Putting their best footprint forward

Dr Rachel Buchanan works at uncovering and addressing the equity implications of the increased deployment of educational technologies in all levels of education.

Dr Rachel Buchanan 


Dr Rachel Buchanan first felt the impacts of inequity on educational outcomes during her undergraduate studies.

Already feeling somewhat overwhelmed due to being the first in family to attend university, she noticed the uneven playing field during a routine group assignment.

"We were asked to give a presentation," she remembers. "Powerpoint was a relatively new tool and no-one in our group had the software for presentations, so we used overhead projection."

"We thought having quality content would make up for the lack of new technology."

This was not the case and Rachel's eyes were opened to the fact that access to resources can directly equate to educational success.

More than a decade later, Rachel's work examines how equity issues affect the way that students access, understand and use technology in educational settings.

Rachel questions the assumption that current students are digital natives, more at home in the terrain of cyberspace than any other generation. She also challenges the popular discourse that technology can solve any barrier related to student engagement.

"For example," Rachel explains, "the digital education revolution was about giving all students from year 9 onwards their own laptop. It was an equality measure to improve learning in schools for all students."

"However, if not all students have access to broadband internet at home, you have only addressed one part of the complex puzzle that is equity in education."


So how does this focus on equity translate into action at the University of Newcastle? With 27 per cent of our students from low socio-economic backgrounds we are well above the sector average.   

"We have made ourselves accessible to a wide range of students, but what are we doing to ensure they are all enjoying university, and all able to succeed?"

Rachel pinpoints academic literacy as a major cornerstone of student success.

"It is assumed that students come to university with skills that allow them to understand an argument, or correctly structure a paragraph."

"For a variety of reasons not all students have these skills."

Using a rubric that measures academic skills, these needs have been identified and appropriate skill building exercises embedded in tutorials.

"If we give students a good foundation in their first year they can go on and succeed."


Rachel was part of the Swimming with Seahorses project that saw 25 academics from various faculties working with students to develop resources to address barriers to participation and success for first year students. The resulting knowledge bank was ultimately made by colleagues into an app for easy access.

However, Rachel believes that it is vital for universities to avoid the assumption that providing up-to-date technology is enough to ensure student success.    

"Universities are investing in amazing online management systems, and providing fabulous hubs that are open 24 hours a day. But this issue is more nuanced than merely providing resources," Rachel explains.

Instead, universities need to be flexible with content delivery and recognise that students are individuals with differing needs and capabilities.

"The assumption that everyone can do it, and everyone can do it easily makes university difficult for a lot of students. We are always working to change that."

For aspiring professionals, literacy skills in a whole other area are essential - university students may be greatly disadvantaged by a poorly curated digital identity.

Rachel is working on a project that will use focus groups and online surveys to investigate how universities educate students about their digital footprints and examine university students' knowledge, attitudes and behaviours regarding their online footprints.

One area of digital literacy that students can find challenging is the ability to craft appropriate and professional emails. Many are unaware of the accepted conventions, leaving them at a disadvantage.    

"We'll look at what students are doing online, but also how they recognise and understand notions of digital identity," Rachel advises.

"Most importantly, we'll look at how as an institute, we can address an uneven playing field regarding knowledge around digital literacy. No one should be disadvantaged by not knowing the rules."


The best way to ensure university students understand the complexities of curating a positive digital identity would be to teach them before they enrol. To this end, a mirror trial has begun with much younger students. The Best Footprint Forward project, for which Rachel received a $25,000 grant in early 2015, will be undertaken with fellow UON researchers Dr Erica Southgate and Dr Shamus Smith. The aim is to audit the digital footprint awareness of primary school students, their educators, and their parents.

Rachel is active within two research groups focused on innovation, education, and technology. The recently initiated DICE network, a group of UON educators and researchers looking at issues related to digital identity curation and education, counts Rachel as a founding member.

NuLearn, a group of UON educators focused on 21st century learning and assessments in schools, also benefits from Rachel's involvement. Informed by consultancy and research, NuLearn provide interventions and resources to schools wanting to use digital technology to enhance the student experience. 


Despite the possible pitfalls, choosing to avoid all involvement in online activity is not an option for young people, especially moving into the future.

"Digital footprints are increasingly used to vet applicants for jobs and other life opportunities," Rachel says.

In an effort to minimise any negative impact of the digital footprint, Rachel notes that schools are telling students to lock themselves down and make everything private.

"Yet moving into adulthood, the lack of a digital footprint can be as disadvantageous as a badly managed one."

Ideally, the primary and tertiary footprint studies would be supplemented by a similar study involving secondary students, thus capturing the full gamut of the digital awareness of students. The resultant data will then inform the creation of age appropriate resources and curriculum content that will address knowledge deficits and standardise the teaching material across educational institutes.

"Cyber sense must not be secret knowledge. If we make the guidelines explicit, everyone is capable of curating a positive online presence," Rachel suggests.

"If we can make all students aware that there's different context, different rules and different ways of communicating, we make the playing field a bit more level. And our students will have an even better chance of succeeding if they know it all before they even get here."

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.