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Decoding learning: the proof, promise and potential of digital education

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 November 2012

Rose Luckin and Richard Noss
Yesterday evening, Nesta launched its report: Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education. The report was written for Nesta by researchers at the IOE’s London Knowledge Lab (LKL) and Learning Sciences Research Institute (LSRI) at Nottingham University and it pulls together evidence about the innovative use of technology to support learning and the impact this can have for students.
The report offers a wealth of examples of learning and teaching being supported by well-used technology and is organised around learning activities rather than by types of technology: this is technology answering real problems of education, not finding something to do with the technology. Yet this is the way so much evidence and innovation is classified: the authors argue that we need to move towards a focus on learning and what works for learners. Unless we do so, they argue, the questions we end up asking are at best unhelpful and at worst, meaningless. For example, the only answer to questions such as “Do games help learning?” is to say, “It depends.” And the same with iPads, mobile phones, the latest programming language or system and so on. We can make the questions meaningful by “thinking about the types of learning activities that we know to be effective, such as making and sharing, and then exploring the ways that technology can support and develop these effective learning activities in innovative ways”.
The report identifies trends and opportunities grounded in effective practice and sets out what the authors believe are some of the most compelling opportunities to improve learning through technology. However, understanding how technology can be employed to improve learning is only part of the equation. There are systemic challenges that need to be addressed if technology is to fulfill its potential to support learning and the millions of pounds invested are really to represent value for money.
Linking industry, research and practice to realise the potential of digital education
There is strong evidence of a disconnect between the key partners involved in developing educational technology. This situation makes little sense at a time when technology has become consumerised across society, and there is increasing evidence for the efficacy of technology as a learning tool in many contexts. Academic, and practitioner research particularly, is poorly connected and is typically conducted in isolation from the technology developers whose products grace our schools and homes. And yet, both researchers and the developers of educational technology need to know from the start whether, and how, their work enhances learning. Industry, researchers and practitioners need to work closely together to test ideas and evaluate potential innovations at a time when design changes can easily be implemented and products can be improved before they are taken to market. Such a process would benefit industry by providing clearer evidence of effectiveness to boost sales; and it would benefit practitioners who would have access to better products on the market.
Make better use of what we’ve got
We need to change the mindset amongst teachers and learners: from a “plug and play” approach where digital tools are used, often in isolation, for a single learning activity; to one of “think and link” where those tools are used in conjunction with other resources where appropriate, for a variety of learning activities. Teachers have always been highly creative, developing a wide range of resources for learners. As new technologies become increasingly prevalent, they will increasingly need to be able to digitally “stick and glue”. To achieve this, teachers will need to develop and share ways of using new technologies – either through informal collaboration or formal professional development. But they cannot be expected to do this alone. They need time and support from school leaders to explore the full potential of the technologies they have at their fingertips as tools for learning. School leaders can further assist teacher development by tapping into the expertise available in the wider community.
We need to know more about what is happening when technology is used effectively

We need better evidence about the contexts in which technology is being used effectively. Evidence about the impact of technology on teaching and learning is gathered from a huge variety of learning settings, and reported without adequate indexing of the contextual factors that influence the nature and scale of the impact recorded. This means that applying the findings of any research study to a fresh setting is severely hampered.
In sum, the report tries to assess the evidence, not just looking for proof of “effect” – but asking relevant questions that can indeed be answered, and which can provide grounds for planning intervention in the learning and teaching process.

Kiss Goodbye to ICT (or KISS hello to Computer Science?)

