Yesterday evening, Nesta launched its report: Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education. The report was written for Nesta by researchers at the IOE’s London Knowledge Lab (LKL) and Learning Sciences Research Institute (LSRI) at Nottingham University and it pulls together evidence about the innovative use of technology to support learning and the impact this can have for students.
The report offers a wealth of examples of learning and teaching being supported by well-used technology and is organised around learning activities rather than by types of technology: this is technology answering real problems of education, not finding something to do with the technology. Yet this is the way so much evidence and innovation is classified: the authors argue that we need to move towards a focus on learning and what works for learners. Unless we do so, they argue, the questions we end up asking are at best unhelpful and at worst, meaningless. For example, the only answer to questions such as “Do games help learning?” is to say, “It depends.” And the same with iPads, mobile phones, the latest programming language or system and so on. We can make the questions meaningful by “thinking about the types of learning activities that we know to be effective, such as making and sharing, and then exploring the ways that technology can support and develop these effective learning activities in innovative ways”.
The report identifies trends and opportunities grounded in effective practice and sets out what the authors believe are some of the most compelling opportunities to improve learning through technology. However, understanding how technology can be employed to improve learning is only part of the equation. There are systemic challenges that need to be addressed if technology is to fulfill its potential to support learning and the millions of pounds invested are really to represent value for money.
Linking industry, research and practice to realise the potential of digital education
There is strong evidence of a disconnect between the key partners involved in developing educational technology. This situation makes little sense at a time when technology has become consumerised across society, and there is increasing evidence for the efficacy of technology as a learning tool in many contexts. Academic, and practitioner research particularly, is poorly connected and is typically conducted in isolation from the technology developers whose products grace our schools and homes. And yet, both researchers and the developers of educational technology need to know from the start whether, and how, their work enhances learning. Industry, researchers and practitioners need to work closely together to test ideas and evaluate potential innovations at a time when design changes can easily be implemented and products can be improved before they are taken to market. Such a process would benefit industry by providing clearer evidence of effectiveness to boost sales; and it would benefit practitioners who would have access to better products on the market.
Make better use of what we’ve got
We need to change the mindset amongst teachers and learners: from a “plug and play” approach where digital tools are used, often in isolation, for a single learning activity; to one of “think and link” where those tools are used in conjunction with other resources where appropriate, for a variety of learning activities. Teachers have always been highly creative, developing a wide range of resources for learners. As new technologies become increasingly prevalent, they will increasingly need to be able to digitally “stick and glue”. To achieve this, teachers will need to develop and share ways of using new technologies – either through informal collaboration or formal professional development. But they cannot be expected to do this alone. They need time and support from school leaders to explore the full potential of the technologies they have at their fingertips as tools for learning. School leaders can further assist teacher development by tapping into the expertise available in the wider community.
We need to know more about what is happening when technology is used effectively
We need better evidence about the contexts in which technology is being used effectively. Evidence about the impact of technology on teaching and learning is gathered from a huge variety of learning settings, and reported without adequate indexing of the contextual factors that influence the nature and scale of the impact recorded. This means that applying the findings of any research study to a fresh setting is severely hampered.
In sum, the report tries to assess the evidence, not just looking for proof of “effect” – but asking relevant questions that can indeed be answered, and which can provide grounds for planning intervention in the learning and teaching process.