Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach, NESCA
The experience of watching a small child who is only two or three years old pick up a smartphone, quickly type in a passcode (as they have memorized the pattern) and open up their favorite game can be jarring for adults who remember the days of dial-up internet and who learned to use technology as it staggeringly evolved. For many of today’s children, handheld electronics have always been a fundamental part of their world. Flipping between apps, using their pointer finger to manipulate games and opening a screen using facial recognition all feel like second nature to many in the current generation of school age children. We assume that children have higher digital literacy than we do and intrinsically understand technology in a way that many of us never will. But what do our children actually know? And, are they missing out on vastly important direct instruction when adults make an assumption that they are already tiny experts in the digital field?
Over the past six months, a time fraught with a monumental shift in education, I have worked one-on-one with a widely diverse group of learners. If I had to pinpoint one theme that comes up over and over, across ages, levels of ability and school systems, it is frustration, confusion and lack of problem-solving strategies as they relate to technology. Statements I have heard during this period of remote learning include:
- “I don’t turn off my Chromebook. I lose everything, and I’m actually not quite sure that I know how to turn it back on.” – High school honors student
- “I didn’t know that Google Slide and PowerPoint were different things. I lost so much trying to switch between them.” – High school senior
- “Hardware or software? I didn’t realize there was a difference.” – Middle school student
- “I just save my document with whatever my computer suggests as a title. I guess it does make it tricky to find things later.” – High school junior
As an occupational therapist focused on making sure our students can access their curriculum, comments like these teach me a few incredibly important lessons.
- Students are lacking information on the basics. The same student who is not sure how to turn off his Chromebook can quickly navigate Google Classroom without any support, both uploading files and opening modules with ease. We need to focus on teaching the fundamentals of technology. What are hardware and software and how to they interact? What options exist within the system preferences of a particular device? How is an iPad different from a Chromebook, a Windows laptop or a MacBook? Why do we need to power down devices sometimes? What are the downsides to never restarting a computer or updating an operating system?
- Successful digital organization does not come naturally. Students are typically taught specific systems for organizing physical space and materials, such as color-coded folders, binders and labels. Teaching students to organize their digital space and their digital materials is equally, if not even more, important. Learning to create folders for each class and systematic ways of labeling documents saves students time and energy, and this often decreases frustration in the moment.
- Academic and professional tools are not particularly intuitive (a stark contrast to entertainment tools). There are incredible programs designed to help students create presentations, synthesize data and put documents together. These include, but are not limited to, the Microsoft Suite and Google Workspace. These tools can be tricky to manipulate and many middle and high school students would benefit from taking an introductory course, watching online tutorials or working directly with teachers to explore their functionality before layering on assignments requiring competent use of the tools.
- Students are often completely unaware of their gaps in knowledge. This is potentially due to the fact that today’s students are so impressive when it comes to using technology for leisure purposes. They seamlessly transition from an iPad, to a Chromebook, to a Samsung phone and can access games or social media without difficulty on each device. Unfortunately, very few schools have programs focused on teaching computing skills or digital literacy in the academic context. Our students piece together enough information to get by for a short while, but often come up against challenges later. Students also may believe they have built competency because they have some exposure to a tool. For instance, I have worked with students who are building resumes and including claims such as, “Proficient in Excel, PowerPoint and Word” but score poorly when tested on these computer abilities.
So, what do can we do?
The first step towards ensuring that a child or adolescent has adequate digital literacy skills is to actually assess how much they already know. Some students do have these skills mastered and others will have unexpected deficits or gaps. This assessment can be done formally or informally. A starting point I often use is to sit down with a student at a computer and ask how they organize, how they navigate, how they save files, etc. I also like using online assessment resources, such as TypingClub.com and Northstar Digital Literacy.
Once the skills that a student needs to grow are identified, there are many opportunities available to teach them. A few options include:
- Online courses in specific software programs. Sites, such as Coursera, LinkedIn and Udemy, have comprehensive courses focused on specific programs for all different levels of learners.
- Free online videos. A quick search on YouTube often leads to short, accurate videos and tutorials filmed by teachers or professionals. If your student learns well through video format, these can be a great tool.
- Ask your school for support. Often, students learn better with direct instruction. If a student’s team is aware of their lack of knowledge regarding technology, there are many professionals at school who may be able to teach these skills during a free period, study hall or meeting.
About the Author
Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services. She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.