Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education

This evening Nesta launched their report: Decoding Learning, which was authored by the London Knowledge lab and colleagues at LSRI in Nottingham.

Our starting point for the research we report was that digital technologies do offer opportunities for innovation that can positively transform teaching and learning, and that our challenge is to identify the shape that these innovations take.

Many research studies have addressed the impact of particular technological innovations, and many meta–analytic reviews have aggregated these findings. Typically, these synthesising reviews do find some evidence of positive impact. However, there are two important complicating factors that limit the strength of the claims that can be made.

Firstly, the evidence is drawn from a huge variety of learning contexts: the wide range of teacher experience and learner ability means that too often the impact identified is relatively modest in scale. The breadth of contexts limits the impact.

Secondly, these findings are invariably drawn from evidence about how technology supports existing teaching and learning practices, rather than transforming those practices.

We looked for proof, potential and promise in digital education:

Proof by putting the learning first.

Promise for technology to help learning in new ways.

Potential to make better use of technologies we already have.

In order to ask these questions we need to look beyond the published research and corporate publications, we need to look at what is happening amongst teachers and learners as well.

What is clear is that no technology has an impact on learning in its own right; rather, its impact depends upon the way in which it is used. Accordingly, we have organised our review around 8 effective learning themes, which are based upon an analysis of learners’ actions.

In each theme there are reasons to feel positive and reason to want more – there are some great examples in this report from traditional technologies such as:

  • Interactive White Boards being used in effective ways, to
  • Learners working with experts to identify solar storms, to
  • Using context-rich life-logs to increase their understanding of their own learning and capability and
  • teachers creating GPS games that meet the learning needs of their students.

It is important to recognise that in addition to the learning themes themselves, which incorporate a variety of learning activities; the learning themes can be combined in interesting and effective ways– for example, the suite of web-based learning tools that was used in one of our highly rated teacher-led examples illustrates one example of Learning in and across Settings providing an overarching framework for Learning through Making. Small groups of learners were taught web design using collaboration scripts and incomplete concept maps. These tools were designed to allow groups of learners to work together on extended tasks using a scripted inquiry approach. The cross-setting opportunities created by the online environment allow classroom support for construction projects that mainly occur at home.

BUT Understanding how technology can be employed to improve learning is only part of the picture.

If innovations are to enter the mainstream, and if they are to fulfil their obvious potential, there are a number of systemic challenges that must be addressed.

We have identified certain trends and opportunities grounded in effective practice and set out what we believe are the most compelling opportunities to improve learning through technology.

For example, there is too little innovative technology-supported practice in the critical area of Learning from Assessment. And yet huge potential through learning analytics and a growing appetite for formative assessment. If, as learners, we do not know what we understand then how can we progress? If, as teacher, we do not know what our students understand, how can we help them to learn?

Making is an effective way of learning. There is much excitement around mending, mashing, and making with digital tools, making it an area ripe with possibility. Robotic kits, authoring tools, and multimedia production tools are just some examples of the technologies that can support learning through making. To learn effectively through making, careful consideration needs to be given to how the process of making leads to the desired learning outcome and to the sharing that is a vital component of learning through construction

What more might we gain by combining these two themes and conducting formative assessment through making and sharing?

All these examples, highlight the fact that Innovation needs to be conceptualised as some learning with a technology used in a particular way in a particular context.

1) We must stop talking about technology generically without being more specific – what technology, how used to support what type if learning, where, with whom and with what else?

To not recognize this is to reduce the value of the question to asking if roads are an effective ay of getting from a to b – of course roads can get me from a to be, BUT which road, what time of day, who else is driving, what are the weather conditions? Will it be faster than the train – well it depends….

… And travel is so much simpler than learning

So,  – Ask rather can games help make the drill and practice activities effective for learners on their own at school? Sure, they can if they are well designed and challenge the child appropriately addressing explicitly what needs to be learnt and offering appropriate support.

Can digital making and mobiles help learners understand more about how energy consumption in their home changes over time and according to their household’s behaviour – well sure it can if they use some sensors for temperature and light, arduino technology and data reporting to an online aggregator, such as cosmo.com for example, and then present and access this through a bespoke mobile phone application that you build yourself and that you can use to check the family consumption while you are travelling home from school on the bus

…And these technologies are inexpensive

Ask the right question and you’ll get a useful answer

2) We need to take more notice of practice and better link this to academic research.

We need to think again about how this type if evidence can be more effectively brought into the picture – can we use technology to create the kind of database of examples that can start to provide a more ‘scientific’ evidence base for us ot use?

