Teaching the Net Generation: Teachers' Perspectives in Young Canadians in a Wired World

In the early months of 2011, the eyes of the world were on the Middle East, watching as the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and other autocratic regimes buckled under the pressure of democratic protest. Among those watching were a group of elementary students in northern Canada, who were able to watch a live Twitter feed of the protestors and other citizens of the region reporting what was happening. Despite their geographical isolation, these students were connected to events happening halfway around the world, thanks to the efforts of their teacher to bring digital media into the classroom.

Few professions in our society have been as affected by the advent of digital technologies as teaching: from cell phones in classrooms, to the use of Wikipedia and other online resources in coursework, to the push to integrate ICT across different subject areas, every aspect of teachers' professional lives has changed. And not only their professional lives: the increasing popularity of social media, among both youth and adults, has made it harder than ever for teachers to keep a clear line between their professional and personal lives.

In 2011, Media Awareness Network began Phase III of its ongoing study Young Canadians in a Wired World. The first two phases, released in 2001 and 2005 respectively, were a watershed in our understanding of how Canadian youth use the Internet, and continue to be relied on and widely cited by researchers and government agencies. To launch the long-awaited Phase III, MNet began with a qualitative research study in which teachers who had been identified as having been successful in engaging their students positively and creating an excellent learning environment in the classroom – one elementary and one secondary teacher from the North, the West, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic region – were asked about the role played by digital technology in their lives and their professional practice. Over the course of a semi-structured interview they volunteered their opinions about their students' abilities to make effective use of digital media, obstacles to teaching youth digital literacy skills, ways of overcoming these obstacles, ways in which emerging digital technologies can enrich students' learning, and strategies for managing the use of digital technology in the classroom.

Adults are often dazzled by the technical proficiency shown by youth in using digital media, particularly their ability to seemingly master new tools almost instantly – moving from MySpace to Facebook, for instance, or learning to use the latest model of smartphone. What our survey group told us, however, is that our impression of students' abilities is often misleading. As one secondary school teacher from the Atlantic put it, “I don't think students are all that Internet-savvy. I think they limit themselves to very few tools on the Internet and they don't think it's as expansive as it could be. They're locked into using it in particular ways and don't think outside the box... I'm always surprised at the lack of knowledge that students have about how to search and navigate online.”

In particular, teachers were concerned about how uncritical students were about the information they found online: one elementary teacher from the North referred to an incident in which grade five students researching the Sasquatch myth – surely a topic that called for extra scrutiny – were taken in by a website that had been intended as an obvious and humorous hoax. Much of the misinformation that's available on the Internet, of course, is much less innocent – from online scams to subtle hate sites – which shows just how important it is for youth to learn tools and strategies for authenticating the information they find online.

When asked about the challenges teachers face in helping students get the most out of digital media, our respondents identified five main issues:

  • the pressure to teach technical skills instead of digital literacy skills;
  • the impulse to revert to “drill and kill” teaching methods;
  • the potential for digital technologies to cause disruptions in the classroom;
  • the shortage of professional development opportunities for teachers to learn how to integrate digital media in the classroom; and
  • the issues that arise with Internet filters and bans on personal digital devices such as tablets and smartphones.

This last was the issue most often mentioned by teachers: many reported being unable to make full use of digital media in their classroom practice due to being unable to access services such as Twitter, Skype and YouTube. One teacher's story highlights both the limits of filtering and the best response to encountering inappropriate content online: after one of his students had stumbled upon a hate site – a type of inappropriate site that often goes undetected by filters – he had the whole class examine it critically: “They didn't know what they were looking at. I asked them to look a little closer, and some of them started to see it and others still couldn't. And that interested them, because I could see something they couldn't. That was a way for them to see, for them to get interested in the idea that somebody was actually preaching hatred and it didn't even feel like it.”

This example shows how the teachers in our study were able to volunteer strategies and solutions to address each of the issues they identified. All of our respondents told us that they spent little or no time teaching students how to use particular technologies, but chose instead to focus on the skills they need to access, understand and use the content they would encounter using those technologies. An elementary teacher from the Western region, for instance, introduced iPads to her class with no more technical instructions than to tell them “if you don't like where you end up, press the round button on the side.” Allowing the students to teach themselves how to use the technology gave her the time to integrate it more meaningfully into the curriculum and into her classroom practice.

One particularly interesting finding of the survey was the role a teacher's age played in the integration of digital media in the classroom. While one might assume that younger students would be more comfortable in using digital media, survey participants said that more senior teachers' experience in classroom management gave them the freedom to take chances and give up some control to students, letting them take the lead and teach themselves – and one another. Many participants talked about the importance of having access to mentors in helping them bring digital media into the classroom, particularly with the shortage of professional development time and resources reported by nearly all of the respondents.

Despite these issues, teachers had no trouble identifying several significant ways in which digital media are already enriching students' school experience. As well as providing access to a wealth of knowledge and learning resources (provided students were able to tell good information from bad), teachers told us that digital media gives students new opportunities to have an impact outside of the classroom, by publishing their work and communicating with people around the world, and to collaborate with their peers both during and outside of school hours. Finally, teachers also spoke of the value of digital media in allowing them to appeal to students' different learning styles – giving math instruction in a visual or kinesthetic form, for example, through a “virtual protractor.” This also held true for students with special needs, such as the student with autism who used a dictation program on his iPad to overcome his difficulties with writing.

Although teachers were generally positive in their attitudes towards digital media, they did recognize that it brought challenges as well – particularly with regards to students' and teachers' privacy. Teachers told, for instance, of colleagues being filmed with cellphone cameras at school dances, causing them to worry about how their actions might be taken out of context later; of feeling unable to participate in social networks like Facebook, despite the opportunities they provide for personal learning and professional networking, due to the fear of blurring lines between their personal and professional lives; and, of course, the disruptions caused by digital devices of all sorts in the classroom.

Despite these issues, our survey participants overwhelmingly felt that digital media provide tremendous opportunities for teachers and students – so long as students are taught how to engage critically with the media they consume and to consider the ethical ramifications of what they do online: as an elementary teacher from the Northern region put it, “the biggest skill they need is a moral compass.” Today's students are not just users of digital media, they are citizens of the online world. This survey makes it clear that young Canadians need to learn digital literacy and digital citizenship in their schools, and that teachers need to be provided with the tools, support and learning opportunities to be ready to teach them those skills.

The Teachers' Perspectives study is part of our ongoing research project Young Canadians in a WiredWorld, initiated in 2000. Financial support for Teachers' Perspectives was provided by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. The Canadian Teachers' Federation and its member affiliates assisted with the recruitment of the teachers in the study.

View the full report, Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Teachers' Perspectives.