Blog Editor, IOE Digital31 October 2012

Rose Luckin and Richard Noss
Ever since Eric Schmidt of Google expressed his shock at UK children not learning computer science, there has been a flurry of activity to introduce programming to children at an early age. This includes Education Secretary Michael Gove’s abolition of the existing ICT Programme of Study in favour of a more rigorous and challenging attempt to teach computer science, especially programming. It is an admirable point of view that we both strongly support. But before we all go overboard, there are a couple of essential questions:
1) Does the plan align with what research tells us about teaching children programming, why we are in favour of it, and what we might expect from it? 
There have been nearly 50 years of development and research dedicated to finding ways for non-programmers to program. In 1967, Seymour Papert and his colleagues at MIT invented Logo, a language that was good for kids – and this at a time when the only thing one could do with a computer was to program it.
But as Papert said, a language that is only good for kids is not good for kids! He meant that programming languages are powerful ways for people to build understanding, access to formal systems of thought (like mathematics), which are essential ways for people to express their ideas about the world, and to make sense of it. That’s why programming is important: not just to increase the supply of programmers (important) or to introduce to everyone what is under the bonnet of the systems that power our society (essential), but to introduce the power of computational thinking.
2) The DfE announcement of “around 50 scholarships worth £20,000 each is accompanied by the granting of permission to top universities and schools to provide new Computer Science teacher training courses from September 2013, tough requirements for Computer Science subject knowledge for new teachers, and training “around” 500 teachers in Computer Science through a new “Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence”.  BUT, does this new plan adhere to the design principle well loved in the computer science labs of our undergraduate days: KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid?
This useful little principle is a valuable reminder that most systems work best if they are kept simple and therefore simplicity is a key design principle. In order to keep things simple designers need to understand what problem their design is addressing. So are we clear about what is wrong with computer science and ICT in schools now and more importantly are we all clear about exactly what we want learners to be able to achieve as a result of studying computer science? Do we want to skill up the new workforce for the UK’s games industry, or encourage a new generation of engineers and computer scientists, or do we want to encourage young people to make rather than take their technology? This question should drive the way we train our teaching workforce and simplicity should be the watchword for the systems we design to deliver a solution.
A simple and useful truth is that the skills of computational thinking can be taught with or without computers, by exploring how processes work, looking for problems in everyday systems, examining patterns in data, and questioning evidence. With a computer, learners can put their computational thinking into action. A focus on computational thinking will better equip learners to use their understanding effectively and to learn how to apply a range of computing tools. Ensuring that all UK students develop good computational thinking would be a clear and simple answer to the question of what we want students to achieve.
There are no short cuts to a solution. The key to being able to design the necessarily simple system for training the teaching workforce is to fully understand that workforce, the context in which teachers teach and learners learn (both inside and outside the classroom or lecture hall), and the constraints under which they operate. The real power of KISS is the way that it highlights the need to think about how the system you are designing might break down, to identify the tools and processes that will be available to mend things when they do go wrong.
We must therefore ask: has there been enough input into this new system design from teachers and learners to ensure that the new measures are simple enough to be easily mended when inevitably things don’t work quite as they should?
To see how learners and teachers really want to “hack” the education to meet their needs come along to the Re-Designing our Education Education Hack Event on November 16-17. Or you can see the results at the London Festival of Education on Saturday, 17 November.

Dear Mr Gove: Technology is the key to the heart of your vision

Blog Editor, IOE Digital29 June 2012

Richard Noss

An open letter to the Secretary of State for Education

I am writing to support your ambition to introduce more rigour into the teaching and learning of our young people. As we move further into the 21st century it is growing ever clearer that technology can play a crucial role in raising standards.
Our new report, System Upgrade: Realising the Vision for UK Education, draws together the findings of the five-year £12m Technology Enhanced Learning Research Programme. It argues that learning can be radically transformed for the better by the careful design and deployment of technologies and draws on hard empirical evidence to show how.
Increasingly, children use technology in their out of school lives, not just to socialise but to learn. The same technologies enable us to gain insights into what actually helps them learn. Researchers now “data mine” the records of thousands of students’ interactions with technology-enhanced learning systems. Data-mining is revealing which curriculum components pull their weight in terms of learning outcomes, very difficult information to collect in traditional ways. An educational game such as Zombie Division doesn’t just help children improve their maths skills. It also logs their performance in order to provide teachers with valuable information about what division problems a particular child finds difficult or easy.
We know that we can build software that exploits the power of personal devices, that catches the wave of social networks to share ideas and foster teamwork – a skill that is not only demanded by industry but that will be assessed in the next PISA exercise.
We can use technology to understand better how people learn; to assess what matters rather than what is easy to assess; to help pupils bring their learning of, say, mathematics into the real world and apply it – another work place-friendly skill. We can use the latest techniques of artificial intelligence to help children with special needs and we can enhance teachers’ productivity by doing more for less – both time and money.
How to achieve this? Well, investment would help. But above all, we believe our findings are essential to the debate, to help raise the level of discussion beyond “pro” and “anti” technology lobbies. Our aims are the same as yours: to make learning more rigorous and, thanks to technology, more accessible to all.
Finally, few would take issue with your desire for young children to learn a language. But the discussion seems limited to whether it should be French, Spanish or Mandarin. What about the language of computers? The advent of a new wave of cheap tools (Raspberry Pi, Arduino) means children can explore the building blocks of technology from an early age. It is possible that a generation of UK children could become fluent in coding – the language that increasingly underlies our world?
Professor Richard Noss
Director: Technology Enhanced Learning Research Programme
London Knowledge Lab
Emerald Street London WCIN