‘Beyond the App’: Addressing the Digital Divide and Creating a Network of Global Educators

Dr. Thomas Wolsey is a professor at the American University in Cairo where he teaches graduate courses in research, assessment, and literacy. He also leads professional development for teachers throughout the United States and internationally and has developed training materials for the California Department of Education, TextProject, San Diego State University, and other institutions. Previously he taught English and social studies in public schools for 20 years. His research explores how language informs thinking about content and how the interactions of students in digital and face-to-face environments change their learning. He is also interested in the intersections of traditional literacies with digital literacies and their effect on teacher preparation and professional development.

My work examines the potential interactions and opportunities to bring together traditional and digital literacies. Digital literacies are the skills needed to navigate digital tools (computer, smartphone, Kindle etc.) to evaluate, interact with, and create content. The way we engage with information from traditional literacies, such as books, is different from how we consume and create information found online. My work looks primarily at how we can help students to understand the information they are obtaining in digital spaces, analyze it critically, consider what is credible or not credible, and synthesize everything. 

As a teacher, I had students read books and then use online platforms to discuss what they were reading to further explore what they were consuming. Going beyond that, it is important that educators and teacher preparation and/or professional development embraces opportunities to learn and discover new uses of technology, rather than framing the teacher as knowing everything. 

For example, a few years ago I worked with a teacher’s association where the district implemented a policy to shift the report card system from a written to completely online format. Some teachers were very uncomfortable with this change, so we set up a mentorship program to help teachers learn how to navigate the new system with the two- year implementation period to shift formats. This same type of opportunity works well with students. A teacher can offer students opportunities to explore a potential new program on a computer, assess its value, and share their thoughts with the teacher. Over and over, students have done things with the various programs and apps that I might never have thought of on my own. Rather than taking on a traditional role where I tell children exactly what they need to do, this approach allows me to trust my students to learn and discover the literacies of the technology. 

In terms of my work in Egypt, many children do not have access to good schools, and often do not learn how to read. My big passion is researching how you get people to learn to read, expand their horizons, and see that there are other opportunities. Over the last year, spearheaded by myself and my colleague Nance Wilson at SUNY Cortland, we’ve been working with Beyond the App to help teachers in Egypt, as well as with 11 other countries, bridge the digital divide. What we found is that Egyptian teachers are not effectively prepared to teach literacy skills. In addition, Arabic as spoken is substantially different from Modern Standard Arabic making it a challenge to help students learn the letter-sound correspondences they need to read. In addition, Egypt has not yet installed fiber optics in many locations, especially poorer areas. As such, teachers have to purchase data in order to get online, paying fees out of pocket and often using their mobile phones. With Beyond the App, we have been learning how to help these teachers stream information from trusted sources while also tackling the bandwidth problem through hot spots and remote servers (Please see this podcast for additional information and stay tuned for more details on these exciting developments in an upcoming blog)

Beyond the App in fact is not an app. Rather, it is an event with several aims: Connecting teachers globally, co-creating content and understanding, and putting books in children’s hands. See video here.  We wanted to spark global conversations, starting with Egypt and the U.S. and eventually spreading to other countries as well providing a forum for solving problems. For example, one of the big challenges during Covid-19 was that schools were closed and nobody was able to teach in the normal classroom format. Teachers were handing out assignments, correcting them, but without giving any guidance. Immediate feedback was not possible, so in our work with Beyond the App, we asked “how do we help teachers to give formative feedback that tells students ‘this is how you are doing, this is how you are succeeding, this is where you might want to look in the future, or here is a mistake that you might want to correct’ within a digital environment.” 

This year, we are planning to take this question a step further. Our goal is to expand to Guatemala and Mexico, as well as Greece. Our hope is to bring together a global group of teachers to identify, solve, and collaborate on a mutual set of problems they are facing. In addition, we are exploring the idea that technology is not just for boys. We do not just want to give girls technology, but also raise awareness of technology usage for all, acknowledging the stereotypes that technologies come with and who they might automatically privilege. We are also looking at additional options for setting up remote servers to help improve access in places with little or no bandwidth so that our programming is available and accessible to a greater number of educators. 

To learn more about Dr. Wolsey’s work and Beyond the App, please visit BEYOND THE APP – Home (beyondtheappliteracy.com) and Beyond The App | Literacy Beat Contact Dr. Wolsey at thomas.wolsey (at) aucegypt.edu.