Whether as enthusiastic natives or reluctant luddites, we all inhabit a digital world. A teacher will be woken by her phone. Over breakfast a smartphone app will remind her that she is to collect homework today, to be uploaded to cloud storage. She has exchanged lesson ideas with colleagues online and jazzed up lesson four with video clips downloaded from the internet. Every afternoon she places her lessons on the school’s VLE, so her students can access them from home. Before she goes home she updates her students’ progress on the data tracking system; it informs her that her summer-born students are falling behind. That evening she joins a discussion on that topic on Twitter and finds a link to an academic paper. Before she goes to sleep she thinks to add the link for the benefit of others in her online research community. One hopes she has remembered to switch all her devices to flight mode as she turns off her light.
She knows her students will not have done. The media look under the bed covers and find teenagers messaging other teenagers, sharing files and photos, trading insults and not sleeping. Before breakfast (if he eats breakfast) on of them will already have played a computer game with his online friends and earned credits for the next level. The homework app on his phone pings. That’s fine because the thirty minute bus ride is long enough for him to find, cut and paste a nearly relevant article and submit it to his class’s secure storage area. He will sit at the back of his classroom, shielding his eyes from the sun, unable to make out the content on the interactive whiteboard. He prefers his art teacher, who lets him listen to the music he has streamed to his phone.
The above picture will not be recognized by everyone. Technology, and how teachers and students interact with it, is subject to much variability. It is a matter of space and time. There are countries, then there are jurisdictions within countries, then schools within those, and classrooms within schools, all using technology to varying extents and evolving all the while.
Different school leaders have made different decisions. Often with dedicated external funding, some schools have invested heavily in hardware, software and staff training. In 2010 the UK’s Home Access Grant made 270,000 grants to low income families in England to buy laptops with internet access. In 2014, ‘The Year of Code’, the UK government supported the training of teachers in coding with £500,000 of match funding, to coincide with its introduction to the national curriculum (apparently the first G20 country to do so). There are online solutions for everything from recording classroom observations to awarding student incentives, from teachers’ annual appraisal to staff recruitment. There is plenty available. What is in shorter supply is evidence that any of it makes much difference.
A summary of the debate: the impact of technology use in schools
Nesta, the innovation charity, reported that UK schools had spent more than £1 billion in the five years to 2012 on digital technology. ‘The education sector has invested heavily in digital technology; but this investment has not yet resulted in the radical improvements to learning experiences or educational attainment.’ (Luckin et al. 2012, p.8). Higgins et al (2012) conducted their meta-analysis of forty years of research evidence for the impact of technology in the UK and internationally, saying it ‘consistently identifies positive benefits.’ (Higgins et al. 2012, p.3) However, studies linking ‘the provision and use of technology with attainment tend to find consistent but small positive associations with educational outcomes.’ (Higgins et al. 2012, p.3). And the studies do not find a causal link.
“It seems probable that more effective schools and teachers are more likely to use digital technologies effectively than other schools. We need to know more about where and how it is used to greatest effect, then investigate to see if this information can be used to help improve learning in other contexts. We do not know if it is the use of technology that is making the difference.” (Higgins et al. 2012, p.3)
Higgins et al state that interventions using technology aimed at improvements in student attainment are slightly less effective than other non-technology-based approaches, such as peer tutoring and effective feedback. The authors acknowledge the difficulties in understanding and applying the research evidence, given the rapidly changing nature of the technology and the conflicting need to wait to see the evidence emerging. Nevertheless they conclude that ‘it is not whether technology is used (or not) which makes the difference, but how well the technology is used to support teaching and learning.’ (Higgins et al. 2012, p.3)
It is all down to the teaching. This is a more measured response to the claims made by Bennett and colleagues that ‘a sense of impending crisis pervades the debate.’ (Bennett et al. 2008, p.1) They refer to the ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ first encountered by Marc Prensky.
