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Best Outcomes
How can we use technology to achieve the best outcomes?

Key Takeaways

Best outcomes can be impacted by:
 
The effectiveness of digital products
Children's age and stage of development
Time spent using technology for learning
The context of use (who is using the device, for what task)
 
Careful consideration is needed to use digital technology to its best effect
Introduction 

There is no question that digital devices can enable some learning opportunities, above and beyond what can be achieved with traditional teaching methods. Digital technologies can support teachers learning, connections, and access to resources. Computers and devices have the potential to allow students to collaborate beyond the classroom, and to access information and resources to support learning. See 'What's going well?' for more information on effective use of technology in the classroom. 

While the use of digital technologies within education has much potential, to date, their impact on learning outcomes has been described as at best, mixed. Some studies show improvements while some show declines in student performance.

The quality of media content (what kids are doing on screens), and context of use (how they use them) can affect both health/well-being and learning outcomes. Children's age and stage of development can also impact the effectiveness of technology, and older students potentially have more to gain. 

'Some educational technology can improve some types of learning in some contexts'​
UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report 2023

 

Look for evidence of effectiveness

Consider the effectiveness of digital products before using them for learning. Currently, there is a lack of good quality research on the effectiveness of digital technologies in education. While some learning apps may support learning, overall, learning apps have been linked to reduced learning outcomes.

 

 ‘A survey of teachers and administrators in 17 US states showed that only 11% requested peer-reviewed evidence prior to adoption.... Much of the research that does exist for products comes from those who are trying to sell it'. 

'A full discussion needs to take place on the age-appropriateness for the introduction of digital technologies in schools, as well as on necessary prerequisites in terms of children’s capacities and skills before fully developing their digital competencies.'
United Nations General Assembly, 2022

 
Digital technologies

Introduce children to skill-based use of digital technology such as coding, robotics, 3D printing, programming, animation, and filmmaking.

Teach computer science. For younger children, computational thinking can be taught with non-digital games and puzzles, and free teaching resources are available. 

For best outcomes alongside learning about digital technologies see: What's going well?

Time spent on computers and devices

Summary

Along with the content and context of use, large population studies have found that duration of screen use can impact learning outcomes. Moderate technology use has been shown to have some positive impacts on student outcomes, including obtaining digital skills. 

Improvements only occur in certain areas of learning. Careful consideration is needed to use digital technology to its best effect.

Large-scale research

While small-scale studies show mixed results, large population studies are finding more consistent trends.

A large review on the impacts of educational technology assessed the findings of 234 meta-analyses, involving 2.12 million students. Authors described the impacts of educational technology on learning outcomes pre-Covid as ‘at best average, more likely well below,’ but noted that digital technologies had above average impacts for students with special learning needs.

Large-scale population studies comparing standardised assessments are more consistently finding trends that some technology use can support learning, but there is a limit to the amount of technology use that can achieve this. This includes PISA data published in 2015, with results replicated in 2018 PISA results from New Zealand and abroad.

Results indicated that students who used computers moderately have some improvements in educational outcomes, compared to students who rarely use computers. Improvements only occurred in certain areas of learning.

Students who frequently used computers in school (defined as more than half an hour per day) had significantly lower educational outcomes. Testing was done both on paper, and digitally. Singapore, with only moderate use of technology, came out top for digital skills.

Scores from 2018 data also improved when teachers used digital technologies to teach, or with students, but declined when students used devices independently.

Student use of digital devices to search the internet was linked to improved learning outcomes, but all other tasks (including learning apps, simulations, online homework, e-textbooks and others) were linked to reduced outcomes.

The OECD report noted that 'ensuring every child achieves a baseline proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more for creating equal opportunities than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high tech devices or services.'

Students' digital skills have been found to have declined in Australian research, in a comparison between digital literacy scores in 2011 with 2014, despite increased device use. Authors noted the declines were concerning and warrant serious attention. They noted that children learn very different skills on tablets and smartphones to the basic technology skills required for the workplace, and warned against assuming that children who use mobile devices were more widely competent with technology. 

Achievement in technology also declined in New Zealand Year 4 and 8 students between 2016 and 2021, despite increased use of digital devices to learn, and changes to the technology learning area of the New Zealand Curriculum.

A report by the Reboot Foundation (2019) has also analysed the connection between educational technology and learning, using PISA and the 2017 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) data, and their results have replicated the 2015 and 2018 OECD results. They noted that "the results regarding tablet use in fourth-grade classes (equivalent of NZ Year 5) were particularly worrisome, and the data showed a clear negative relationship with testing outcomes. Fourth-grade students who reported using tablets in 'all or almost all' classes scored 14 points lower on the reading exam than students who reported 'never' using classroom tablets. This difference in scores is the equivalent of a full grade level, or a year’s worth of learning."

The Reboot Foundation (2019) recommends that technology should be limited for younger students, and they note that health agencies have warned against early excessive computer exposure, both inside and outside of schools. 

"Elementary (Primary) schools should be particularly careful, and leaders making policy for schools that enrol younger children should be wary about flooding them with technology. While it makes perfect sense for teachers to use technology for administrative purposes in elementary schools, policy leaders should steer clear of launching a large technology initiatives for very young students, given the recent research on the potential negative impact of digital devices."

While these research findings have controlled for variables such as socio-economic status and prior performance, they all have limitations, and further research is needed to better understand how to use technology in education more effectively.

Special needs

Digital technologies can support learning and inclusion for children with special needs, see 'What's going well' for more information. 

Some children will be at higher risk of developing problematic internet use and may require strategies to promote healthy transitions between preferred and other activities. 

Ergonomics

Provide regular breaks from the computer, to allow a visual change of focus and movement.

Consider teacher training in the ergonomics of computer use so they can support students to have a healthy ergonomic learning environment. 

Development

Paper versions of homework and text should be available for all students, if the task allows.

Recess and break periods should be device-free, outdoors when possible, and support the development of gross motor skills.

The use of extrinsic rewards, including those embedded in software, must be carefully considered against the need for students to develop intrinsic motivation such as pride in skill development, personal improvement or the love of reading and learning. 

Foster face-to-face human interaction and opportunities for community building.

 

In closing

 

Digital technology has a growing role in education, and has great potential to support learning. However, frequent and extended screen use has also been associated with negative impacts on health, development and learning. Ensuring that technology provides opportunities, contributes to equity and doesn't harm must be prioritised. 

Caregivers, schools and policy makers can work together to promote health in this digital age. Discussion, informed guidance and legislative change (such as improving safeguards and enforcing age limits on restricted sites) is needed to support our children and young people to develop safer screen behaviours.​

'The digitization of education should be geared towards a better implementation of the right to education for all, where it is demonstrated that it brings significant added value. In this regards, it is important to understand the profit-driven agenda of digital technology lobbyists and companies'
 
United Nations General Assembly 2022

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