The “hype and lure of digital education” has led to UK schools spending £1.4 billion in three years on technology but with little evidence that it has had tangible impact, research has claimed.
A report from Nesta, a charity promoting innovation, says that too often technologies are brought into schools without the necessary changes to teacher practice to support them.
Nesta is clear to emphasise that the £1.4 billion has not necessarily been wasted, but that money is being spent without clear best practice evidence of what works.
Figures show that increasing proportions of school budgets are being allocated to technology, but the result is that millions of pounds worth of ICT kit is “languishing unused or underused in school cupboards”, researchers say.
The study says that in the last decade the “technology has been put above teaching, and excitement above evidence”, and that the focus must be on the learning activities and how students learn – not on the ICT or types of technology themselves.
The report – entitled Decoding Learning – has been prepared by the London Knowledge Lab and the University of Nottingham’s Learning Science Research Institute and outlines what it terms “exciting teacher practice that displays the potential for effective digital education”.
It warns: “Any assumption that, since the digital environment is a part of everyday life, technologies will effortlessly generate better learning is flawed. Equally, focusing on the type of technology – such as a desktop, laptop, tablet or a game device – over how it can be used is counter-productive.”
Ton Kenyon, director of digital education at Nesta, told SecEd that there was a lack of evidence about the use of technology in schools and that this made it “difficult to justify” the amount that has been spent.
He explained: “We are not saying that schools are wasting money, (but) we spend a lot and we do not have the best practice evidence. The difficulty is that there is very little evidence at all about the use of technology in schools and a lot of what has been evidenced is reports by the technology companies.”
The study quotes from more than 80 evidence-based teacher-led examples of innovation with technology and identifies eight learning approaches which it has found proof are effective. It offers real-life examples of how technology can support each one.
The eight approaches to learning identified as being effective are:
Learning from experts.
Learning with others.
Learning through making.
Learning through exploring.
Learning through inquiry.
Learning through practising.
Learning from assessment.
Learning in and across settings.
For example, the study identifies learning through assessment as an area where more innovative technology-supported practice needs to take place. It adds: “This must be a priority for innovation given what we know about the importance of awareness of the learning journey to tailoring effective support.”
Elsewhere, the study calls for more teaching practice to be focused on using technology for learning through making. It adds: “The key to success is to use technology that enables pupils to become active participants in building something. This process is most effective when learners create something they can share.”
The report criticises commercial providers who use apps and games to “sugar-coat dull, unchallenging practice activities”. It says it is “disappointing” that despite their failings, the products still find a market via parents and teachers who are keen to use digital technologies.
Mr Kenyon agreed that there can be a clash between genuine innovation and companies simply seeking to create products which parents perceive “look like learning” but which are not necessarily breaking new ground – such as unchallenging and repetitive maths quizzes.
Mr Kenyon said the report also has key messages for both teacher CPD and schools’ ICT procurement: “Anyone who is looking to procure technology for schools should not do so unless they have a plan for how it can be used to support specific types of learning.
“There is no magic bullet – one piece of technology which solves education. It’s all about how we use it in our classrooms.”
He added: “We would love to see better teacher CPD around use of technology in the classroom and the different learning styles.”
Geoff Mulgan, Nesta chief executive, said: “A tablet replacing an exercise book is not innovation – it’s just a different way to make notes. There’s incredible potential for digital technology in and beyond the classroom: but as in other fields, from healthcare to retail, it is vital to rethink how learning is organised if we’re to reap the rewards.
“The danger is that the technology of the 21st century is being applied using teaching methods of the 20th. The emphasis is too often on shiny hardware – rather than how it’s to be used.”
Download the report at www.nesta.org.uk/decoding_learning