Connected to Learn: Teachers' Experiences with Networked Technologies in the Classroom

Matthew Johnson

Report: Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Connected to Learn

For more than twenty-five years, Canadian teachers have been at the forefront of getting students online and preparing them to use the Internet in safe, wise and responsible ways. Thanks to the SchoolNet program in the 1990s, many young Canadians had their first experiences with networked technologies in their classrooms and school libraries. However, MediaSmarts’ recent Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III study shows that even now, our so-called “digital natives” still need guidance from their teachers. But over the past decade, as digital technology has become nearly ubiquitous and an increasingly central part of young people’s lives, Canadian schools have fallen behind in integrating it. As the 2009 paper What If? Technology in the 21st Century Classroom put it,

Many students feel that when they come into school they have to “power down” to fit into an environment that offers fewer options for learning than are available in the life they live outside of the school. This can erode students’ perceptions of the relevance of education as they experience it in many schools today.[1]

With these issues in mind, in 2015 MediaSmarts and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation surveyed more than 4,000 teachers to find out what forms of networked technologies their schools provide them with for classroom use; what devices (if any) their students are permitted to use in class; how students use those devices for their school work; what kind of support teachers receive from their schools and school boards in making meaningful use of these technologies; what digital literacy skills they feel students should be learning; and how confident they feel in teaching those skills.

Networked technologies are well-established in elementary and secondary classrooms

One thing that is immediately clear is that Canadian teachers are using networked technologies in their classroom practice. Almost all respondents (97%) said that their schools provide them with at least one type of networked device, and devices such as desktop computers, laptops or notebooks and Smart boards (interactive whiteboards) are all heavily used by teachers when available. What may be somewhat more surprising is that there is little difference in how much secondary and elementary teachers use networked technologies, which suggests that these devices are no longer being used primarily to teach about computers and the Internet, or solely to provide students with a means to access research sources, but rather have been integrated more fully into teachers’ classroom practice. This reflects findings in MediaSmarts’ Young Canadians in a Wired World student survey that while teenagers are the most deeply involved in the online world, it’s an important part of younger students’ lives as well.

Providing access and support remains a challenge

Despite the widespread availability of networked devices in the classroom though, one recurring theme is difficulties with insufficient or out-of-date technologies, particularly networks. In response to open-ended questions on their best and worst experiences with networked technologies in the classroom, numerous teachers made comments such as “None of the links, programs work at school due to out-of-date technology” and “Let’s just put it this way….technology is great….WHEN IT WORKS!!” This is particularly worrying in cases where the lack of resources at school accompanies limited access at home or from other sources, as in Northern, rural and remote communities. As one respondent noted: “Internet access in Nunavut is truly horrible and is not a reliable or viable option in the High Arctic…this is a serious issue in equal access to educational resources!”

More than half of teachers allow students to bring their own devices

One strategy for dealing with this is the adoption of a bring-your-own-device – or BYOD – policy, in which students are allowed to use their personal networked devices in class as a replacement or supplement to school-supplied devices. Just over half (59%) of teachers say that their students are allowed to use at least one networked device that they own in class, but because policy on this issue is often set at the school or school board level, it’s difficult to know if this is due to teachers’ own preferences or not.

Unlike school-supplied technologies, there are significant differences between secondary and elementary teachers on this issue: more than three-quarters (84%) of secondary teachers allow students to use at least one personal device, compared to just under half (49%) of elementary teachers. This may in part be because older students are more likely to own networked devices, but may also relate to a sense that secondary students are more ready to use these devices independently. Despite this, secondary teachers are also more likely than elementary teachers to agree with the statement that “networked devices disrupt learning in the classroom by making it difficult to maintain discipline” – though this may be a result of the higher number of students using them in those grades.

