Supporting the Essential Digital Skills of ESOL and low-level English students

Islington Adult Community Learning (ACL)

This project road-tested a powerful, in-house PowerPoint resource aimed at supporting ESOL and lower-level English learners to develop their knowledge and confidence in the application of Essential Digital Skills (EDS). Students reportedly enjoyed being able to use these new skills in their learning, their everyday lives and even to submit better quality homework. A rewarding by-product of the project was that colleagues developed new approaches in their teaching and acquired and shared new digital skills of their own into the bargain.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Islington Adult Community Learning (ACL) sought to address the Essential Digital Skills deficit of learners in the Borough by utilising a multi-layered, bespoke PowerPoint resource to introduce a step-by-step guide to a range of highly relevant digital skills in an accessible, visual and practical way. This resource was the product of ACL engaging in a previous OTLA project with the Education and Training Foundation (ETF). This latest project responded to feedback about using the resource, developing it further and refining its use in the classroom and for independent use by students. This term saw a return to face-to-face teaching. A return to the classroom has enabled adults who are digitally excluded at home to benefit from this project by using a variety of handheld devices.

Other Contextual Information

Islington ACL is a Local Authority Adult and Community Learning provider that operates out of dedicated spaces in libraries, children’s centres, community spaces and partner venues. Three experienced ESOL and English tutors participated in the project together with up to forty of their students. They included a Pre-entry Level/Entry Level 1 English class, an Entry Level 2/Entry Level 3 ESOL class, an English Grammar class and two dyslexic students who engaged in one-to-one support with their tutor.


Among the challenges experienced early on in the project, tutors initially battled with a resource so substantial in size that the digital resources available in classrooms and learners’ personal devices could not cope with downloading and viewing it. The resource covers a series of separate but connected topics and individual slides have multiple animations which make it a large file. Unfortunately, the colleagues originally involved in creating the resource were unavailable for this stage of the project. However, this afforded the new project team the opportunity to explore ways of reducing the size of the resource, eventually scaling it down into themed slide sets, for example, ‘presenting work’, ‘meeting apps (Zoom)’ and – as demonstrated below – ‘keyboard and keyboard skills’.

Screenshot of EDS keyboard skills PowerPoint.

Another issue that presented itself was that this versatile and well-produced resource was created on modern computers with the latest software. This highlighted the limitations of the technology and outdated software available to tutors in some of the learning spaces. Fortunately for this project, the service has invested significantly in upgrading computers and software since the start of the year, which will contribute greatly to the EDS development of both learners and tutors.

Having cleared these hurdles, and in order to establish a baseline of digital skills, tutors conducted an initial skills audit (Appendix 6) to determine extent of digital literacy, access to and use of digital devices and level of digital skills confidence of their learner cohorts. This helped identify those aspects of the resource that would be of most usefulness and relevance to each learner.

Tutors were also encouraged to keep a diary of the activities undertaken whilst utilising the resource and to reflect on its application and impact on learners. An important aspect of the project were the bi-weekly meetings of the whole project team. These provided an opportunity to feedback on progress, share successes, discuss and overcome challenges and to contribute development suggestions.

The project deputy also made mid-term and end of term visits to classrooms to engage with learner participants and to hear first-hand the impact of what they had learnt through using this resource in the classroom. The detailed notes taken during these meetings and classroom visits have helped inform the findings in this report.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Tutors involved in this project commented positively on the impact this research has had on their teaching, learning and assessment activities (see Appendices 2 and 3). Collec tively, they had appreciated the benefits of being part of a community of practice (Wenger, 1998), being able to share experiences, learn from each other and explore insights. As one tutor commented:

After seeing [my colleague’s] marking of homework in PDF format, I reached out to her as I wanted to improve my marking technique, too.

Individually, tutors were able to express how incorporating EDS into their teaching had A learner practising their digital skills.
enhanced the learning experience of their students and opened up new possibilities for
assessment activities. One tutor, who had focussed on incorporating the Zoom chat
facility in classes, described feeling personally ‘more confident’ about introducing digital skills into lessons. They had now started to plan for it and found using Zoom chat, for example, ‘very useful for writing activities, brainstorming and other tasks’.

Another tutor felt the project had ‘encouraged me to investigate alternative ways to set homework’ including, as the example below demonstrates, supporting students to use Padlet, which was enthusiastically embraced.