“…these young people are said to have been immersed in technology all their lives, imbuing them with sophisticated technological skills and learning preferences for which traditional education is unprepared. Grand claims are being made about the nature of this generational change and about the urgent necessity for educational reform in response.” (Bennett et al. 2008, p.1)
They note that the debate – about how students may learn differently in the twenty-first century – is poorly-informed by research or theory, and amounts to a ‘moral panic’.
Bennett et al could have been writing about the reporting of a study commissioned by the security software firm Kaspersky Lab. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a company engaged in cybersecurity, they maintain that ‘[d]igital technologies are not just transforming the way we live and work; they are changing the way we think, learn, behave – and remember.’ (The rise and impact of digital amnesia 2015, p.4) This was translated by BBC online into ‘Digital dependence “eroding human memory”’ (Coughlan 2015). The Kaspersky study – of 6000 adults in UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Benelux countries, conducted by Opinion Matters – investigated the growing tendency among adults to search online before attempting to recall information. Adults in the UK were least likely to recall their partner’s phone number, with the (presumably more romantic) Italians being most mindful. ‘Moral panic’ might be an apt term too for Paul Kirschner (2015). The Distinguished Professor from the Open University of the Netherlands notes the shallow information processing of those who read intensively online, how the nonlinearity of hyperlinked text requires ‘extra non-productive cognitive effort’, reducing ‘the cognitive resources available to the reader for deep learning and efficient memory consolidation’. He continues:
“In other words, there might really be the case that the result of this digital immersion is that how these children think and process information makes it difficult for them to excel academically, but NOT because of outdated teaching methods in schools but rather due to the possible changes in their brain functioning that impede learning.” (Author’s italics) (Kirschner, 2015)
Kirschner blames the text-type; the OECD thinks it lies in the teaching. Their 2015 report found that countries’ PISA rankings for reading, mathematics and science were impervious to heavy spending on technology for education. The digital divide will be better crossed when every child reaches a basic proficiency in reading and maths; access to high-tech equipment is not the issue. More is not better.
“Overall, students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do much worse, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.” (Students, Computers and Learning 2015)
OECD education director Andreas Schleicher (2015) and Luckin et al. (2012) both make similar points about the continuing role of the teacher. Schleicher, offering his analysis of the OECD report cited above, says that one interpretation is that:
“…schools have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; that adding 21st Century technologies to 20th Century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching. If students use smartphones to copy and paste prefabricated answers to questions, it is unlikely to help them become smarter. Educators who want to ensure that students become smarter than a smartphone need to think harder about the pedagogies they are using to teach them.” (Schleicher 2015)
Luckin and colleagues (2012) predict that the digital devices will keep flowing into schools and homes, but, after all the money that has been spent, we need to ‘make better use of what we’ve got’. They argue:
“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, creating 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’.” (Luckin et al. 2012, p.62)
As Higgins and colleagues remind us: ‘It is …the pedagogy of the application of technology in the classroom which is important: the how rather than the what. This is the crucial lesson emerging from the research.’ (Higgins et al. 2012, p.3)
Future direction of technology use
As Schleicher (2015) says, ‘Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge.’ It seems a safe prediction that access to technology will expand, even if the concomitant improvements in knowledge remain disappointing. Not everyone is pessimistic about the prospects, however. One might expect the chief marketing officer of an LMS to espouse the joys of hypertext. Renny Monaghan claims:
“…teachers and administrators have begun to embrace the idea of creating a personalized learning experience for students. Instead of teaching a subject at one speed to an entire class, technology allows us to reach students individually at a speed and pace that’s right for them, and then scale that experience as appropriate.” (Monaghan 2015)
She envisages a ‘real-time analytics’, drawing down student data from ‘the full learning ecosystem’, allowing adjustments to be made at the level of the individual. This might be termed ‘the small curriculum’, where teaching can be truly personalised in classrooms – or anywhere else the learning management system can penetrate. It consorts with ‘big data’: the mining of huge sets of data (such as England’s National Pupil Database) for nuggets of new knowledge of ‘what works’ in schools. This calls to mind Higgins’ six myths:
Myth 1: New technologies are being developed all of the time; the past history of the impact of technology is irrelevant to what we have now or will be available tomorrow.
