It is tempting to think that technology is transforming teaching. Classrooms are awash with iPads and interactive whiteboards, flipped learning and online feedback. Smartphones may still be referred to as phones, but the technology gives us far greater capabilities than just allowing people to talk to one another. It is more accurate to say that young people are likely to have a mobile computer in their pocket.
Yet research tells us one thing for sure: digital technologies are best at supplementing rather than replacing good teaching.
Of course, we want children to learn with technology that will surround them for the rest of their lives. But the hard wiring of the human brain remains unchanged.
As educators, we need to focus on the learning, not the technology: how can it make teaching practices more efficient or more effective?
The Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit concludes that, on average, approaches with digital technology are effective, with a typical gain of about four months for pupils over one academic year. But trials undertaken by the Education Endowment Foundation also suggest caution is needed. One evaluation looked into Abracadabra (ABRA), a 20-week online literacy programme composed of phonic fluency and comprehension activities based around a series of age-appropriate texts. Year 1 children who received ABRA were found to make two months progress in literacy compared with children who received standard provision.
However, the paper-based version was as effective, if not more. If the project had just looked at the online version, we might have concluded that it was the technology that had made the difference.
So what do teachers need to consider?
Using technology in pairs or small groups is usually more effective than individual use, though some pupils may need guidance in how to collaborate effectively. Try deploying technology as a short but focused intervention to boost learning. Regular and frequent use (about three times a week) over a term (five to 10 weeks) seems to be most effective.
Gains in attainment tend to be greater in mathematics and science, compared with literacy. In literacy, the impact tends to be greater in writing interventions, compared with reading or spelling, and technology is especially beneficial for reluctant writers.
But even if digital devices are used to motivate and to help practise writing, pupils will still need to practise handwritten answers as preparation for tests.
The most successful ways to support the introduction of new technology appear to be at least a full day’s training or ongoing professional inquiry-based approaches. Support should go beyond the teaching of skills in technology and focus on the pedagogical use of technology to support learning aims.
Finally, we must be aware of factors outside of school, as there is still a gap between pupils who have access to digital technology and the internet, and those who do no not.
Those from wealthier backgrounds and those in larger cities are likely to be advantaged in terms of not just access but also the amount of use and their experience of a wide range of uses. This sustains a digital divide.
Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust and Steve Higgins is a professor of education at Durham University. Together, they authored the teaching and learning toolkit, now the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit