What can the research evidence tell us about technology in education?

By Dr Nina Hood

I recently was asked to give a seminar on technology in education to a master’s course. To achieve my dual aim of getting the students (nearly all practicing teachers) firstly to think critically about technology and to question decisions being made about how technology is used in schools, and secondly to engage with some research on edtech, I structured the class around a simple activity. I provided six controversial statements about technology and asked the students to rate themselves from 1 (strongly disagree) to 10 (strongly agree). For the remainder of the session we unpacked their positions, drawing on their practical experiences in schools as well as on the research evidence.

Given the rising presence and prominence of digital technology in our schools (and increasingly in ECE centres) and as The Education Hub has recently released our first set of resources on technology in education, I thought it would be worthwhile to explore the research evidence on several of the statements.

Students today are digital natives, and therefore are competent engaging with and using technology for learning

The term digital natives was coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 to describe the “fundamental differences” between young people today and previous generations. Prensky argued that young people “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors”, and as a result of learning differently require new pedagogies. While there is little evidence to suggest that the basic cognitive processes controlling how we process information (that is, learn) have fundamentally changed, there is a growing body of research suggesting that engagement with technology is influencing behaviours which in turn impact learning, such as attention, motivation, and precision and depth of reading.

The term digital native frequently is used in an uncritical way, positioning young people as a homogenous group that are in sharp distinction to older generations. However, research demonstrates that young people vary in their skill to use new technologies, and to use these technologies in a range of ways. In fact, research suggests that many young people’s actual uses of technology are limited in scope and less empowering than the rhetoric suggests. It therefore is important not to conflate engagement with technology with meaningful engagement with technology that increases agency and supports learning among young people.

There are minimal differences between reading online and reading non-digital texts

Reading digital media (particularly online sources) is more challenging than print reading because of the navigation required to access the material, including clicking on hyperlinks and scrolling through text. Research indicates that, while strong readers perform well both in non-digital and digital reading, there is significant variation in digital reading performance at all non-digital reading performance levels. Further research indicates that reading digital texts may take more mental effort, making it more difficult to remember what has been read. This is because, when reading material online, you are trying to comprehend what you are reading while simultaneously making decisions about what to read and where to navigate next. There also is evidence that people tend to read digital texts more quickly, which similarly impacts on comprehension and recall. As explored in a previous blogpost, in general, online reading results in poorer comprehension and a reduction in deep reading.

However, there is emerging research, which suggests that reading online can help parents to encourage reading habits among early readers where paper book access is limited, and that students learning English as an additional language achieved significantly better reading comprehension using adaptive online reading materials.

Digital education is/will be more successful in overcoming educational inequality and disadvantage than previous interventions and reforms

Educational technology frequently is credited with having the potential to revolutionise education. Writing about MOOCs (massive open online courses) in 2013, Thomas Friedman exclaimed “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty—by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have”. It is true that increasingly anyone with a device and internet connection can access learning opportunities. However, the current reality is far from the hyped potential. For example, in the case of MOOCs, recent analyses show that a majority of those registering for the free classes (between 70 and 80%) already have degrees.

While there is progress in breaking what commonly are referred to as the original digital divides – mental access (the motivation to use computers) and material access (access to the hardware, software, and internet connection) – the third and fourth digital divides – skills access and usage access – remain more entrenched. A range of factors, including prior educational experiences, skills and knowledge, interest and motivation, and cultural, social and economic conditions, all contribute to a person’s use of technology and significantly the outcomes they achieve. As a result, researchers increasingly are focused on ‘inequalities of participation’, recognising that while many people have access to online learning opportunities, they do not all have the necessarily knowledge, skills or dispositions to effectively engage in and with these opportunities.

A majority of learning systems are designed and configured to ‘the norm’ of a self-motivated, highly able individual, who has the social and educational capital to make effective use of the learning opportunities. The result is the Matthew effect, which affects so many facets of our current education systems. Those who are better positioned to learn – that is have the knowledge, skills and opportunities – are more likely to achieve better learning outcomes.

None of the above is intended to suggest that educational technology is bad (or good). Rather, it suggests that it is important to think critically about the role of technology in education and to not just accept commonly proffered opinions or popular rhetoric. Rather, like any aspect of education, it is important to consider the risks and opportunities, to question who stands to benefit, and perhaps most crucially, to continually question and re-question what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what is the impact.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.