The rationale for ICT in Education impact studies

This is a new approach that is being explored and developed further, by practically applying it.

Understanding of how learning happens and good pedagogy to stimulate learning has been developing rapidly over the last two decades, in parallel with the introduction of ICT. It is time to move beyond the qualitative and subjective descriptions of impact that exist in very many case studies. These are however the starting point; anyone who has seriously listened to teachers’ descriptions of the impact of ICT, in schools where the use of ICT is widespread and embedded, will know that they believe ICT is enabling improved learning in numerous ways.

This is a manifesto; it needs debate and challenge. It is also a working hypothesis; if impact studies succeed in convincing parents, politicians and the purchasers of ICT-for-education then the argument will be won through accepted practice rather than the research validation that has been sought by government since introduction of ICT into schools started.

The history of research into the impact of ICT in education.
There are remarkably few formal research studies into the impact of ICT on school-level education and learning, worldwide. The UK has taken a lead but even here the best that studies have been able to do is to correlate effective use of ICT with good achievement levels of pupils. The studies have not been able to establish causal links showing that ICT increases learning. Considering the large number of excellent researchers who have been involved in this endeavour over more than two decades, it is time to ask why the causal link has not been established when so many teachers anecdotally and subjectively report major impact.

It is possible to argue that causal links between ICT and raised achievement will only ever be established for learning techniques that can only be achieved using computers, such as visualisation and multi-sensory approaches. Understanding of these approaches to learning is at an early stage in research terms.

The majority of learning activities using ICT can be replicated without ICT, though often with considerably more trouble and expense. If causal links to raised achievement through ICT only exist in situations where what the ICT enables cannot be replicated otherwise, then generalisable identification of impact is impossible. The contextual situation becomes an integral part of the reasons why ICT impacts positively on learning.

The problem with traditional research approaches.
There are two problems with the ‘traditional’ approach to formal research:
i) ICT almost never acts alone in improving learning. And because it is a mix of factors that are improving learning, it is almost impossible to separate the impact of ICT, as the other factors cannot be controlled sufficiently between the group being studied and a control group.
ii) If the use of control groups is tried to research impact, moral, ethical and social issues quickly arise. Where impact is being noticed by the students and teachers the fact that a control group is being denied the benefits will itself impact on the situation. In schools where pilot trials have been established with only parts of cohorts such as year-groups, pressure to extend the trials to the full cohort arises as soon as positive impact on learning starts to be perceived anecdotally.

These considerations suggest that a different approach is required, that of comparison with how the teaching and learning used to be approached without ICT, or how the changed approach could be implemented without ICT and whether that is practically and economically possible.

Change in learning catalysed by ICT
Human beings learn through human activities; reading, watching, trying, playing, talking, creating. The balance between these activities in education has been determined by the physical and organisational nature of schools to date. ICT is providing opportunities for this balance to be changed, for instance by enabling much extended conversation and discussion through online communications. There is also an argument that ICT introduces some new activities that can promote learning, that were not possible before computers and networks.

The changes happening through use of ICT are essentially changes in work processes. Through a different balance of learning activities and by being able to do some activities more and/or better, better learning is achieved.

Learning activities and theories of learning
There are many theories of learning and no consensus amongst educators or education researchers as to which approaches are best. The implication is that the way ICT impacts on teaching and learning, and raises achievement, needs to be investigated relative to a very wide range of approaches to learning. This puts an emphasis on the necessity to research the impact of ICT locally, in individual schools, rather than through centralised projects. Only by looking across a very wide range of studies identifying impact from ICT would it be possible to assess ‘best practice’. This suggests that we cannot look to central guidance and that teachers and school leaders must take responsibility for assessing impact and developing learning activities in their own schools, sharing experiences widely but choosing on the basis of what works best in their own school.

Tools for studying and quantifying changed learning processes

Some of the changes in learning work processes are easy to see and measure, some are not. The fact that there is a re-balancing of where learning happens between in-class and out-of-class time, means that more learning is happening out of sight of teachers. If this uses computers and online systems then there is an opportunity for data on what pupils are doing to be analysed, to produce information about their learning activity. However this cannot be taken entirely at face value; the fact that a student is logged on to some learning content does not fully explain what they are doing with it in order to learn.

There are also changes being catalysed by ICT that are inherently difficult to measure as they are attitudinal. A commonly mentioned factor as to why pupils learn better when ICT is being used is that their engagement with the work and motivation increases. Though teachers are expert at assessing engagement and motivation (and expert at generating this) it is difficult to measure quantitatively.

There is a requirement for better tools to be developed to measure what is happening in learning processes where ICT is being used. This will be a long process and will happening alongside the developing understanding of the neural basis for learning. However lack of tools should not be an excuse. Teachers’ belief that use of ICT is increasing learning, this must be based on something that they are observing, which must be measurable in some way even if this is a very subjective approach.

The challenge for those unconvinced about the impact of ICT on learning
It is the job of teachers to teach, not to be full-time researchers. Common sense and history indicate that where people have access to better teachers, better learning resources and more information, the ability to discuss and debate with better informed and educated people, and the ability to experiment and create, to practice, explore and develop what they are learning, then they will learn better than people without these things.

By showing that ICT is enabling young people to do these things more, and more widely across social and ability divides through using ICT, the challenge to justify the importance of ICT should pass from those who are showing this in practice, to those who are failing to promote or use ICT. Teachers able to demonstrate that pupils are doing more of those activities which have historically promoted good learning, through use of ICT, should demand that anyone wishing to deny this should themselves investigate why the more and better undertaking of these things are not producing better educational results in the terms and ways they are assessing this - if this is what they believe is the case.