The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education

A fascinating new report, from the UK non-profit Nesta, looks at how the huge investment in technology in schools is really being used and the impact it has on learning. Over the last five years UK schools have spent over £1 billion on digital technology. From interactive whiteboards to tablets, digital technology has become the mantra. But, says the Report, so far there has been little evidence of substantial success in improving educational outcomes. There is nothing in the Report that doesn’t apply just as clearly in the Australian context.

The Report, titled Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education, is worth reading just for its summary of different learning technologies and how they can be used. There is no arguing that the potential is enormous. But the core of the report is not so much about the technology itself but about how to leverage it into real utility in a learning environment. As the Report points out:

But new technologies cannot, in themselves, improve learning. The context within which they are used is crucial to their success or otherwise.

It is important to guard against the assumption that new technologies will smoothly and effortlessly improve learning. Evidence clearly suggests that digital tools offer opportunities that are still to be realised; and that realising them is contingent on how we use them and the context of learning.

One of the core findings from the Report is that we shouldn’t just be continually adding in the latest technology. We need to be looking to use what we have more creatively. There is too much focus on a simple magic bullet that will revolutionise teaching and learning and not enough on creative evolution. Simply giving students a tablet or installing a smartboard will not give teachers more time, make teaching easier, or provide a different way to learn. Creative use of these new tools may do all that, but not without investment from teachers and students alike.

To do this teachers need to be trained in how to use the technologies so they can become creative with them. Innovative teaching practice that makes exciting use of new technologies is not just going to spontaneously appear.

The current situation tends to lead to technology being used in isolation for single purposes rather than linked in to everyday activities. It’s the “now children, let’s get the iPads out and do a task on them” idea. Far greater integration is needed and will only come when teachers are able to integrate the technology into every aspect of their professional lives.

The Report is full of interesting insights and, although Nesta is UK-based, it is globally applicable in its broad themes and conclusions. While others may extract other ideas, for me the key idea from the report is summarised in this statement:

Over recent decades, many efforts to realise the potential of digital technology in education have made two key errors. Collectively, they have put the technology above teaching and excitement above evidence. This means they have spent more time, effort and money looking to find the digital silver bullet that will transform learning than they have into evolving teaching practice to make the most of technology.

The full Report is a long read but there’s also a much smaller executive summary available that covers the main points.

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