The Decoding Learning report critically examines evidence and asks how we might better exploit innovative technology to support learning.
It was commissioned by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, to inform its digital education programme.
In the report, we look beyond published research to innovative practice among teachers and learners. We investigate “proof” (putting learning first), “promise” (for technology to help learning in new ways), and “potential” (to make better use of technologies we already have).
No technology has an impact on learning in its own right; rather, its impact depends upon how it is used. Accordingly, we rejected the lure of categorising innovations by type of technology employed. Instead, we identified the types of learning activities that we know to be effective and explored how technology can innovatively support and develop these effective learning activities.
We therefore organised our review around eight effective learning themes. In each theme there are some great examples and a table of 150 innovations can be downloaded from the Nesta website (see further information for the link).
Learning from experts
Theories of learning emphasise the role of a more knowledgeable other, or expert, in guiding learners. This could be a peer or a parent, but is more usually a teacher. The increasing wealth of online resources offers great potential for both teachers and learners through new ways of presenting information and ideas more dynamically and interactively.
These resources offer possibilities to enrich dialogue between teachers and learners, yet place great demands on both to evaluate and filter the information on offer. Teachers have an important role to play in supporting learners to interpret new ideas and to convert that information into knowledge.
Learning with others
Much of our knowledge arises from social interaction. Whether we learn, and what we learn, depends upon our relationships with teachers, peers, parents and others.
There are three particularly promising areas for the development in this theme: representational tools that enable the activities taking place to be presented to the learners; scaffolding tools to provide a structure for learning with others; and communication tools that support learners working at a distance from each other to collaborate.
Learning through making
The success of learning through making rests on two principles: first, learners can benefit by constructing their own understandings: by building things “outside” they can develop ideas “inside”; and second they must create something they can share with others. Digital technology can bring the idea of construction alive. Learners can construct anything in their imagination; and they can then share, discuss, reflect upon and, ultimately, learn about that construction using technology.
Learning through exploring
Learning through exploring rests on two principles: first, learners are given freedom to act; second, they need to regulate their own actions, which is itself an important skill for learning. Digital tools can provide new and engaging ways to explore information, and offer new ways to structure the environment that learners explore.
Learning through inquiry
Successful learners need to be able understand and participate within complex, evidence–based debates. Inquiry–based learning provides one way to enable learners to think critically and participate in such debates. Technology can support learning through inquiry in a wide variety of settings, across a range of subjects and with different types of learners. In our review, the most highly rated innovation from those evaluated by a panel of experts was an example of learning through inquiry, which involved an online portal that engaged secondary and higher education students in creative challenges set by industry. The major appeal of this project was its ability to connect learning with real-life, industry-based demands.
Learning through practising?
Whatever is being learned, practice makes perfect. Practising enables learners to build a solid foundation of knowledge that can then be used in other contexts – such as solving a more difficult mathematical problem, or taking part in conversation in a foreign language. The use of technology to support practice is rarely seen to be innovative; but promising developments include the use of rich multi-modal environments that can create challenging problems and provide appropriate feedback.
Learning from assessment?
Knowing what learners know, and don’t know, is crucial to effective teaching. The current level of research innovation in technology-supported assessment is modest, but technology offers great promise in this area. For example, data captured through a variety of digital tools can be combined with learning analytics to provide a continual stream of information about learner progress for use by learners and teachers; and e-assessment using social networks and read-write technologies such as web 2.0, can facilitate peer, collaborative and self-guided interaction and learning.
Learning in and across settings
Learners interact with people, places and things as they learn. This context of learning can determine not only the quality of learners’ experiences but also their learning outcomes. Learners improve their knowledge and deepen their understanding when they apply their learning across different locations, representations and activities. Technology can help learners apply and transfer learning from one setting, such as a lesson at school, to another, such as a field trip or the home, and have the potential to enhance learning in a wide variety of settings.
The eight learning themes can also be combined in interesting and effective ways. Linking learning activities within and across different learning themes enables learners to create a coherent learning episode. This orchestration of activity can support learning and create deeper understanding. It can also strengthen future learning by helping learners establish more versatile approaches to learning.
In the report we identify trends and opportunities grounded in effective practice and set out what we believe are the most compelling opportunities to improve learning through technology. In order to become an effective technology-enriched practitioner, start from the type of learning that you want for your learners and then explore what technologies can support this type of learning and how they can best be used. Five pointers that may help are as follows:
1, Share, adapt and empower
Teachers have always been highly creative, designing 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 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.
2, Know the learning environment
Any innovation needs to be fitted within an established learning culture, such as the classroom. For example, a proposed innovation may challenge how teachers perceive their own role, affect whether learners see their peers as competitors or collaborators, or undermine how the term “learning” is understood.
3, Support teachers with new activities
Integrating new technologies into classrooms is often challenging for teachers, since they have to manage the functioning of the devices as well as fulfilling their existing classroom management role. Where possible, proposed innovations should ensure that classroom technology is adopted in such a way as to minimise these overheads, or even to provide support for the teacher in carrying out their tasks.
4, Beyond the formal
For example, learners might derive knowledge from external people and resources, collaborate with others outside their immediate peer group, and present their work to an audience that extends beyond their own class or school.
Tell colleagues what works for you and your students and make sure you give them enough information to know if what worked for you could work for them. The checklist of questions printed below may help.
Key questions for your technology use
What learning did you want to support?
How did you set up the activity, was it tightly structured, or more free flowing?
How were learners organised and managed?
How do you know that it worked?
What was the environment for learning?
How were the physical resources arranged? For example, the possibility of undertaking a new activity might be restricted by the size of a classroom or the location of particular technologies, while web-based interactions may mean that learners are now feasibly able to interact from different locations than in the past.
Whether formal or informal, there will also be formal and informal rules that shape the behaviour of teachers and learners in the learning environment – what are they?
Who else was involved and what skills and attitudes did they bring? Teacher/s, other learners, technicians and other less obvious people within schools, such as senior managers, teaching assistants, technical staff and network managers all influence teaching and learning.
How did other people’s rules and practices impact on how the technology supported learning?
What technology was involved – how much did it cost, how complex was it, and how much time did you need to invest in order to become familiar enough with it to use it confidently?
Professor Rosemary Luckin is from the London Knowledge Lab at London’s Institute of Education. The Decoding Learning research was conducting by Prof Luckin alongside colleagues Professor Richard Noss (also from the London Knowledge Lab), Dr Brett Bligh, Professor Charles Crook and Dr Shaaron Ainsworth (all from the University of Nottingham), and Dr Andrew Manches from the University of Edinburgh.