Developing Essential Digital Skills amongst elementary level learners of ESOL

Islington Adult Community Learning

This project developed a short discrete Digital Skills course to bridge the digital skills gap for ESOL learners and to enable the learners who have the greatest need to improve their Essential Digital Skills. The aim of the course was to enable the learners to confidently access email and Zoom sessions across a range of devices. Feedback from learners has been positive and the project team believe that the key to its success was the way in which it was delivered by ESOL teachers rather than IT teachers.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


Islington Adult Community Learning (ACL) is situated in the London Borough of Islington, which borders on the London Boroughs of Hackney, Haringey and Camden. The department offers further education and health and well-being courses for Islington residents over the age of nineteen, with learning centres located in libraries, children’s centres, community centres and other locations across the borough.

Islington is a borough of sharp contrasts, with areas of high deprivation as well as pockets of wealth. Within this setting, ACL operates under the wider council priority to create a fairer Islington.

Islington ACL’s mission is –

  • To create the opportunity for residents from whatever their background, to reach their potential and enjoy a good quality of life.
  • By delivering outstanding teaching and learning, to meet the needs of residents, employers and the local community.
  • To inspire learners to develop the digital skills, knowledge and aptitudes they need to be successful, happy in their future lives and realise their next steps in education and employment.
  • To remove digital skills exclusion, to enable residents who need to access basic digital skills course to increase employment opportunities, access online resources and information.

At a local level, the need for developing valuable skills in this area was exemplified during the 2020 pandemic when the delivery of our programmes in ACL Islington were largely carried out online. It quickly became apparent that there were many learners who were not secure in their digital skills which prevented them from participating and benefiting from our new online mode of learning.

This was a responsive, short term project to support adult ESOL learners to build their confidence and skills with the devices they had to enable the learner to engage in learning. The project revolved around a set of co-created interactive PowerPoint resources, which moved PowerPoint from a linear process to being learner led. Tutors would be able to apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment while drawing on the research and learner feedback.


It is important that learners are able to make meaning from their online learning. The team were focused on developing responsive resources that helped to address specific needs that learners were bringing. Many of the learners involved in the project had been excluded from other opportunities due to not having the appropriate digital skills or access to devices; reaching them and supporting their digital development was especially important.


ESOL tutors identified 26 learners from ESOL spring term 2021 programmes (see appendix 1) who required urgent support with digital skills (Beard & Wilson, 2006:16). The learners were split into two groups Group 1 (ESOL Pre-Entry and Entry 1) and Group 2 (ESOL Entry 2 and Entry 3).

The following were identified as the greatest areas for skills development within the ESOL Pre-Entry – Entry 1 cohort. They are as follows:

  • devices
  • Zoom
  • pictures
  • WhatsApp
  • Internet

ESOL Entry 2/3 cohort required developing skills in the following areas:

  • Zoom controls
  • Device & internet vocabulary
  • Zoom chat & reactions
  • Online search
  • Moodle
  • Email
  • Attachments

Before the course went live the tutors developed resources that were able to be used with different devices.

Image of slide showing how to use chat on your computer/ laptop

How to use chat on your computer/ laptop

The course delivery was via Zoom and the tutor used interactive PowerPoint presentations (See Appendix 6). As our learners used a range of different devices to access online courses, we did not want to restrict the project to just one device. Although this could have been easier to deliver the project it would not have reflected our learners who use different devices to access courses. It would have been another barrier and further digital exclusion. The project was to develop resources and teaching methodology that could be used not only for ESOL learners on this project but also wider use across the service. Before the course started, the tutor contacted the learners to find out the type of device they would be using to access the sessions. The tutors were then aware of the different types of devices that learners were using and this in turn informed the resources that were developed to support them.

Each session was designed to take into account scope for free practice. Learners were given time away from the lesson to enable them to practice the skills being taught in the online lessons under the tutor’s guidance. This was a logical approach to support the development of the learners’ digital skills from the start of the course through to completion. Reviewing each session at the start of the next and giving the learners the opportunity to practice using their own devices, what had been covered in each session. The tutor started each session with a review of what had been covered in the first session and asked if the learners had had the opportunity to use the digital skills they had learnt from the previous session.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The action research project enabled the tutors involved to reflect on what worked in their own delivery of the material, to meet the individual needs of our learners. Tutors developed their research skills and evidence-based practice. They also gained opportunities to network, collaborate and form professional relationships with other colleagues from different ACLs during research sharing events. The project gave the tutors more freedom and encouraged the tutors to be more creative in developing new resources and using different teaching and learning strategies. This had a positive impact on our learners and encouraged them to be more confident to try new skills and improve existing skills. Tutors are now more confident to try new teaching strategies and also support other tutors, who were not involved in the project to develop their own resources, developing a culture of self-evaluation through Teaching Learning Reviews and removing the fear of trying something new.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The project was a collaboration with tutors from two curriculum areas, ESOL and digital specialists. The combination of tutors from each specialist area was important to help address language barriers and to meet learners’ needs effectively. Teachers worked together to develop resources, with another member of the project team meeting learners after their sessions to collect and collate learner accounts.

The project encouraged and provided opportunities for staff to work together on a research project. Staff have an opportunity to lead in gathering the information, conducting the research, interviewing learners and tutors and presenting findings. The project also provided the opportunity for staff to work together to evaluate each other’s practice, including how the strategies implemented during the project impacted on learning and outcomes for learners.

