It could be argued that we know nothing about education and technology. After all, no one on the front line is really sure what the evidence (you know, proper social science done at universities, using numbers and everything) proves.
And no wonder. As a sector, we need to get much better at researching and understanding what works and what does not, especially when it comes to technology. It is barely credible that effect sizes obtained through meta-analysis of hundreds of small studies in widely varying contexts are as quantifiable as it gets.
However, we do know some things. Although they may not have provided irrefutable proof, the studies that have been carried out do give us an idea of what might work and what might not. They are far from useless.
In addition, thinking of ourselves as blind in the world of microchips is to undervalue our experience: for 25 years, teachers have been testing technology in the classroom and many have detailed the results in reports and blogs, on Twitter or even in old-fashioned conversation.
Existing research combined with experience won't tell us undisputedly what does work, but we can be confident that the following five areas are among those where technology can play a key role in the classroom.
1 Boosting motivation
It is a truism that learning is always preceded by engagement and the evidence that technology motivates children is strong. Key studies in the past two decades (such as the ones led by Margaret Cox of King's College London and Don Passey of Lancaster University, respectively) have demonstrated that learners find the use of technology intrinsically motivating. Not only is it something they are more familiar with than adults, but they are also often far ahead in terms of expertise.
2 Empowering students
Personal technologies grant users greater control over what they investigate, how they acquire knowledge and what they do with it. Where empowerment leads, efficacy and autonomy soon follow, with children feeling a greater degree of independence and responsibility for their learning.
Evidence of this can be seen in the University of Hull's 2013 study of tablet computer schemes across a number of schools in central Scotland (bit.lyHullStudy). This found that 70 per cent of parents reported their child's persistence in learning was significantly affected and that 84 per cent of children were more likely to work at home when using these devices. And if we are convinced by the recent fuss over the importance of grit and effort as determinants of success, these are pretty compelling statistics.
3 Improving accessibility
Whether or not we can measure impact on a systemic scale, there can be no doubt that technology opens doors for learners who, for one reason or another, cannot quite reach the handle. Examples abound, including one study led by Matthew Schneps of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, published earlier this year. This demonstrated that students' misconceptions about astronomical concepts could be corrected through the use of tablets because the devices allowed them to manipulate virtual models.
We have all met children whose weak literacy skills undermine their educational experience but who can nevertheless talk at length and with articulacy on a specialist subject. Technology can be a powerful remover of barriers - for example, enabling such a student to speak into a tablet and have it type their words.
Sometimes it even makes the impossible possible. At one academy in the group I work for, some children are taking GCSE astronomy next year. Their teacher is miles away at one of our independent schools. The students' chances of achieving this qualification without technology would have been zero.
4 Using technology effectively
It is important to note that almost any technological tool - from interactive whiteboards to virtual learning environments - will, in the hands of a committed enthusiast, probably be used well and lead to learning gains. The reverse is just as true. No technological tool, no matter how shiny, can transcend poor teaching. It will still be poor teaching, just lit by blinking LEDs.
However, schools that employ the best tool for the job and embed technology through strong leadership routinely turn out to be better for it. A 2008 analysis of the Ofsted reports of schools that had received the ICT Mark award found that those which made effective use of technology were four times more likely to be graded outstanding. More recently, a 2013 Ofsted case study of Alwoodley Primary School in Leeds (bit.lyAlwoodleyStudy) provides an example of best practice - nothing revolutionary or transformational, just lots of good ideas, applied well.
Successful technology projects in schools almost always rest on the quality of leadership, implementation and training, and almost never on the quality of the technology.
5 Gadgets are not a substitute
The temptation when you have 30 iPads at your disposal is to find ways of cramming them into every single lesson, regardless of what is being studied and how it would otherwise be taught. This is the wrong approach. An oft-quoted model for assessing the type of technological approach to be implemented is the acronym SAMR: substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition.
Substitution is where the technology does little to improve the learning process for the child, instead simply swapping one tool (a pencil) for another (Microsoft Word) with no change in the task (writing a story).
Augmentation is still substitution, but you get a little more functionality for your time. Let's say your pupils are drawing using Photoshop. The process may be easily editable (they don't have to start from scratch) and quicker, so there are gains, but fundamentally the student is still completing the same assignment: drawing a picture.
Modification is where technology begins to change the way a task is taken on. For example, making audio recordings or videos of presentations so they can be referred to later or shared with absent classmates.
Redefinition is where technology really comes into its own. Here, the way a subject or task is managed is fundamentally changed. This could be the use of video conferencing to work collaboratively with classes across the world, or students creating story walks in the community where the narrative and instructions to reach the next point of the journey can be downloaded to iPads at certain GPS points.
We should always be aiming for the latter two areas. To do this we need to concentrate on how technology can improve or change what we do, not replace it.
The catch is that there is no handy template for making technology work in every classroom. Yet. We need research on the areas detailed here that identifies ways to generalise the impact of technology. We need to reach a position where we know which technologies are most likely to support learning, regardless of the context in which they are applied. Perhaps with this in mind we can move past the polarised, self-defeating scuffling between the "tradition" and "technology" camps, and focus on using an optimal blend of both. In the meantime, we should not dismiss what we have already and instead use it to make better choices in the future.
Dominic Norrish is a former history teacher and the director of technology at United Learning, a UK group of maintained and independent schools
Cox, M (1997) The Effects of Information Technology on Students' Motivation (National Council for Education Technology).
Passey, D, Rogers, C and Machell, J et al (2004) Motivational Effect of ICT on Pupils (Department for Education and Skills).
Schneps, MH, Ruel, J, Sonnert, G et al (2014) "Conceptualizing astronomical scale: virtual simulations on handheld tablet computers reverse misconceptions", Computers and Education, 70: 269-80.
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