What is technology’s impact? —How technology supports teaching and learning

Technology in the classroom has had a long and chequered history. Traditionally, the debate around its utility has been dominated by bouncy edtech evangelists in one corner, promising technology-fueled educational transformation, and by staunch technology sceptics opposite, reminding us all that, as far as they can see, said transformation is yet to manifest itself after decades of digital technology use.

The resulting, often acutely polarised debate usually ignores altogether how technology is actually used in our schools to support the daily business of teaching and learning and how teachers and learners continue teaching and learning using whichever tool gets the job done, because, for most of us, technology is neither the problem nor the solution, it is just an option. And so, the more subtle, pragmatic, mundane and almost invisible application of technology that supports teachers and students on a daily basis seems to get lost in the hubbub and is not always taken into account when evaluating the impact of digital technology.

Whilst there is relatively little research that shows unequivocally that greater use of technology will result in improved educational outcomes, which are often measured exclusively using examination results as a proxy, research suggests that there is a strong correlation between the effective use of technology and improved outcomes. It also suggests that role of technology in supporting the processes involved in teaching and learning needs to be more clearly identified in order to better understand its role and measure its impact more accurately.

So, what does research suggest works? Are there any ‘best bets’ that we can use as a starting point to evaluate and improve our practice? And how might a 1-to-1 mobile learning project contribute to such improvement? According to the Education Endowment Foundation’s Toolkit (from here on EEF) and the Sutton Trust’s most recent report on what makes great teaching, these are some of the elements of teaching that research suggests contribute to improved outcomes, accompanied by ways in which mobile technology might, on occasion, help along the way:

1. Quality of instruction

The Sutton Trust spells it out early on in their report. If we are to raise attainment, we need to improve the quality of instruction. Some of its key findings in this respect are:

The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions. Includes elements such as effective questioning and use of assessment by teachers. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding) are also elements of high quality instruction.

According to this research, effective teachers display strong subject knowledge and deep understanding of how their students might interact with the content they deliver. In schools where technology is used most effectively, teachers understand that pupils’ interaction with content can be facilitated and encouraged by technology and that content can be delivered via a variety of media both during and outside lesson time.

In a 1-to-1 environment, tools such as iBooks, online content management platforms and iTunes U help create digital learning spaces that complement their physical counterparts and support teachers and learners in delivering and accessing content when and where it may be required, exploiting a dimension to teaching and learning that generally remains otherwise unexploited by all but the most technologically adventurous teachers.

Even if we set aside the fact that mobile devices are, well, mobile — and thus can be used inside as well as outside the classroom — and focus exclusively on the learning that takes place during a lesson, it is still perfectly possible to conceive of effective ways in which pupil access to mobile technologies can support classroom based learning.

Take, for example, what research suggests about testing. It turns out that, perhaps counter-intuitively, frequent testing may be more effective at generating long-term recall than presenting materials to pupils over a period of time and only then testing their knowledge and understanding, as many programmes of study have traditionally encouraged. The implication is that frequent testing may be more effective at helping with the learning than with the assessing. Take a minute or two to chew on that.

This means that in classrooms where pupils are equipped with their own mobile devices, the teacher can also use testing and quizzing tools such as Socrative or Quizlet to generate frequent and memorable learning events, as well as to assess levels of understanding. Not only does habitual quizzing turn out to be pedagogically sound, but also the resulting automatic data collection can be hugely beneficial to both teachers and learners, who can then exploit it to inform future practice and learning.

2. Classroom climate and management

According to the same report by the Sutton Trust, another element that is essential to foster achievement is classroom climate and management, which covers:

[…] quality of interactions between teachers and students, and teacher expectations: the need to create a classroom that is constantly demanding more, but still recognising students’ self-worth. It also involves attributing student success to effort rather than ability and valuing resilience to failure (grit). A teacher’s abilities to make efficient use of lesson time, to coordinate classroom resources and space, and to manage students’ behaviour with clear rules that are consistently enforced, are all relevant to maximising the learning that can take place.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that skilled and effective teaching is key to engender an environment in which learning and achievement can be maximised. In addition to more traditional classroom management techniques, mobile devices open up a whole new toolkit to help teachers engender such an environment. Although there are superb apps, such as Class Dojo, that are specifically designed to foster positive classroom behaviours, mobile devices can be used to manage your classroom in more subtle ways.

Take for example the fact that mobile devices allow pupils access to a wealth of teacher approved resources. With greater understanding of mobile technologies, comes a greater appreciation of the need to provide pupils with relevant, appropriate and carefully curated content (just access to the internet in its full but bewildering glory is not good enough) that will remain available to be tapped into whenever required, which may sometimes be during a lesson.

