Learning Technology

The proof, promise and potential of digital education

By: Kathleen Stokes, Education Policy Advisor, Nesta
Published: Friday, November 30, 2012 - 07:00 GMT Jump to Comments

Kathleen Stokes, education policy advisor at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) outlines the impact that technology will have on learning

Nesta recently published Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education authored by researchers from the London Knowledge Lab (LKL) and Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Nottingham. We commissioned this report to better understand the impact of technology on learning experiences and to understand where technology offered the promise of more and better learning.

The report draws upon over 1000 research and teacher-led sources to identify over 200 examples of innovation and points to a world in which we can harness technology much more effectively to support learning – a significant opportunity for teachers, learners, and the UK’s education technology sector.  The key is to focus on learning activities not specific technologies.

Our framework for rethinking how technology can be used for learning identifies eight approaches to learning, or learning themes, that are proven to be effective: Learning from Experts, Learning with Others, Learning through Making, Learning through Exploring, Learning through Inquiry, Learning from Assessment and Learning in and across Settings.

For example, we know that learning through making things and sharing them is an effective way to learn. Digital technologies have opened the door for the range of things which can be constructed, and there are numerous teacher-led innovations are enthusiastically putting them into practice. Online we are seeing an ever increasing variety of educational making resources including  MIT’s  Scratch programming language (1)  and online community, the “multi–agent programmable modelling environment” NetLogo (2),  and the musical “programming language and environment” Impromptu (3).

Alternatively, kits like HummingBird (4) are being used to engage young people with engineering, design and robotics. However, it’s important to consider how we use these tools for making – and connect them to a clear learning outcome. As these activities become increasingly popular, we need to capture how learning through making can be best applied and increase access to different tools – from design software to the Raspberry Pi to 3D printers – and training that teachers can use to implement these activities.

Learning through making is core to Nesta’s recently launched Digital Makers programme which follows on from the call to action from the Livingstone / Hope Next Gen. report (5) to build a generation able to create technologies as well as consume them.

Equally, learning from assessment is a fundamental part of learning but is an area where we have seen little exciting innovation using technology. Adaptive technologies and analytics are showing great promise for areas like formative assessment, self-assessment and peer-assessment, but relatively few innovations are supporting these types of assessment (which are backed by evidence) and are being put into practice.

Positive examples include the well-publicised Khan Academy (6) with its integrated video, practice and analytics model, but the market is far from saturated. Looking to higher education, we can see examples like AssignSim (7),  an automated marking system that provides learners with automatic feedback based on comparisons of their peers’ work. Making different forms of assessment faster, easier and more accessible to teachers and learners could have significant implications for student achievement and, just possibly, education systems overall. We urgently need to design and test more products with, and for, school-aged learners.

There are several more examples of the creative use of technology to support learning activities in the full Decoding Learning (8) report and we have also published the list of 150 innovations (9) that were rated by our expert panel.

These examples paint a rich and positive picture of innovation and potential across all the learning themes. However our research does raise challenges. We show that there is the potential to make better use of the technology we already have, but that this can only be achieved by thinking clearly about the learning activities we want to support and using the technology as a tool within that framework. The report speaks of the need to develop a ‘think and link’ rather than ‘plug and play’ mentality.

We also show that there are some learning themes that could be better supported by technology specifically designed for use in education; examples include structured collaboration, formative assessment (as referenced above) or even tutorial dialogue. This represents an opportunity for better learning, but also for commercial development.

The question is how best to meet this need for innovation in learning technologies?  One of the most powerful conclusions of this research was the persistent disconnect between product design, teaching approaches, and evidence. If we are going to realise and scale products and services that meet the opportunities for learning with technology then we need to link industry, research and practice. This means creating and sustaining channels of communication through which:


1, Researchers can get information from the educational technology industry about what they are developing, the current market needs and the problems to be addressed;
2, Industry can get hold of accessible research that addresses the challenges they currently face; and
3, Schools and teachers can gain clear and evidence–based guidance on effective uses of technology for learning, and access to the training and resources need to realise it.

These are disparate groups that use different language to describe the challenges they face and process problems in different ways. However, forums are beginning to emerge for these constituencies to work together. TechHeads is a network of EduTech start-ups that meets in London and shares knowledge with educators.  At the launch event for Decoding Learning Mark McCourt of BelugaMaths (10) and the Independent Learning Foundation (11) announced the founding of an Ed-Tech hub in London that aims to bring these groups together. The report authors at the London Knowledge Lab (12) work closely with industry, teachers and learners through initiatives like their recent Education Hackday (13).

At Nesta we see connecting research, industry and practice to articulate and solve learning challenges as a key aim for our digital education programme.  We hope to work with and learn from all the groups mentioned and to take inspiration from international programmes, such as InnovateNYC (14) and Singapore’s National Institute of Education (15) that are tackling similar issues.

We have the proof that using technology in education can be successful, but it’s only through building partnership that we will realise its promise and potential.

1,  http://scratch.mit.edu/
2,  http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/
3,  http://impromptu.moso.com.au/
4,  http://www.hummingbirdkit.com/
5,  http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/assets/features/next_gen
6,  http://www.khanacademy.org/
7,  http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1660211
8,  http://www.nesta.org.uk/home1/assets/features/decoding_learning_report
9,  http://www.nesta.org.uk/home1/assets/documents/decoding_learning_data
10, http://www.belugamaths.com/
11, http://www.independentlearningfoundation.org.uk/
12, http://www.lkl.ac.uk/cms/index.php
13, https://www.lkldev.ioe.ac.uk/re/
14, http://schools.nyc.gov/community/innovation/izone/Innovations/innovatenyc
15, http://www.nie.edu.sg/

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