and also attended to multiple grade levels of socially, culturally and linguistically diverse learners.
Preparing so many scholarly articles with students is not common. “But I was really looking to do something special with them,” Piazza says. “It was an ambitious idea, and it worked out better than I expected.”
At least two papers have been tentatively accepted for publication pending revisions, and several other manuscripts are under review at this time.
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Hinga’s research opened her eyes to stumbling blocks hindering her high schoolers. She found students lacking skills necessary to operate technology became quickly disengaged. It also took away from instructional time, meaning students who remained engaged were learning less or forced to do more independently.
“(Students’) basic, simple digital literacy skills were lacking. Even something like putting a picture into a Google slide was like a foreign concept to many,” said one teacher who responded to the survey. “This made it difficult for students to follow along, turn in assignments, take pictures of assignments (or) upload pictures or videos.”
“Those skills are the building blocks for everything else we do right now,” says Hinga, suggesting districts put more emphasis on making digital literacy part of curriculum earlier on—beginning with basic skill-building in kindergarten.
Digital literacy knowledge and skill among teachers is also paramount. Many teaching strategies don’t easily translate to online learning, so instructors had to learn how to navigate a number of new programs and platforms. Only about 20% of teachers surveyed felt they received adequate training in digital technology for their classrooms.
“While our participants certainly developed skills on the spot in response to the swift shift to online learning, they did not always feel confident and, as a result, students’ needs were not always met,” wrote Hinga and her co-authors. Results revealed the added complexities and stress of new instructional modes were making it difficult for teachers to maintain focus on students’ individual needs.
They concluded effective teacher training programs and ongoing access to support would minimize teacher anxiety and in turn boost student engagement and more responsive instruction to students’ needs. It would also make them prepared in the event instruction needs to be shifted to a virtual format down the road.
“Even before COVID-19, this was a struggle,” Hinga says. “I’ve always been aware that there are various challenges surrounding the increased use of technology in schools, but this project made me more conscious of the need to increase training so both students and teachers are ready for whatever comes our way.”
Hinga hopes research like this will add urgency to arguments for investing in digital literacy education—both for students and educators. ■