In practice, this means that children who finish a task early can continue working on other materials seamlessly. Similarly, children who need extra support with a topic are able to help themselves in the first instance more easily if support materials are always only a couple of taps away. I have found that interruptions to the flow of the lesson caused by the inevitable I-don’t-get-it or I’ve-finished-what-do-I-now are significantly minimised when appropriate classroom habitudes regarding the use of mobile devices are instilled in children.

A single tablet in the teacher’s hands can also contribute enormously to sustain a scholarly environment during lessons. For example, with tools such as Explain Everything, tablets can be put to excellent use in lessons as portable interactive white-board input devices. Wireless projection of the tablet’s screen to the front of the classroom frees the teacher from having to be anchored to the board when teaching a lesson. Being able to stand anywhere in the classroom when interacting with the whiteboard or projector allows teachers to spend less time writing at the board with their backs to the pupils, thus providing teachers with new, effective vantage points from which they can react to developments in lessons and, in doing so, contribute positively to sustaining a productive learning climate.

In a sense, a tablet puts a Swiss army knife in the hands of the teacher, and the humble camera has turned out to be one of its most effective tools for many of us. When combined with wireless projection and annotation tools, a tablet becomes a portable visualiser, so not only can teachers explain concepts and introduce new content using their tablets from anywhere in the classroom, but they can also quickly snap shots of pupils’ work and use the annotation tools to unpick the finer points of the lesson and model answers to the whole class. In a mature 1-to-1 environment, pupils can also wirelessly project from their own devices and instantly share workings out or present their projects to the rest of the class.

In an unexpected turn of events, teachers in 1-to-1 environment tend to find that interactive whiteboards only become truly interactive when they step away and allow themselves and their pupils to interact with them remotely.

3. Metacognition and self-regulation

According to the EEF, metacognition and self-regulation strategies can boost learning by up to eight months, highlighting this as one of the most important and impactful interventions to raise achievement. So, what it is and what does it do?

Meta-cognition (sometimes known as ‘learning to learn’) and self-regulation approaches aim to help learners think about their own learning more explicitly. This is usually by teaching pupils specific strategies to set goals, and monitor and evaluate their own academic development. Self-regulation means managing one’s own motivation towards learning. The intention is often to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from during learning activities.

Mobile devices are often criticised for being a distraction in the classroom. However, this criticism often overlooks the fact that tablets also put in the hands of every learner a set of powerful tools to help them manage their own learning and that teachers can minimise such distraction by establishing and implementing clear rules and expectations. Indeed, effective 1-to-1 environments are predicated on a culture that views mobile devices as robust scholarly tools, not just games consoles. Contrary to popular belief, classrooms exist where mobile devices are used for academic purposes instead of being filled with children playing videogames or sending messages to each other on social media.

From scheduling, calendar and planner apps to note-taking tools and more sophisticated curation apps that can be used effectively for scholarly purposes, such as Evernote or Pocket, mobile devices routinely and demonstrably support this kind of self-regulation, thus probably contributing to improved learning outcomes.

However, it must be said that there are no simple strategies to achieve the levels of independence, understanding, evaluation and ownership of one’s own learning that are required for these meta-cognitive approaches to truly bear fruit. It is down to every school to carefully implement whichever context-dependent strategies they feel can contribute to greater independent learning and self-regulation. The challenges and opportunities of mobile learning and a 1-to-1 environment need to be considered within this wider context.

4. Homework

In terms of progress, research examined by the EEF suggests that homework can put pupils up to eight months ahead, though they are careful to qualify it depends on its quality:

There is some evidence that homework is most effective when used as a short and focused intervention (e.g. in the form of a project or specific target connected with a particular element of learning) with some exceptional studies showing up to eight months’ positive impact on attainment. Benefits are likely to be more modest, up to two to three months’ progress on average, if homework is more routinely set (e.g. learning vocabulary or completing problem sheets in mathematics every day).

Research clearly encourages us to think carefully about what homework we set so that it is effective in supporting learning. Otherwise, what is the point? Teachers in settings where mobile devices are employed find that they have a wider repertoire of homework tasks available to them. The fact that students can word-process and research online is often what comes to mind first when we think of technology-aided homework, but the added ability to easily record and edit sound and video, for example, will allow students to produce digital artifacts that help them document their learning and help their teachers assess and evaluate progress in ways that would have been inconceivable without access to mobile devices. But this all depends on the quality of the teaching and the ability of the teacher to set clear, purposeful tasks. No amount of technology will help children learn with homework that was poorly set in the first place.