3) New pedagogy? or old pedagogy in a new frock?

If you really want to change pedagogy then stop JUST collecting evidence about how to make existing pedagogy work with technology

4) We need to know more about what is happening when technology is used effectively.

We need better evidence about the context 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. We need to know where, with whom, with what …

5) Make better use of what we have 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, 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’. 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.

6) If you want better innovations, then  Link industry, research and practice to realise the potential of digital education.

There is strong evidence of 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. Academic and practitioner research 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 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.

Earth Hour 2012, Learning from our Teenagers to turn off the lights on Saturday

One of the pleasures of my job is that we work with learners and teachers through participatory research and design. Recently we have been working with teenagers at several different schools as part of a research project exploring teenagers’ understanding of energy and their consumption of it. With a view to motivating their curiosity to understand more and to want to be thoughtful about their own consumption and that of their peers, families and communities. The nature of the participatory approach helps the learning to work in all directions, so we learn a great deal through the process, not just about the teenagers and their energy lives, but about things like Earth Hour 2012. One of our groups of young people have taken the initiative at their school and organised local events to prompt people to think on Earth Hour. I didn’t know about Earth Hour until they enlightened me, which is a lovely demonstration that teenagers are not just key consumers of energy, they are also key communicators and I wil now be turning off my lights for an hour at 8.30 pm on Saturday

We know that despite the fact that we hear a lot about energy sustainability in political and popular rhetoric, energy consumption is rising. Teenagers are certainly important consumers now and in the future and yet little is known of their conceptions about energy.  There is growing evidence that they find it hard to translate their formal learning about energy  into an understanding of their personal energy consumption. We need to know more about: What energy consumption is relevant to teenagers? Why do teenagers think energy is an issue? Where do teenagers learn about energy? What would motivate teenagers to learn about energy consumption? And to know if they are they concerned.

It has been fascinating to find out more about teenage culture through the photo diaries, focus groups,  activities, questionnaires, and design work that we have completed.

And, there are clear ways in which technology can help, for example through:

  • linking science learning into everyday life,
  • motivating and supporting enquiry into personal energy consumption e.g. thorugh a mobile phone app,
  • linking resources in teenagers’ personal contexts to support enquiry,
  • and helping to communicate and activate their social networks about issues that spark their interest, such as Earth Hour

Let’s talk about what the research says: Industry, Academia, Learning: 7 days to go

Vanessa Pittard DfE, Richard Noss TEL Research Programme Director, BESA, Intellect, ALT, and Demos about research inspired technology enhanced learning to tackle challenges from teenagers’ energy consumption to social communication in a multimodal virtual environment for youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorders. What the research says event at LKL now has a waiting list for places! Clearly people do want to talk.

Speak to Me

Industry, Academia, Educators and Learners: It’s good to talk, but why are we all ‘telephobic’?

In my last post I suggested that to improve learners’ experiences we need research, industry, practitioners and learners to work in harmony, and that this is hard to orchestrate. But why is this hard to orchestrate?

A large part of the reason is that each of these communities ‘speaks a slightly different language’, because whilst they are motivated by some common interests, such as finding ways to help people learn more effectively or enjoyably, they are also motivated by different and in some ways competing factors. To be honest they don’t have a great track record of talking to each other.

Practitioners and learners are the key players in the interactions that support learning, when they work in sync with the right support from technologies developed with and by industry and informed with and by research they can achieve their best. BUT this does not happen as often as it could in the area of Educational Technology and Technology Enhanced Learning.

Why? Perhaps it’s partly because industry works in quarterly cycles with an eye on the ‘bottom line’ and a need to maintain the competitive edge over rivals in order to hold on to or increase market share. It needs to know what will sell when it comes to developing technologies to support learning and what will help to keep employees in work and products on people’s shopping lists. It would often like to develop products informed by research, but with the exception of large industries that have their own research labs, may not know how and when to find the right people to offer that research advice. Researchers are concerned with rigour and clarity, and very rarely think about a year in quarters, more likely in semesters and terms. Their eye is rarely on the bottom line and the results of their endeavour often take a considerable length or time to mature and reach fruition. With a greater imperative to demonstrate the impact of their research as part of the next REF exercise (the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions), they may well very much like to find a way to work with industry to take their ideas into a wider community and see how they can be applied. However, who do they talk to and how do they communicate what they know? For most academics they have been well-trained in the art of writing journal articles for approval and acceptance by their peers. But, this type of output is rarely very accessible to people who don’t speak that same academic language.

