Freeing teachers to innovate with ICT


By allowing teachers to innovate with technology, we can drive whole-system reform. Kathleen Stokes discusses Nesta’s work to help education design better ICT tools and practices and to make better use of existing technologies.

From its beginning, Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, has been at the forefront of new ideas in education. This has ranged from the creation and spinning out of FutureLab, to working with the computer and video games industry in our report Next Gen, which persuaded government to put computer science and coding at the heart of the school curriculum.

With a deficit of innovation at the intersection of technology and education, our recent work has looked at how best we can improve learning in the digital age. 

Technologies have been used to transform our daily lives, but so far there has been little evidence of substantial success in improving educational outcomes. Many digital technologies have the potential to improve learning, but it all depends on how they are used.

To fully realise such opportunities we must focus on the learning activities first. Our recent report, Decoding Learning, looks at the proof, promise and potential for digital education. Written by researchers from the London Knowledge Lab and the University of Nottingham, it draws upon more than 200 examples of innovation across eight themes – such as learning through making, learning in and across setting, and learning through inquiry – which can serve as a framework for understanding how we can improve learning with the use of digital tools (see two recent SecEd articles coverning the report: Don't believe the hype ? schools warned about their ICT spending and A blueprint for ICT innovation).

Based on these cases of innovation, we can see increasingly promising instances of digital education. But how do these (and other) approaches become embedded across our education systems?

In a recent speech at Nesta, Sir Michael Barber, a global expert on education reform and now chief education advisor at Pearson, went beyond digital education to discuss whole-system reform in education. To inspire a generation and produce global leaders able to rise to the challenges of the 21st century, argued Sir Michael, education systems around the world need to unlock systemic innovation and scale best practices.

Many roadblocks to whole-system reform remain and are often conveyed by false dichotomies, such as teaching or technology, best practice or innovation, and universal standards or personalisation. If we are to realise whole-system reform, these dichotomies must begin to be viewed as combinations. By doing this we can address shortcomings, find evidence of best practice and seize the opportunities on offer.

One false dichotomy that prevents us from rethinking the whole system is that of universal standards and personalisation. Taking a test need not be the only way to measure progress and provide feedback at scale and technology can be central to this. 

In Decoding Learning, we found that there are new opportunities for self, peer and formative assessment which give learners and teachers a better understanding of every pupil’s learning progress. Adaptive technologies and tools for capturing and sharing progress in individual and group activities can create an immediate and on-going feedback loop that helps learners to reflect as they learn.

This example shows how technology can be used to not only improve the learning experience but to also make it relevant for the 21st century, a time when feedback is instantaneous and the need to adapt quickly is vital. 

The implications of Decoding Learning are significant. By putting learning first, digital technologies will have an effective and central role in reforming the education system. New technologies can underpin new forms of assessment as well as extend the learning day, and enable learning away from traditional settings. 

This change requires significant effort and involvement from all sides – not only to support and spur innovation but also to evaluate and share best practice. This should not just be teachers, but everyone involved in the learning process. Education can no longer be the responsibility of a single sector or group.

To make sure we are continually improving learning, we need the best communication of evidence from academics, practical expertise from practitioners and the technical know-how from industry to align and build a greater technology-enabled approach to learning. 

As Sir Michael said: “To be successful in the 21st century, systems need not only to drive forward whole-system reform, based on the evidence; they also need the capacity to innovate, to learn from that innovation and continuously improve the system.” 

For Nesta, we would add another element to this: endeavouring to design better tools and practices while also making better use of what we’ve got. 

This will be central to our work as we look to take forward the proposals in the Decoding Learning report. The education debate has been reframed in recent years, with numerous instances of innovation cropping up. It is now time to bring about action on a systemic level.

  • Kathleen Stokes is policy advisor for digital education with Nesta.

Further information
For a breakdown of Decoding Learning and the methods it identifies for how teachers can innovate with technology, see


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