Digital Technology: How can we improve the impact it has on learning?

Twitter lit up two weeks ago as Apple launched a range of new products including the latest thinner, lighter, faster, iPad Air. New technology excites many of us, presenting new possibilities for doing things differently. This is certainly true in the education sphere where enthusiastic teachers seek to use technology both to tackle difficult problems and to find new ways of learning. Schools, however, are typically (and rightly) wary of businesses seeking to sell the latest piece of equipment that will, according to the marketing, revolutionise classroom learning. How can they be sure that costly technology will bring the benefits promised? The concept of opportunity cost is also important here: there are many things teachers can do with their classes, so is the application of digital technology in learning the best way to spend the time available or would they be better off doing something else?

In Professor Robert Coe’s (Director of CEM and Professor of Education at the School of Education, Durham) Inaugural Lecture: Improving Education, A triumph of hope over experience he presented the graph below that summarised the findings of the Education Endowment Foundation which, based on their review of research into the impact of ICT on education, found that the average learning gain of using ICT in education is just 4 months. This is well below the impact of many other possible activities such as feedback and peer-tutoring, implying that more often than not we might be better off abandoning using technology in favour of these alternatives.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 20.53.20It is, however, worth digging a little behind this 4 month figure by reading the relevant pages of the Education Endowment Foundation website. Importantly, it is suggested that ‘the approaches in this area are varied’ and that ‘there is considerable variation in impact’.  It is clear, therefore, that possibilities for very effective use of technology in learning coexist with less effective applications, and schools need to take time to ensure they make the right choices.

The work of the Education Endowment Foundation examining the scale of the effect of different actions on learning has built on John Hattie’s highly influential book ‘Visible learning’. In Chapter 21 of Hattie’s latest book (written with Gregory Yates -Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2013)), the authors go further and identify the following key generalisations (based on the analysis of academic research) about the effective use of technology in learning:

a)    Effects were stronger when computers were used to supplement traditional teaching, rather than being seen as an alternative,

b)    Effects were stronger when teachers received higher levels of training in the use of computers

c)    Effects were strong when computers offered students opportunities to extend their learning practice periods or take advantage of tutorial assistance

d)    There were clear advantages in the students assuming control over the learning situation in aspects such as pacing and mastering new material

e)    Students were able to use computers most effectively when working in pairs

f)     Computers have the ability to provide highly adaptive feedback to the learner

g)    Students learn more when they work in pairs using technology.

These seven points can help us make the right choices so that our efforts exceed the average impact of using ICT to support learning. Exponents of flipped learning, for example, should take comfort from point d) as handing over control of the pace of learning is a key feature of this approach.

In addition to identifying these generalisations from research, Hattie and Yates address two important issues that may influence how we use technology in schools: the ‘digital native’ theory and multitasking.

While they recognise that ‘every child in our schools today needs to become computer literate to participate fully in life and society’ they reject the elements of digital native theory that suggest that today’s learners, because of their immersion in technology from a young age, learn differently from past generations. They state: ‘we find little evidence…that a) computers can replace or displace outmoded teachers and b) students can function and learn at ever increasing levels of depth and sophistication due to their recently developed electronically enhanced cognitive resources.’

Multitasking (chapter 20) is an important read for all teachers. The authors are unequivocal that, despite popular belief, humans can’t really multitask. In reality we switch rapidly from one activity to another, rather than perform both simultaneously. Unfortunately, when attempting to learn while doing other activities (e.g. using social media) this switching has a considerable negative impact, reducing reading comprehension and the ability to retain information in the long-term memory. While this may not be news to teachers, many students would benefit from hearing this clear message and the suggestion that the ideal learning environment is one of ‘quietness and lack of external stimulation’. The real challenge for students is, however, finding such an environment, especially when their work is taking place on a computer. Suggesting technological solutions such as the freedom app may be helpful here.

The pace of change in digital technology means we will no doubt continue to see many exciting new developments that may or may not have beneficial impacts on learning. What is important is that we approach new developments with a clear head, tread cautiously and use research evidence and past experience to guide us on whether they are worth introducing in schools. To help with this, I think it is well worth adding the Education Endowment Foundation’s view to your browser favourites and you should revisit this page when assessing anything new. They suggest:

–       Effective use of technology is driven by learning and teaching goals rather than a specific technology: technology is not an end in itself.

–       It is important to identify clearly how the introduction of technology will improve learning rather than assuming that new technology will automatically lead to increased attainment; technology without pedagogy is very unlikely to be effective.

–       Technology should support pupils to work harder, for longer or more efficiently to improve their learning.

–       Motivation to use technology does not always translate into more effective learning, particularly if the use of the technology and the learning outcomes are not closely aligned.

–       Teachers need support and time to learn to use new technology effectively. This involves more than just learning how to use the technology and should include support to use it for teaching through professional development.

If we can work within these parameters we may find that the application of digital technology in education can indeed produce the level of impact on learning that has been promised for the past 30 years.

Further reading:

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