What does the research tell us about digital technologies in education?

In a survey The Education Hub conducted of over 330 teachers and school leaders from across New Zealand earlier this year, information on how to effectively utilise digital technologies was the second most commonly identified area on which teachers wanted research knowledge.

While the potential of technology to support teaching and learning is well established, an understanding of how to integrate technology in ways that are pedagogically sound and enriching for both young people and educators is less certain.

In her announcement about the addition of new digital technologies to the New Zealand Curriculum, Minister of Education Nikki Kaye made a similar observation:
“I recognise it’s important to understand how digital technologies are impacting society and our education system. I’ve asked the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, and the Education Science Advisor Professor Stuart McNaughton, to undertake work to ensure we continue to fully understand this impact, including how digital technologies may affect young people’s writing and communication skills.”

Minister Kaye’s comment identifies the importance of the work The Education Hub is undertaking in translating and communicating rigorous research knowledge on key topics in a form that is usable and relevant to the daily needs of educators.

It will be fascinating to see what conclusions Sir Peter Gluckman and Professor McNaughton arrive at. A cursory examination of the research literature suggests that the impact of technologies on education runs the full spectrum from completely transforming teaching and learning and substantially improving student outcomes through to have minimal or negative effects.

This diversity in findings indicates one of the deeply complicated aspects of evidence in education. That is, that evidence and knowledge in education is highly context dependent. What works best in one school, or in one classroom, or with one student will not always work in another school, or with a different class or student.

Furthermore, as the American scholar, Rick Hess reminds us “when it comes to schooling, what usually matters is how things are done rather than whether they are done”. It has long been known that the transformative power of technology in education is not inherent to a specific device or piece of software, but rather the teaching methods, pedagogical practices, and behaviours that support its implementation and use.

While it’s what we do with the technology that matters, there is a growing body of research that is exploring how digital technologies influence how we think and learn. Research indicates that how we read and write using digital devices differs substantially from how we read and write using pen and paper. For instance, a study conducted by Pam Mueller (Princeton University, USA) and Daniel Oppenheimer (University of California, Los Angeles) found that students who took lecture notes by hand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of the material than students who used laptops. However, in a recent study Gabrielle Strouse (University of South Dakota, USA) and Patricia Ganea (University of Toronto) found that toddlers who were read electronic books paid more attention, made themselves more available for reading, displayed more positive affect, participated in more page turns, and produced more content-related comments during reading than those who were read the print versions of the same books.

While the addition of computational thinking and design into the National Curriculum is long overdue, it is essential that the increasing role and presence of digital technologies in teaching and learning is accompanied by a rigorous research agenda, that enhances our understanding of the impact, both positive and negative, that technology has on how we think and learn and how schools operate. It also is critical that quantitative studies that attempt to measure what impact digital technologies have are balanced by qualitative case-studies that also explore how technologies are being employed in-situ, the factors that support their effective implementation, and the broad outcomes and impacts of their use.