Myth 2: Today’s children are digital natives and the ‘net’ generation – they learn differently from older people.
Myth 3: Learning has changed now we have access to knowledge through the internet. Today’s children don’t need to know stuff, they just need to know where to find it.
Myth 4: Students are motivated by technology so they must learn better when they use it.
Myth 5: The Everest Fallacy: we must use technology because it is there!
Myth 6: The ‘More is Better’ Fallacy. (Higgins et al. 2012, p. 20-21)
His list is perhaps the product of a mind unencumbered by the need to market what he writes about.
Alongside Higgins’ six myths might sit Luckin et al’s ‘two key errors’. These frequently occur when trying to make gains in education from technology.
“Collectively, they have put the technology above teaching and excitement above evidence. [Original emphasis.] This means they have spent more time, effort and money looking to find the digital silver bullet that will transform learning than they have into evolving teaching practice to make the most of technology. If we are to make progress we need to clarify the nature of the goal we want to satisfy through future innovation.” (Luckin et al. 2012, p.64)
Digital technology is all around us. It is convenient, ever-present and often designed in formats which are engaging to the point of addiction. It pervades our schools, from its security systems to its timetables. It connects every member to the school community, and it connects the school to the wider educational community beyond. It is expensive but it is making a difference, at least a little; or at least where technology is being used in moderation there are moderate gains. There may be losses too, as young people, trying to cope with the interruptions in digital texts (and the interruptions from their other devices), fail to learn deeply or even to commit things to memory at all. So, teachers still matter. With some concerted professional development in ways to align the technology to genuine learning goals, teachers could make an even greater difference.
A version of this blogpost originally appeared in Earley, P. and T. Greany (2017) ‘School Leadership and Education System Reform’, Bloomsbury.
Bennett, S., K. Maton, L. Kervin (2008), ‘The “digital natives” debate: A critical review of the evidence’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (5).
Berry, J. (2015), ‘Using social networking for professional development’, Professional Development Today 17 (2), 60-64
Coughlan, S. (2015),‘Digital dependence “eroding human memory”’ BBC Education & Family. Available from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34454264> [9 October 2015].
Higgins, S., Z. Xiao and M. Katsipataki (2012) ‘The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning: A Summary for the Educational Endowment Foundation’, Durham University. Available from <https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/uploads/pdf/The_Impact_of_Digital_Technologies_on_Learning_(2012).pdf> [14 November 2015].
Kirschner, P. (2015), ‘The Disturbing Facts about Digital Natives’. 20 October. Paul Kirschner: Blog. Available from <http://portal.ou.nl/nl/web/pki/blog/-/blogs/the-disturbing-facts-about-digital-natives> [14 November 2015].
Luckin, R., B. Bligh, A. Manches, S. Ainsworth, C. Crook and R. Noss (2012) ‘Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education’, Nesta. Available from <http://nesta.org.uk/publications/decoding-learning> [14 November 2015].
Monaghan, R. (2015), ‘Education Technology is Nothing – without People’, EdTech Digest, 17 August. Available from <https://edtechdigest.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/education-technology-is-nothing-without-people/> [14 November 2015].
OECD (2015), Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, PISA, OECD Publishing.
Schleicher, A. (2015), ‘School technology struggles to make an impact’. BBC Business, 15 September. Available from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34174795> [17 September 2015].
‘The Rise and Impact of Digital Amnesia: Why we need to protect what we no longer remember’ (2015), Kaspersky Lab. Available from <https://blog.kaspersky.com/files/2015/06/005-Kaspersky-Digital-Amnesia-19.6.15.pdf> [15 November 2015].