Digital Integration Needs a Rethink!

I am an EdTech demonstrator delivering live online lessons showing the impact that EdTech can have on classes from ages 8 to 18 to every type of educational establishment. I have seen many uses of EdTech but am always interested in what value it adds to learning. These are some of my views and research data mainly from PISA pre-pandemic reports.

There is no doubt that technology has the capacity to redefine education, but is not currently doing this. The World is becoming increasingly connected with knowledge becoming more and more accessible. During the pandemic technology allowed education to continue for students in lockdown, although it exacerbated the inequity with those schools and students well equipped with devices and the skills to use the systems effectively, leaving those without far behind.
The vast majority of people consider the use of technology in education (hereafter referred to as EdTech) to be essential in equipping our young people with the skills they need for the future. What is not certain is the best way to implement it.

EdTech is an accelerator and if used effectively should be able to improve learning. However simply making Edtech available and assuming that learning will follow is not borne out by the surprisingly scant evidence, especially considering the amount of investment made in hardware and software.

Learning cannot be seen and can only be surmised by looking at the output of students. Great strides have been made to understand how learners learn and what strategies lead to improved learning. Trying to unpick the multiple variables of unpredictable and often irrational beings is highly complex and we still have much to discover, but we should consider learning before we look at the EdTech.

I will use PISA reports, which have the limitations of being simply a snapshot, not longitudinal and also tells us only what hardware is used, not the software and crucially what students were actually doing with the devices. The reports also only show what was happening and hence are not up to date with a rapidly changing landscape. The reports do however throw up some surprising patterns that should be considered.

  • Computers and digital projectors made available to teachers have a far bigger effect than giving devices to learners.
  • The devices given to learners make a difference. Tablets appear to hinder learning by up to six months.
  • The longer learners have been using technology the greater the positive impact of that technology – EdTech could be widening the attainment gap
  • Intensity matters—students who use technology intensely or not at all perform better than those with moderate use.
  • A school system’s current performance level matters—in lower-performing school systems, technology is associated with worse results
  • Geography matters—technology is associated with higher student outcomes in the United States than in other regions.

It is clear that just adding tech does not solve learning problems and may even make them worse. Simply digitising what is already done rather than looking at how EdTech can accelerate good teaching is likely to be a costly and ineffective strategy.

Why should digital projectors improve performance when given to teachers? it could just be a correlation or it is probable that the teacher is still central to learning. Good quality direct instruction personalised to the learners’ needs is the most effective teaching strategy. Simply making courses available online does not seem to be the answer. MOOCs from the likes of MIT and Harvard only have around 20% completion rates and that is from students who claim to want to finish them. Motivation seems more important than information and accessibility and having a teacher monitoring progress is likely to improve attention.

Having access to a fully equipped gym with digital monitoring is often far less effective at getting people fit than having a personal trainer even without equipment. A third of people taking out gym memberships never actually go at all! The most efficient system would be the personal trainer armed with the data from the digital gym and so we might assume the same for education.

It is not surprising that poorly attaining schools see no benefit and sometimes even a decline in performance when implementing EdTech. Technology is simply a benign accelerator, but we need to be careful not to miss outlier students when looking at large studies. I found in very challenging schools and some Pupil Referral Units that teachers were, understandably reluctant to allow students to use devices. They were stuck in a situation of using engaging tools and suffering misuse or not using them and having disengagement. I taught a large challenging class of the lowest attainers online over the course of a term I found I could not keep all of the students on task for all of the time, but I could teach those students who wanted to engage. Some of these ‘forgotten’ students who had sat quietly in class and had their learning disrupted for years made exceptional progress simply from being given the opportunity to learn.

Data from PISA seems to indicate that tablets and e-readers significantly hamper performance, but without knowing what they were being used for it is not possible to learn much from this. It is possible that students’ perceptions of tablets are that they are leisure rather than learning devices.

The longer learners have had access to devices the more gains they tend to show from using EdTech. There is plenty of evidence in science that trying to learn new concepts whilst simultaneously trying to learn how to use the equipment doing an experiment leads to poor outcomes. Similarly, we might expect working memory overload if our students are having to think about how to use the EdTech tools as they try to learn new concepts. This may also explain why moderate use of EdTech can lead to poorer outcomes than either no use at all or fully embedded systems. We are in danger of increasing the attainment gap between the haves and have-nots if we cannot address this issue.

The sweet spot for students appears to be spending one to four hours a week per subject online. Up to one hour shows no improvement. Over four hours leads to poorer performance. There are so many variables that more research is needed to unpick this data, but research into the efficacy of homework would almost certainly be relevant.

Far more research is needed, into the effective integration of EdTech but it seems that having teachers invested in their classes with an excellent subject and pedagogical knowledge leveraging performance with appropriate, embedded systems with a range of EdTech tools is what we should aspire to.

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