This study examines information and communication technology (ICT) education in order to gain a better overview of the teaching of digital skills (knowledge and skills related to ICT and technology education) in Estonian general education schools and kindergartens. The study aims to identify the specific courses meant for advancing digital skills at various levels, the extent to which digital skills are integrated into different subject areas, the assessment of current digital skill levels of teachers and pupils, and attitude among teachers and pupils towards various aspects related to teaching digital skills. In addition, the study mapped the ICT hobby groups available in schools and kindergartens and identified factors that teachers perceive would facilitate teaching digital skills.
The analysis was based on an extensive content analysis and two different online surveys. The curricula and syllabi of 498 general education schools were analysed using content analysis in order to document the extent of sub-skills of various digital competencies and activities linked to the development of digital skills. Additionally, informatics/computer studies syllabi was analysed in order to identify the differences and similarities between the school informatics syllabi and the national informatics syllabus. The first online survey was conducted among 1,549 teachers and 11,224 pupils of Estonian general education schools (representing 25% of both groups). The results are representative across stages of study, school location (county, town or rural), school size and language of instruction. Another online survey to identify ICT hobby groups was conducted among 468 general education schools and 490 kindergartens (respectively 87% and 76% of all schools and kindergartens).
The results of this study indicate that the organization of teaching digital skills in Estonian general education schools is uneven and varies to a large extent. 20% of schools start teaching digital skills as a separate subject already in the first stage of study and approximately 50% of schools teach digital skills as a separate subject in the second and third stages of study. On the other hand, there is a large group of general education schools that do not offer any separate digital study courses in any stages of study. Similarly, there is wide variation in the role and proportion of digital skills in school syllabi: majority of syllabi, across all stages of study, contain the development of digital skills related to information queries, whereas the relative importance of critical assessment of data is more pronounced only in the syllabi of the third stage of study. Development of content creation skills is represented in school syllabi to a considerably lesser degree and there are practically no references to the development of skills related to technology education (programming, robotics etc.) in any syllabi across all stages of study. Almost a third of general education schools do not offer their pupils any ICT hobby groups for the development of digital skills.
This kind of fragmentation and wide variety of approaches practiced in Estonian general education schools begs the question – how systematic is the development of digital skills? It is quite remarkable that a fifth of schools offer ICT as a separate study course already in the first stage of study, considering that the national informatics syllabus recommends that in the first stage of study the development of digital skills should be integrated into various subjects and does not state the need to teach ICT as a separate subject. So what would be the best approach to ensure the even level of digital skills among students – making informatics courses obligatory from certain stages of study, begin teaching these courses already in the first stage of study or putting a stronger emphasis on the systematic integration of digital skills into other subjects? The results of this study indicate that in the current situation obtaining digital skills primarily through integration carries the risk of haphazard and uneven development in the long-term. Moreover, uneven preparedness and capacity among teachers and schools to teach digital skills do not create a solid basis for successful results. In order to ensure that the development of pupils’ digital skills is not left to chance, there is a clear need to develop specific guidelines regarding the types of digital skills to be acquired at various levels of study. This should be the focus of subsequent discussions with the aim of reaching a common understanding and agreement.
Furthermore, the results reveal that access to digital tools (devices, environments and software) and digital study materials, as well as their quality, is one of the central challenges in teaching digital skills both in schools and hobby groups. In Estonia, various state initiatives have generously supported schools in the acquisition of digital devices as well as providing training opportunities for teachers. However, the results of this study demonstrate that access to digital tools is still a major bottleneck – teachers use existing digital materials rather modestly and indicated access to quality materials and general scarcity of digital tools as the main challenge. In terms of ICT hobby groups at schools and kindergartens, the main challenge seems to be the need for new and/or additional devices as well as digital study materials and instruction manuals. Although the remarkable lack of such digital tools as tablets and smart phones was reported only by a small portion of teachers, it still constitutes a considerable amount of teachers who have indicated problems in this area, considering the requirements of digital era and objectives of modern study approach.
At the same time, teachers’ preparedness to teach digital skills and use digital tools also remains a challenge. In many instances there were more teachers who had not used digital tools in their teaching at all or who use them infrequently, as compared to those who indicated unavailability of digital tools at school. Therefore, it is important to note that the necessary digital tools may very well be available, but there are other reasons why teachers are not using them. Considering that the use of smart phones for study purposes is more widespread among pupils than teachers, it raises the question to what extent are teachers able to purposefully utilize pupils’ personal devices in the study process.
The scant use of digital study materials also raises the question of whether existing digital materials are not deemed to have sufficient quality and user-friendliness or whether its use is hindered by teachers’ poor awareness with regard to variations of uses and general proficiency in using these tools. Examination of these questions is paramount in the process of setting priorities for the improvement of teaching digital skills in schools. For instance, determining whether there is a need to improve the quality of digital study materials or whether the focus should instead be turned on developing teachers’ skills related to the use of digital materials and their applications. Clearly, the aim is not to extensively promote the use of all kinds of digital tools and digital materials by all teachers in all subject areas as often as possible. Instead the emphasis should be on increasing preparedness among teachers and pupils to use various alternatives that support the development of digital skills as well as to choose the appropriate solutions.
The third main conclusion of this study is that despite the positive attitude towards using digital tools in the learning process among teachers and pupils, it has not yet demonstrated the anticipated impact on the development of digital skills and as a means for supporting the implementation of modern study approach. Teachers consider their own poor skill level to be a critical obstacle in the teaching process. Teachers rated their skills related to internet communication rather high while at the same time digital skills related to problem-solving and creative processes (e.g. web pages, games, apps) received a rather modest rating in the self-assessment. Despite the active participation in various digital skills related in-service trainings during the past two years and overwhelmingly positive attitude towards using digital tools, there are shortcomings in using the digital skills in the study process. In certain areas teachers rate their abilities even lower as compared to that of pupils (e.g. taking photos, making videos and audio recordings). At the same time, with some instruction from teachers, pupils could contribute to improvement of study process using their digital skills and experiences, thereby mitigating existing problems outlined in this study (e.g. lack of time, skills). More than 50% of teachers indicated they have included pupils as experts in the planning and organizing of course work. However, it seems that the full potential for engaging students contributing to the planning and organization of course work related to digital skills has not yet been fully realized. This kind of collaboration between teachers and pupils presumes relevant professional know-how for engaging students, and students´ readiness to contribute by sharing relevant skills and responsibilities. Therefore, in order to apply these strengths in the process of teaching digital skills, more systematic support to facilitate the collaboration between teachers and pupils is necessary.