The concept of flipped learning with easy access to multimedia resources (or, perhaps more accurately, flipped teaching) is one of these new possibilities in the more varied homework repertoire available in the 1-to-1 environment. Essentially, it involves pupils being introduced to topics or concepts outside the classroom, typically involving access from home to material — often videos — that is produced or curated by the teacher.

In a good lesson, the teacher usually explains a concept or topic, guides initial practice, provides feedback and then allows for independent practice. However, more often than not, this crucial independent practice is relegated to homework, when the teacher is not available to intervene when pupils become stuck. In a flipped lesson — and I am not advocating a permanent flipped state — students have already studied the topic independently and the teacher is at hand to tutor students when the knowledge they have recently acquired is required to be applied in practical tasks, arguably when the teacher’s help is most useful. I personally find this approach effective but I can’t say it works well with all topics. Professional judgement is, as ever, required.

5. Feedback

Our fifth and final element that, according to research reviewed by the EEF, contributes enormously to great teaching and learning is, of course, feedback. The EEF summarises:

Feedback redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome. It can be about the learning activity itself, about the process of activity, about the student’s management of their learning or self-regulation or (the least effective) about them as individuals. This feedback can be verbal, written, or can be given through tests or via digital technology. It can come from a teacher or someone taking a teaching role, or from peers. Providing effective feedback is challenging. Research suggests that it should be specific, accurate and clear (e.g. “It was good because you…” rather than just “correct”); compare what a learner is doing right now with what they have done wrong before (e.g. “I can see you were focused on improving X as it is much better than last time’s Y…”); encourage and support further effort and be given sparingly so that it is meaningful; provide specific guidance on how to improve and not just tell students when they are wrong; and be supported with effective professional development for teachers. Wider research suggests the feedback should be about complex or challenging tasks or goals as this is likely to emphasise the importance of effort and perseverance as well as be more valued by the pupils. Feedback can come from other peers as well as adults.

Tacit teacher knowledge and understanding about the important role of feedback is confirmed by a solid evidence base. And once again, technology cannot magically make poor or average teaching great, as it is how currently-available technology is used that is the key variable when it comes to formal, school-based teaching and learning.

Having said that, there are a number of tablet-friendly tools that support the effective delivery of feedback and the establishing of teacher-pupil conversations, generating virtuous circles of knowledge and understanding that inform both teachers and pupils as to how to proceed in their respective roles. We have already mentioned Explain Everything as a portable interactive whiteboard, but one of the tricks that Explain Everything has up its sleeve is the ability to record explanations. Whilst we normally associate explanations with the delivery of new content, my colleagues and I have experimented very successfully with recording feedback that is delivered to students in video format. Here is an example.

In addition to this, two other very useful tools that I have seen employed to great effect in improving the frequency and delivery (not the quality, that’s up to the teacher!) of feedback are Showbie and Edmodo, both of which support the setting of tasks, collection of work and delivery of feedback, thus supporting every other evidence-based element of teaching and learning in this non-exhaustive list, not just feedback.

Caveats about this research

One final consideration must be to what extent do we consider that this research provides a full and accurate picture of what makes great teaching and learning. For example, Professor Sandra Nutley from the University of Saint Andrews suggests that kite-marking schemes such as those propounded by the Sutton Trust and the EEF need to be “complemented by other forms of evidence, such as qualitative research and survey evidence if we want to know, not only how something works, but also whether it’s right for this particular group of people”. Similarly, Professor Biesta of the University of Luxembourg suggests that research is often limited to “questions about the effectiveness of educational means and techniques, forgetting, among other things, that what counts as ‘effective’ crucially depends on judgements about what is educationally desirable”. In short, when reviewing the available evidence, it pays to keep the whole wood in sight, instead of focusing on just one or two of the trees.

Caveats about the application of technology

I have deliberately taken a very pragmatic approach in this article to how mobile technology can support school-based teaching and learning. However, I am certain that, as the application of mobile technology matures beyond its infancy, we will begin to use it in ways that have not yet become apparent to most of us. I suggest that building confidence among parents, pupils and teachers in the technology’s ability to support forms of teaching and learning that they recognise is an essential first step before more radical or transformative methods can be formulated.

Suggested further reading

Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit

Sutton Trust: What Makes Great Teaching?

Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn

The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning

Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education

What the Research Says: iPads in the Classroom

Why “What Works” Won’t Work

Cover image courtesy of Surbiton High School.

Originally published at www.educate1to1.org on March 22, 2015.

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