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 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

Understanding you, Understanding me: is this the best we can do?

The wide-spread ownership of sophisticated computing devices such as smart phones and ipads allows mass access to social media, augmented reality and 3D virtual world applications. BUT are we making the most of these technologies to help learners communicate using all their senses? These technologies make it technically possible for people to share information about themselves and their contexts using multiple media and multi-sensory communication. This ought to mean that learners who may struggle with traditional text and image can explore new ways to express themselves. New ways to communicate what they do and don’t understand and new ways to allow others to understand more about their particular context and perspective.

One of the essential ingredients for effective learning  where a more knowledgeable person, such as a teacher, is helping a less knowledgeable person (or people) to learn something is that both of them share some common understanding of what the less knowledgable person currently understands. The technical possibilities for multi modal communication offered by emerging technologies should provide new ways for people to share their understanding and misunderstanding and to communicate important aspects of their personal context that may help teachers, parents, and friends to  provide more effective support. But are we making enough of this potential?

I suspect we are not. To tackle challenges such as, developing a clearer understanding of how we make the most of such communication possibilities requires research rigour and energy. To develop technologies and applications that make these new formats for communication and interaction easier and effective we need industrial enterprise and innovation. To understand the needs of learners and teachers, we need to bring them into the research and design process. Most importantly of all, to improve learners’ experiences we will need research, industry, practitioners and learners to work in harmony, and that is hard to orchestrate.

Squares in a round world: has research about technology and learning passed its sell by date?

I really enjoyed my trip to see the David Shrigley Brain Activity exhibition at the Hayward. And was amused by the endearing hand drawn animation about new friends in which a square enters a round world and … well I won’t spoil it for you. But it made me wonder if researchers run the risk of being squares in a round world. This was prompted by the comment I mentioned in my last post that asked if technological pace was “making traditional research models and institutions look a little archaic?”So has research passed its sell by date in this fast-moving technological space and do we need to re-fashion ourselves out of our squareness, or help squareness to be better appreciated? What do us squares have to offer? Four sorts of research come readily to mind and I am sure there are more.

First, there is basic research about how people learn and about the nature of learning itself that can be applied to education in a digital world, both in terms of how to develop technologies and in terms of how to use technologies for learning, both informally and formally. This research does not go out of date but gets better and better, for example John Bransford and others work on the nature of transfer is mature and well grounded, it is rigorous and has developed over several decades. Perhaps one the reasons that research like this is timelessly useful is that it has a focus upon an ever-present issue: the nature of learning, rather than a changing space: the nature of a particular technology, category of technologies, or indeed particular practices. It is also the case that all those who are doing this research and all those who want to use this research share a common need: to understand more about how people learn. However, there is perhaps a need to better communicate this research in a way that makes it accessible and relevant to technologies as they change.

Second, there is research conducted by those who want to see how the learning and/or teaching process might be better supported through the use of technology. This research can also maintain its value, for example, if it has a focus upon the interactions that are important for teaching and learning and the manner in which different technologies do or don’t support that, rather than how to use a particular technology. Good example here are example Diana Laurillard’s classic work in her book Re-thinking University Teaching and the community of researchers who consider the nature of Instructional Design.

Thirdly, is the work done by those within research labs both in universities and companies that involves developing a technology and using it with learners and teachers, usually in small numbers, to see if it helps them to learn or teach so that learners learn more, or feel more motivated, or collaborate with others in a more supportive manner, or in answer to many other varieties of question. It is harder to see from the usual outputs from this category of research how it can be easily applied within practice, either informal or formal. One of the main reasons for this is that such research is about generating new technologies that are not yet in classroom and may not ever make it outside of the research lab. I have seen hundreds of such research projects very few of which see the light of real application. Sometimes they are only ever intended as a proof of concept to motivate some further research activity, but sometimes they are fit for purpose, but it is not the role of the research lab to take them into a development phase. There is a huge gap here between research and practice that means that many valuable research projects never get tested outside of small scale studies, but that is the subject worthy of more space than I have here.

Fourth, and finally for now, there is research that has a focus upon a particular technology, Video, Integrated Learning Systems, or Learning Platforms, for example. The currency of this research is more limited to the particular technology in question and therefore much more likely to go out of date. Although it has to be said that such research can also provide more generalisable findings: such as that about Integrated Learning Systems, which highlighted the impact of a learner’s context upon the efficacy or not of the technology, in this instance Integrated Learning System.

Research may be square, but most of it is not archaic. Squareness is good, but its beauty is currently only appreciated by a small community and that community needs to find better ways to get the word out to the wider world. At the same time that wider world has something valuable to contribute in the form of innovative practice and communities of people who use technologies in innovative ways and record their experiences in blogs, tweets and forums. Us research squares could do well to pay more attention to what this research in action has to contribute.

What’s Research got to do with it? TEL research and emerging technology, part 2

Well I said I would follow-up and continue the discussion about what research can say that can help those developing and using emerging technologies. Coincidentally (or not) I was pointed to a blog post yesterday about the pace of change of technologies  and in particular to the comments. I noticed that one of the comments made the very point that:

“…can we afford to wait for thorough research on some of these issues? If we do wait 3 years for some further research to be done won’t it already be chronically out of date? The technological landscape evolves at a thrilling pace, is it making traditional research models and institutions look a little archaic?”

So clearly there is a need for us researcher folk to better communicate what research has to say that is relevant. I’ll try to pick up on some key things that research can tell us over the next few posts. Sometimes the research that has something to say has been done very recently, sometimes it is specific to a new technology, but actually much of the time there are some basic research findings about how people learn, sometimes from way back that are still very relevant to what technology can do to support learning. These research findings have the advantage of having been tried, tested and developed over many years. Sometime new technologies allow us to benefit from this fundamental research in ways that were not previously possible.

For example, research has demonstrated that learning an additional langauge is assisted by being able to experience the new language and its culture. Technology offers access to authentic linguistic and cultural content, through for example, online newspapers, video, and other digital media in the target language. These may be created for native speakers, but they may also come with enhanced  language input, such as access to simplification, explanations, multimedia, subtitles for video.

Effective feedback is important for learning and technology can help – it can offer swift, timely and constructive feedback for students and teachers across all education sectors through interactive tasks that can be automatically marked. It can also support humans to provide feedback to learners using text, sound, images and  without needing to be in the same physical place as the learner.

Thinking about and understanding more about what we want people to be able to do in order to learn and then thinking about how particular technologies can help us to achieve this can be just as valuable, if not more valuable, than looking at the specific things that a particular technology can do.