While teaching an online grammar class at Level 1/Level 2, this tutor also devised a homework activity using MS Forms. At the first attempt twelve learners completed the task, including three learners who hadn’t submitted their homework before. Buoyed by the success of this activity, the tutor has gone on to present a workshop on using MS Forms for assessment available to all tutors in ACL.

It has been inspiring to see how each of the tutors involved in the project have felt compelled to adapt or create another feature or theme for the EDS resource to meet the specific needs of their learners.

A good example is reflected in the comment of one learner whose tutor told us:

He would now be able to read his emails on being shown how to use the Speak accessibility function on his iPhone. He was amazed to have his texts read aloud too.

Another student with dyslexia put it even more succinctly:

You literally changed my life.

Organisational Development

Islington ACL has implemented considerable change in supporting learners developing their digital skills. This is most evident in the swift migration to online teaching and learning in response to classrooms closing because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This EDS project has highlighted a raft of new opportunities for promoting the use of technology in teaching and learning and in supporting learners in its use. Moreover, learners have been encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning through stretch and challenge activities whereby, for example, they created and presented coursework using digital technology (see Appendix 5 for further details).

It has been pleasing to report on the positive collaborations among tutor colleagues, sharing information, problem solving and inspiring further experimentation. In turn, this has fostered even greater positive relationships with learners who have had their lives transformed by their tutor introducing them to digital technology, as one learner put it:

Thank goodness I have learnt about this now!

The project team have shared the resource with other institutions nearby, but have not had any feedback from them as yet. Internally, project participants from three curriculum areas have already begun sharing their insights with staff from other curriculum areas, including devising new resources in online workshops. We look forward to them presenting further their creativity and innovation in forthcoming Inset days.

Learning from this project

In reviewing the reflections of tutors involved in this project, several key themes emerged (see Appendices 2 and 3 for a comprehensive exploration of these themes). Firstly, tutors said they felt encouraged to investigate and innovate. Secondly, they could see more clearly now the barriers experienced by their learners’ digital exclusion or lack of confidence in their digital skills (see also Appendix 4). There was a universal appreciation of the benefits to be had from working collaboratively with colleagues and timetabling for that to happen. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the project heightened awareness of the transformative impact of embedding EDS in these ESOL/English classes and the ripple effect it had on other areas of learners’ lives.

There were some challenges early on, but the project team readily adapted to modifying the resource themselves when it became necessary to do so. Linked to this was the importance of having up to date software and technology available to allow quality teaching and learning of EDS to occur.

While not a particular concern for this project, conversations were had about possible ‘institutional resistance’ to introducing a ‘digital skills experiment’ into non-digital skills curriculum areas. One of the welcome impacts of engaging in a recognised evidence-based research project like this one is that it validates the activity and places it firmly in the domain of maintaining and developing professional standards. It also underlines the importance of disseminating and discussing the findings widely with teaching colleagues and across all tiers of management.

Looking ahead, participants in this project are already working on their own innovations to add to the resource. A next step would be to invite teaching staff from other curriculum areas – vocational and employability, maths and family learning, for example – to incorporate the EDS resource into their activities. It is anticipated that participants in this latest project will act as mentors to those who respond to this invitation.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 9. Critically review and apply your knowledge of educational research, pedagogy, and assessment to develop evidence-informed practice.

    Within our own organisation the project supported cross curriculum collaboration and an extension of this project is to encourage other curriculum colleagues to develop and share their own EDS resources. Action research and evidenced-based research within ACL is increasingly being seen as having a role to play in meeting objectives like closing the digital skills gap among local residents, raising standards of teaching and learning and promoting professional collaboration to the benefit of the service.

  • 10. Share and update knowledge of effective practice with colleagues, networks and/or research communities to support improvement.

    Tutors took part in bi-weekly meetings with the whole project team to discuss their own practice and share how it had impacted on their learners. Tutors were encouraged to engage learners to speak openly about participating in the research and the impact it had on their learning. This provided a useful triangulation for assessing the overall impact of the project.

  • 16. Select and use digital technologies safely and effectively to promote learning.

    The project focused on developing online resources that would give learners the underpinning knowledge and skills to support their own online learning. It was encouraging to see how quickly the digital skills acquired fed into their personal online activities with social media as well as enhanced confidence in accessing online resources for independent learning.


Appendix 2: Tutor Reflections 1

Appendix 3: Tutor Reflections 2

Appendix 4: Case Studies

Appendix 5: Learner Work Demonstrating Before & After Intervention

Appendix 6: Pro forma Templates


Wenger, E (1998) Communities of Practice Learning, Meaning and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Read the team’s previous action research project.