Digital Technologies and Research

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

Dr Nina Hood
July 2017

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.

One comment on “Digital Technologies and Research


    Firstly, there is a need to explain what is implied by “Digital Technologies”.
    We need to understand the distinction between skills in generating ideas that we wish to develop as communication, and skills in understanding the range of means of transmission available to give form to these ideas and so share them with others, digital technologies being one such ‘means’.

    Secondly, arising from “ … exploring how technologies influence how we think and learn”. It is well known that the action of taking written notes or making visual recordings (mainly drawings) assist in both understanding the content and also in remembering the content. [Hence my work on Response to Vision.] Although preschool children can show a fascination with technology that has imagery that moves and introduces letter-shapes, the basic problem remains to be confronted – with English, they have to learn the abstract shapes that constitute the language elements, that they can make an infinite range of words, and that these can be put into sequences that have meaning to the reader and others. There is still no definitive way in which this skill is learned. Essentially, there is no difference between the classroom slates of the early 1900s and the current tablet computer – each use brain to control hand to make marks that can be understood (brain again). Whether this eye/hand co-ordination is developed more effectively by current technology has yet to be proved. The best technology is the human form we call a ‘teacher’. It is the knowledge and enthusiasm of such people who stimulate students with a desire to learn. It is this excitement generated in the student which carries forward their learning – technology is just one means of advancing this learning. It is not the exclusive tool, otherwise most students would be better learners if confined to home linked to the Internet, sadly, without any direct sensory contact with the world!

    Thirdly, we need to consider the meaning of “… computational thinking and design” (presumably part of Digital Technologies).This requires a simple definition allowing whatever it is to be seen alongside other ways of thinking along with associated concept development. Regarding Design, it should be remembered that true design is a process of finding a usually creative solution to a problem. Younger students cannot manage the associated actions of breaking a problem into separate parts, analysing and trialling modifications of these, then assembling and testing the outcomes. This skill usually arises in mid-adolescence, but not necessarily so. Some students (often female) solve problems by non-systematic thinking of a diffuse nature, certainly not “computational”.

    With computer technology advancing faster than the capacity of the education system to accommodate this change, there is a dangerous possibility of the technology providers deciding what is best for education and what they offer may neither improve the learning nor be related to the New Zealand curriculum.

    Finally, never forget the ‘client’ – students are quite capable of making positive comment on the effectiveness of the learning system!

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