Digital learning technology: Gaps in the discourse

Ed Tech frameworkFor the last two years I’ve been working on the emerging evidence of the impact that digital technology can have. This week I’ve pulled together some thinking I’ve been doing on the current field of evidence in education relating to digital tech, and published it in a paper over on the Nesta site.

Research into digital learning has been around since the start, of course. For 30 years or more people have been exploring the promise of new digital tools and documenting this work. It does however feel like the last few years have seen a new chapter in this story. The interest in research in education in the UK has grown recently, perhaps first with Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning‘ synthesis and then the £110 million Education Endowment Foundation coming down from the top, and ResearchEd coming up from the chalkface.

At the same time the discourse on digital learning technology seems to be progressing to focus less on the affordance of ‘engagement’ (and, yes, fun), and more on that of ‘impact’, ‘efficacy’, and ‘outcomes;. There has been a noticeable, but by no means complete, shift from seeing digital tools as mostly about the processes of learning, to a way of getting results [insert usual disclaimer about the contested nature of outcomes here].

Yet still the discourses around educational impact and the role of technology retain a distinctly different character. I set out to further my understanding of exactly how different they are. I took some relatively definitive works in the different fields, and tried to cross map them to each other.

Nesta’s ‘Decoding Learning’ is based on a rigorous comparative judgement exercise, pooling the views of those defined as experts in the field of digital learning. Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning‘ is the most comprehensive review of literature on educational attainment. The Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit similarly brings together existing evidence to aid decision making in schools. I mapped and contrasted these three sources, and the results were interesting.

Learning tech frameworkIn the paper I go into more detail about this exercise, which was in part conducted to identify where the next wave of Ed Tech effectiveness research should be focused. On this blog though, I wanted to highlight that great big gap in the middle.

The Decoding Learning area ‘Learning from experts’ has quite a bit of resonance in Hattie’s work, and in the EEF Toolkit, as does ‘Learning with others’. However, ‘Learning through making, ‘exploring’ and ‘inquiry’ have very few counterparts in the studies synthesised by Hattie, and there are pretty much no areas I could map to them from the EEF toolkit.

These areas, identified by digital learning experts, and often central to arguments about the potential of digital technology, do not link in detail with the existing research.

(It must be noted both the EEF toolkit and Hattie have single sections on ‘Digital technology’. Both provide very broad overviews of the work on this area, and were not included in this diagram as they would cover all ‘Decoding Learning’ areas, but also shed little light at present onto what to actually do with digital technology to get results.)

Now this is not to say that making, exploring and inquiry approaches have been disproven by the research, far from it. We choose what we conduct research into based on our beliefs about what might be worth while and what is already happening. Some digital approaches to learning are relatively new so there has been little opportunity. Plenty have been around for a while though, and I think it’s interesting

There has been research into these areas in the digital learning field, including the studies I’ve been involved with myself. The fact is that the research communities embodied in Hattie’s work and the EEF toolkit have not focused on these areas of potential anything like as much in their presentations of the evidence.

There is a gap between the discourses of ‘digital learning’ and ‘research in education’, and this gap is in discussing and therefore understanding the areas which the digital learning community often depict as having the biggest potential. I’m not necessarily suggesting a total change of focus is needed, at this point I’m not actually suggesting any particular actions. However, I think it’s important to understand the difference between how different groups see the educational world, hopefully this work contributes to such understanding on both sides.

More detail in the paper below, over on the Nesta site:

Digital learning technology: Converging promise and potential [Nesta blog]

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Also published on Medium.

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