Teachers are positive towards the impact of networked technologies in the classroom

In general, however, teachers feel positively towards the effect of technology in the classroom. A majority of teachers at all levels agree that “networked devices make it easier for my students to learn” (79%) and “networked devices make it easier for me to match my instructional practice to students’ various learning styles” (74%). However, teachers are less positive about the support and training they receive from their schools in making this happen, saying things such as “we have one [interactive whiteboard] in the school but have never been trained” and “Lack of PD on how to use new technology makes it intimidating to begin new things using the new technology.” As well as the lack of technical support for maintaining and upgrading software, devices and networks, just under half of teachers (47%) feel that they don’t receive enough support to help them use networked technologies to meet curricular goals, and just under a third (31%) say they don’t receive enough support when students experience online conflict. The largest number of teachers (83%) report being frustrated when websites they’ve wanted to use for educational purposes had been blocked by school or board filters.

Teachers place a high value on digital literacy skills

While they may not feel they receive sufficient support in using networked technologies in the classroom, teachers generally agree on the importance of teaching students digital literacy skills and are largely confident in their own ability to teach them. Almost all (90%) of teachers consider it “very” or “somewhat” important that students learn the full gambit of digital literacy skills. The skills most often indicated by teachers as being “very important” are “staying safe online” (94%), “appropriate online behaviour” (93%), “dealing with cyberbullying” (89%), “understanding online privacy issues and settings” (88%) and “verifying that online information is credible/relevant/accurate” (87%). Teachers are most confident in their ability to teach students how to find information online, followed closely by authenticating online information, likely because those skills overlap most strongly with traditional school subjects. There was little variation in the number of teachers who said they were “somewhat confident” in their ability to teach the remaining topics that were listed (roughly 50% of teachers said this of seven of the nine other topics), but significantly more in the number who felt “very” confident, which ranged from 45 percent for “staying safe online” to just 20 percent for “understanding how companies collect and use information online.”

Teachers are most likely to use networked technologies for group work and individuated instruction

Aside from teaching students digital literacy skills, teachers are most likely to use networked technologies to break students into groups and use technology to match different learning styles. Giving students access to self-learning modules ran a distant second, while using social media such as Twitter to introduce students to broader conversations about a topic and using networked technologies to connect students to people outside the classroom were significantly less frequent. Despite the importance of social media in students’ lives, relatively few teachers have embraced their use in the classroom: only about one in six (13%) of teachers has used social networking in their classroom for educational purposes. Those who have are most likely to have used Twitter, possibly because it can be used simply as a “broadcast” (for instance, by following accounts that tweet day-by-day accounts of the Second World War[2] or Samuel Pepys’ diary entries[3]) without students having to create an account or interact with other users.

Teachers are more likely to have their students use networked technologies to access content than create it

The popularity of networked technologies as a source of content is underlined by the fact that almost three-quarters (71%) of teachers have used online video to let their students access content, compared to just over a third (38%) whose students have used it to create content (each of these figures includes 8% of teachers whose students have done both.) The disparity between using technology to consume rather than create content is even more striking when it comes to other media: 46 percent of teachers’ classes have accessed content through video games, compared to just 9 percent that have created games, and despite the popularity of platforms such as Bitstrips just 19 percent have created digital comics, compared to 34 percent that have accessed them. (These percentages only reflect whether teachers had ever had their students use a technology to access or create content, not how often they had done so.) Despite recent interest in teaching students how to write computer code, its absence from the formal and traditional curricula are reflected in the fact that just six percent of teachers say their students have learned it. Perhaps surprisingly, there was relatively little difference in the number of elementary (6.6%) and secondary (7.3%) teachers who say their students have learned this, a ratio similar to teachers’ integration of networked technologies overall.

MediaSmarts’ research has repeatedly shown the importance of networked technologies in young Canadians’ lives and the urgent need to ensure that they are learning the digital literacy skills they need to effectively participate in the workforce and in society as engaged, responsible citizens. Thanks to our collaboration with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation we’re now able to show that Canadian teachers recognize this as well, but that they need sufficient training, autonomy and support to teach these essential skills and to be able to fully integrate digital technologies into their classroom practice. We hope these findings will be used to inform policy and practice regarding the use of networked technologies in education from the perspective of the teaching profession in Canada.


[1] What If? Technology in the 21st Century Classroom. Ontario Public School Boards Association, 2009.
[2] Collinson, Alwyn. “WW2 Tweets From 1943.” <> Accessed October 10, 2015.
[3] Gifford, Phil. “Samuel Pepys.” <> Accessed October 5, 2015.

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