So why does all this matter? It matters, because the problems we face when it comes to developing the kinds of technologies that can solve the really big educational problems and take advantage of the widespread ownership of powerful communities cannot be solved by any one community on their own, so we really do need to get together and talk about how each community can offer their own contribution to a shared endeavour. In order to do this we need to find a way to understand enough about how each other works to be able to build effective conversations.

As many a famous actor has once said on behalf of BT – “its good to talk”, but you need to know the right number to ring and the right shared language to speak if you are going to have any chance of communicating in any meaningful way. So how can we engineer the circumstances in which such vital communication can take place?

More relevant than ever…Information plenty, but knowledge famine: are we succumbing to an illusion?

I am curious about knowledge, not in philosophical sense, but in a practical one. I worry about what it means to know something in a world that is increasingly complex, ill defined and interconnected: a world that demands that we develop, and that we ensure that our children develop, the knowledge capacity to solve the problems it manifests and those that we create.

The first recollections that I have of my own curiosity about knowledge date back to 1966 when I was eight years old and growing up in Manfred Mann’s semi-detached suburbia: dad, mum, older brother and me. My father was an aircraft engineer and my mother taught typing and shorthand to women whose working lives were about to be dramatically changed by the word processing power of the digital computer. My brother was 3 years older than me, and his lack of interest in formal education was causing my parents some concern. Their reaction was to invest in ‘knowledge books’, or at least that’s how they saw the children’s book of knowledge and the encyclopedia that now filled up the bureau bookshelf. To keep us up to date, there was also the weekly general knowledge magazine that plopped on the doormat with a reassuring thud: the weight of its knowledge there for all to hear.

I suspect that my parent’s reaction to their son’s educational malaise was not an unusual one amongst the aspiring middle class families of our neighbourhood. My brother’s reaction to the new literary arrivals was cool; he was far more concerned with exploring the world of the woodland around our housing estate, than with sitting at home and reading about it. My father however, became quite addicted to the weekly general knowledge magazine. He did not have a great deal of time to read, but each evening when he went to bed he would sit in his paisley pyjamas and thumb through the pages. The stock of copies soon grew on the nightstand as his pace of reading failed to match the frequency of their arrival. The corners became slightly curled as the months and years passed and the dust gathered in and around the pile that now extended from the nightstand to the floor. His interest never waned and I do believe there were a pile of old issues by his bedside when he died many years later.

Forty years on and it’s a sunny day and I’m walking along the Euston Road in London. I pass the entrance to the British Library and a sign catches my eye, the sign says: “Step inside – Knowledge freely available”. I dislike the suggestion that one can walk into the British Library and just pick up some knowledge like going into Tesco and buying some bananas. I can relatively quickly formulate an explanation for myself about why the sign irritates me, because I have a clear idea about what I believe knowledge to be. I have moved on from the conception of knowledge loved by my father and represented by the pages of his books and articles. I know that I have to construct knowledge from the evidence available to me, that it is not handed to me by others, though they can certainly help me along the way, and that I can aspire to continually increase my knowledge by weaving together the information resources distributed throughout my world.

This is not the case for many of the youngsters who attend our schools and colleges. For them knowledge is still to be found in the dusty concepts in the out of date magazines on my father’s nightstand or on the shelves of a library they never visit.

“But what of the internet and world wide web?” I hear you wonder. These technological masterpieces offer information resources wherever we are and whenever we need them. These must surely pave the way for us to become more knowledgeable, both personally and as a human community?

The sheer abundance of this information has thrown into sharp relief our understanding of the relationship between information and knowledge. It makes my modest collection of childhood encyclopedias and my father’s overflowing magazine collection look like a speck of dust on the library shelf. I fear however that our understanding of what knowledge is and what it means to know something has not progressed in tandem with this technological progress. This puts us at risk of succumbing to the illusion that we know more than we actually do, because the more information we have the more we become certain that we know something.

Without helping young people to develop an understanding of what knowledge is in a digital age they cannot progress beyond the well meaning, but limited conception of knowledge promoted by the books and magazines that appealed to my parents. Those of us who understand what we mean by knowledge can indulge ourselves, as my father did with his magazines. But, without actively engaging people in the excitement of connecting the knowledge construction process to their own particular context, we merely encourage them to pass the opportunity by in the same way as my brother did all those years ago.

In a time of information plenty we are at risk of a knowledge famine.

I wrote thsi piece originally for  Learning to Live – Creativity, Money and Love