Nesta's new "Decoding Learning" may have stirred a response it wasn't looking for
"Something is going wrong.” The message from Nesta on its new report on technology in schools couldn’t be clearer.

Despite an investment of more than £1 billion on digital technology in schools “so far there has been little evidence of substantial success in improving educational outcomes”.  So has all that money been wasted? Really? And should the spending stop?

“Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education” was produced for Nesta by the London Knowledge Lab and the Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Nottingham. It’s the result of a review of masses of research into learning with technology (more than 1,300 sources), and, despite the headlines, the report is constructive, identifying what has been successful and what remains to be done.

The report is tied to the launch of Nesta’s new education programme which is supported by the Nominet Trust and Futurelab (at NFER) and partnered by the Mozilla Foundation (the open-source people behind the popular Firefox internet browser and the new Webmaker Badges, an engaging and practical scheme that supports learners gaining web-construction and coding skills).

The debate about evidence, standards and technology, however, is often circular and transparent, steered by people who don’t have a clue and are not prepared to give way to people who do. Where is the evidence about the effectiveness of pen and paper, books, electric lighting? Thankfully we have been spared such tedium: but not for disruptive digital technologies.

Education going through a cusp: from analogue to digital

Decoding learningClearly education has been going through a cusp; from a collection of disparate, analogue institutions to a network of digital services. This has required massive investment for infrastructure, equipment and services and it is by no means complete. There could be a national vision, and targets, for infrastructure but not for teaching and learning, which is one reason why there is so little “evidence”.

Now the infrastructure is mostly in place, teachers and schools are still finding out how pedagogies can be supported, amplified and accelerated by digital technologies. And this is happening in a political landscape that harks back to “traditional” values that no longer exist, even in many institutions regarded as traditional. So it’s not surprising that evidence is such a problem, particularly for many politicians who revisit it like dogs chewing gum, unable to step back from the obsessional mastication long enough to savour a wider palate.

So when this report says, honestly, that there is relatively little academic evidence of learning gains created by the use of technology there is an knee-jerk media response that money has been wasted on technology in schools (The Telegraph's “Schools 'wasting £450m a year' on useless gadgets” , and the BBC’s “Costly hi-tech kit lies unused in schools, says study” – as though media organisations don't make wasteful IT decisions too).

Of course the Nesta executive summary for the report, tweaked for maximum media impact, has actually encouraged negative feedback by highlighting failure rather than the changes that are beginning to work their way through the system (contrary to the flavour of the report itself). The responses to the report could even have an unfortunate fallout on the Nesta education strategy it is meant to support.

There is no sense here of the national context either: Education isn’t the only part of public life that faces institutional obstacles to change. (A quick walk around the musty corridors of the Houses of Parliament reveals a far more extreme challenge, and a reason for poor national leadership for technology. The politicians themselves are still in the dark ages.)

What teachers need to know is what works, what doesn’t, what might and what needs to be done. And that is where “Decoding Learning” is helpful – in identifying and categorising the successful impact of using digital technologies for learning, pointing to unexploited potential and suggesting what needs to change. Here its focus, thankfully, is clearly on teaching and learning rather than technology.

Nesta report identifies eight important learning themes

Take a quick look at the learning themes the researchers reckon are effective with technology. Learning: from experts; with others; through making; through exploring; through inquiry; through practising; from assessment; in and across settings.

Are these so unreasonable or difficult to comprehend – or controversial? No. If you visit schools you will already be familiar with these themes; and you can probably find examples of all of them on this website (have a quick browse through the Innovators section for example) .

While they are already happening, some face their own challenges – like assessment which always has to cope with external interference, much of it unnecessarily political. Think about it. How can the assessment that students find so helpful – longer-term formative assessment regimes that can utilise technology to maximum effect – flourish when politicians compel students towards higher stakes, one-off exams (technology-free)?

The report also gives examples to support these eight kinds of learning. But even this is problematic and you wonder whether these, like the exemplars in the National Curriculum, become the focus for debate and practice rather than the concepts themselves.

Rose LuckinRose LuckinMaybe there’s a problem with this kind of academic research itself, just a little too remote from classroom and home as it reflects on other reports, from similar academic backgrounds, which also experience change through a rear-view mirror. Teacher research and straightforward journalism (if the media were interested) could be even more effective.

Maybe, as education moves through its digital cusp, these reports, like national ICT provision schemes, will disappear as schools gain a collective understanding and confidence. That’s the potential but national political leadership doesn’t appear to have put structures in place to ensure that happens. Think of the steps forward that could be made if only the embryonic Teaching Schools received a fraction of the resources given to recent research projects (see “‘No pain no gain’ as schools start to lead the system?” and response from Paul Haigh).

While “Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education” undoubtedly brings helpful insights and suggestions, its launch appears to have sparked more heat than light, due in no small part to Nesta’s own presentation. The anxiety this has caused in the educational technology community can be seen in the response from Naace with its insistence on evidence the report doesn’t address (like its ICT Mark and awards schemes), and its interview with one of the authors of the report, Rose Luckin, by professional officer Jan Webb (see below).

The real waste would be to not take advantage of current investments

Rose Luckin points out that it’s easy to ask questions like, “We’ve spent loads of money, show me the results.” The longterm view is the one that’s needed, recognising that investment so far has developed the first steps and it’s the future progress that is important. “What would be a waste would be if we didn't take advantage of the investment that has been made,” she says.

Rose Luckin also talks about sensing a shift in power and “fledgling change” in schools, and she says that teachers need help and support from each other and those who understand the challenges they face.

Identifying wastes of money isn’t difficult in education or any other sector. You can even find evidence of “iPads in cupboards”, and there is no shortage of people who will tell you about them, but the smart observer understands that these are products of poor leadership, putting technology before learning and teaching and the fact that many UK schools are not yet over their digital cusp.

The basic digital infrastructure might have been put in place for many schools, but the really worrying waste of money comes when it merely supports and replicates existing practice. The culture has to change. A first step could be to stop looking for evidence to support using technology for learning when most UK jobs require digital skills (see if there is any evidence for not using technology). A second could be to stop looking for mundane, pedestrian relationships between using technology and academic achievement. You know, the kind where using technology could mean a half grade improvement in maths for example.  

Then the energy can be put into applying appropriate and cost-effective technology to the tasks that face schools as they try to provide their students with the best possible learning. Those who think that the digital revolution is yet to come, or has even already happened, need to come to terms with the fact that it has only just started and the solutions are already out there for those who care to look.

If the people responsible for the business plan for UK plc, and the education strategy that ought to support it, are still scratching around for "evidence" of the effectiveness of technology for learning they have left it a little late. In the absence of such a strategy – the current status quo – schools will have to do it for themselves, supporting each other as they go. There's a new ICT curriculum coming in, with more duties for teachers to support computer science, and as yet no model for CPD once the current funding for the innovative Vital initiative has run out. It's looking scary.

More information

“Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education”   
"Decoding Learning – executive summary"  
Naace response – Technology massively improves learning - but only in some schools – and interview with Rose Luckin  

See also CBI "First Steps" report
iPad Scotland Evaluation
by the University of Hull