Tutors on the project have shared resources developed with other areas not just ESOL and Digital Skills. The resources can be used across all curriculum areas for learners with low digital skills to enable the learners to access courses. Tutors are contributing to quality improvements within the organisation, delivering CPD sessions to tutors firstly about the project and then three training sessions to help tutors improve their own digital skills and develop specific resources’ that could be used in their sessions and shared across the service. This has been an important part of the Quality Assurance for the service, enabling staff to utilise their skills and share good practice across the service.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Essential Digital Skills course published on the ACL learner brochure (ACL Islington 2021)

Essential Digital Skills course published on the ACL learner brochure (ACL Islington 2021)

The project team arranged an initial introduction and a brief survey to find out what level learners were working towards, and which devices they would be using to access their course. However, the resources for the Week 1 sessions were prepared in advance of meeting the learners and having a clear picture of their needs. As a result of this, the materials focused on giving learners a basic understanding of the technologies/ devices they have in-hand and improving their confidence to engage and navigate their learning environment using Zoom.

Tasks were successfully evaluated and tracked through tutor observation of the Zoom participant panel, as well as learner feedback (yes/no). Learners used Zoom chat to send messages to their tutor and other learners in the class. They were also shown how to use WhatsApp to send messages and pictures. This helped provide feedback in sessions and for the tutor to evaluate their learning.

The original course outline was initially considered ambitious for this level of ESOL learner. However, tutors adapted the resources after each session. Using the revised resources, that were easier for the learners to understand and linked to different devices being used, there were an adequate number of practical opportunities for the learners and time to complete them. To check learning, the learners used their own examples of topics and keywords and considered how it could be used outside the classroom. At the end of the course, all objectives were met, and attendees demonstrated and fed back their understanding sufficiently to consider all aims as completed satisfactorily.

Though starting from a basic level, learners were now able to use their own devices to begin accessing courses:

“I learnt how to send message in Zoom chat, how to listen. Which phone is latest, which phone is an old phone, I didn’t know before. I know how to send pictures message, how to search and find everything online.”

Using the ACL Moodle VLE, learners and staff were able to share their experiences of the project. This provided a safe environment for learners to provide feedback and tutors to develop the resources for learners to access. Tutors were able to manage and encourage positive learner behaviour and learner experience. Removing the barriers of digital exclusion, similar to when learners’ opportunities are improved as their literacy and language skills improve and open up a world of opportunity, not only further learning but also able to access both social and employment opportunities.

The project gave learners from different social and cultural backgrounds (including those with limited or no access to digital technologies) opportunity to access and participate in learning. Teaching strategies and the resources developed by the tutors motivated learners to use technology, making the learners more confident in accessing learning. Learners were also no longer afraid to practise or make mistakes when using Moodle or attending sessions using Zoom. The project became more learner-led as it progressed, and as learners’ digital skills improved, tutors responded by developing resources that would further stretch and challenge them.

The project focus was on improving ESOL learners Digital Skills and accessing online course EDS and ESOL, the soft skill was learner confidence and this can be seen in the case studies.

“I learn how to find anything how to search, how to write my name in Zoom. I comfortable, I try by myself and I’m happy to teach computer because I want to do learn by myself and I didn’t want to ask my friend all day, what can I do what is this. It is hard sometimes to ask all day, ‘what is this?’. I’m happy now”.
Learner H (appendix 4)

“Nobody can come to you and teach you…struggle, very struggle. Now a little bit better than before because you can go to talk with them, you can talk with them, you can help you in office but because of corona, nobody helped you. Now I know three or four things, I know how you use it…zoom, email. I use it by myself. That one is important, if you learn more, you can do.”
Learner A (appendix 5)

Learning from this project

What Went Well

  • This project will help shape the landscape for developing the skills our learners need to navigate around the web safely and will greatly enhance their lives in the U.K. Following this discrete programme, learners now have the skills to conduct everyday things such as online browsing, shopping online, and accessing learning materials. Also, importantly, preventing further social exclusion by enabling learners to stay connected through online platforms. Both courses had a positive impact on the learners who attended and they were able to link the gaps in their knowledge to the newly acquired digital skills. They now have an understanding of the technical language needed to recognise and identify skills needed for future development.
  • Learners were able use the skills learnt to access online services that previously they were unable to, providing a new outlook for the learners. This was really important, and in a way, a light bulb moment for the learners; Bridging the gap between what they wanted to do and what they were instructed to do by others. This gave them a deeper contextual understanding.
  • Learners had particular areas of EDS that were especially aspirational such as transacting online. The project enabled an exploratory approach that was able to tap into learners’ interests and motivations.
  • The interactive and non-linear design of the resources enabled learners to ‘take their own route’, which was surprisingly successful.

Even Better If

  • The learners made huge steps to improve their digital skills. If we had more information about their level prior to starting the course, it may have helped designing and developing the resources.
  • Through the course of learner sampling, it became evident the skills to be taught on the course had to be scaled back to the bare basic. It quickly became evident after the first session that the starting point for the course is vocabulary used in digital skills delivery.
  • Learners and teachers would appreciate more time to work on digital skills.
  • Learners stressed that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ and it is important for teachers to remember this.