Late last year Nesta – a UK-based charity – released the report Decoding learning: The proof promise and potential of digital education. Nesta commissioned the London Knowledge Lab and the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Nottingham to “analyse how technology has been used in the UK education systems and lessons from around the world. Uniquely, we wanted this to be set within a clear framework for better understanding the impact on learning experiences”.

The following is a summary and some reflections on my reading of the report. I’m thinking of using it as a resource for the course I’ll be teaching soon.

If you’re after a shorter summary, the Nesta press release might provide what you’re looking for.


While there appears some value in the themes of learning, I thought there were some definite grey areas in terms of innovations being allocated to particular themes.

That said, the collection of examples of technology use divided into these themes provides what I see as a very useful resource for pre-service teachers. It gives them a taste of what is possible and what good uses of technology look like. This is something I think might be valuable in the early days of the course. Start with concrete examples, before getting into the theories and the planning.

The idea of using this list and the themes as the foundation for the co-construction of some sort of database or site of examples. A list students could add to through their explorations. Perhaps later expanding on each of the examples by suggesting what learning theories, curriculum elements, year levels, etc might be relevant to each example.

There are also a few other points apparently useful for a pre-service teacher thinking about ICTs (i.e. reflect some of the limitations of thinking about ICTs that I saw last year)

  • Starting with the learning theme, rather than the technology.
  • The point about linking learning activities across themes and experiences to reinforce learning and other plusses.
  • The importance placed on context. The ecology of resources model may be useful in scaffolding some thinking.

Chapter 1 – Introduction and scene setting

Key questions for education

  • Has the range of technologies helped improve learners’ experiences and the standards they achieve?
  • Is this investment just languishing as kit in the cupboard?
  • What more can decision makers, schools, teachers, parents and the technology industry do to ensure the full potential of innovative technology is exploited?

Digital technologies have a profound impact on management of learning but “evidence of
digital technologies producing real transformation in learning and teaching remains elusive” (p. 8)

“Our starting point is that digital technologies do offer opportunities for innovation that can transform teaching and learning, and that our challenge is to identify the shape that these innovations take.” (p. 8)

Has been much research. “synthesising reviews do find some evidence of positive impact” but there are 2 complicating factors that limit these findings

  1. the evidence is drawn from “a huge variety of learning contexts” (p. 9).
  2. “findings are invariably drawn from evidence about how technology supports existing teaching and learning practices, rather than transforming those practices” (p. 9)

Learning themes

Based on the learner’s actions and the way they are resourced and structured, the report is organised around 8 effective themes

  1. Learning from experts.
  2. Learning through inquiry.
  3. Learning with others.
  4. Learning through practising.
  5. Learning through making.
  6. Learning from assessment.
  7. Learning through exploring.
  8. Learning in and across settings.

Research process

Used both research and “grey” (blogs etc) literature

  • Review of last 3 years of academic source – 1000 publications – from which 124 research-led example innovations chose. Relevant reviews and meta-reviews included.
  • Informal literature identified 86 teacher-led innovations from a pool of 300.
  • The combined 210 cases form the basis for the report.
  • Use a comparative judgement method/tool (described in an appendix) to have 150 innovations ranked/compared by a group of experts.

There is an Excel spreadsheet with the top 150 innovations, including URLs.

Chapter summary

  • Chapter 2 – discusses evidence of innovation in each of the learning themes.
  • Chapter 3 – how are the 8 themes related and how they can be linked by technology to produce a rich learning experience.
  • Chapter 4 – looks at how learning context shaped the impact of new technologies on learning.
  • Chapter 5 – identify what needs to be done if innovative and effective uses of technology in education are to happen.

Chapter 2 – Learning with technology

Using the learning themes. Explains the type of learning and then present examples of the 210 innovations with the greatest potential.

  1. Learning from experts.
    Highlights are

    • The increasing wealth of online resources offers great potential for both teachers and learners; but places great demands on both to evaluate and filter the information on offer.
      So YouTube videos, e-books etc fit here.
    • Innovations in Learning from Experts have tended to focus on the exposition of information rather than fostering dialogue between teachers and learners.
    • Digital technologies offer new ways of presenting information and ideas in a dynamic and interactive way. However learners may need the support of teachers to interpret those ideas and to convert that information into knowledge.
    • New forms of representation (e.g. augmented objects) offer the potential to enrich the dialogue about information between teachers and learners.

    The Mathematics Image Trainer (described in this paper, the paper offers some theoretical/pedagogical rationale for why this type of approach is important for learning mathematics) is an example. Luckin et al describe how it allows the teacher to focus on asking the student to explain what they think is happening. Hence the innovation is framed as “a powerful too to enhance discussion between the teacher and the learner”

    Aside: I wonder how hard this would be to implement using ARSpot. Might make it more widely available since it would only require a Windows computer with a camera and the AR spot print outs. Rather than a Wii or similar

    Tutorial and Exposition are the two kinds of interaction between learner and teacher. Mentions Bloom’s suggestion that one-to-one teaching is the most effective way to learn. Methods that represent traditional approaches to teaching and that many examples of technology build upon (e.g. Khan Academy)>

    Mentions lots of different examples.

  2. Learning with others.
    Considerable enthusiasm. But academic research not filtering into the classroom. Teachers’ awareness of tools needs to be raised. “Priority should be given to developing tools that allow teachers to organise and manage episodes of joint learning.

    Identify four social dimensions

    1. collaborative – help learners develop mutual understanding.
    2. networked – help learners interact.
    3. participative – help learners develop a strong community of knowledge.
    4. performative – allow the outcomes of collaborative learning to be shared.

    Three promising areas for development:

    1. representational tools that enable activities taking place to be presented to other learners;
      e.g. technology-enhanced spaces for acting; tools for capturing and sharing on-going achievements…
    2. scaffolding tools that provide a structure for learning with others.
    3. communication tools that support learners working at a distance to collaborate.
  3. Learning through making.
    Making and sharing is “one of the best ways people can learn”. One example is the construction of an environmental sensor and linkage with a mobile phone app.

    Highlights of the section are:

    • Success rests on two principles: learners must construct their own understanding; and create something they can share with others.
    • Digital technology can bring it alive by making it possible to construct just about anything and share, discuss, reflect and learn.
    • The motivational aspect and benefits of producing real world outcomes of learning through making frequently cited in teacher-led innovaitons.
    • Depend son the appropriate use of digital tools in suitable environments.

    Mentions Papert and constructionism. Links to to Logo and computer programming. Mentions Maker Faires etc.

    Most of the innovations are teacher-led, apparently little research.

    • Examples help learners construct notes and other material to improve their learning, electronic outlining tools, learners developing presentations based on the information they collected during visits.
    • Scatch mentioned, also blogging and storytelling through Web 2.0 applications. ZooBurst create 3D pop up books with augmented reality features a bit like ARSpot. But also a bit more than that.
    • 3D printing gets a mention.
    • The need for teacher support, they help students to learn how to use technology critically link multiple representations and make the connections between individual learner’s constructions and whole class understanding.
  4. Learning through exploring.
    Learners have always browsed, but information is abundant. Need to new skills/strategies. Technology can help. 3D simulations, visualisations, technology-augmented spaces. Found few examples of innovations in this theme Gives electronic blocks as one example.

    Includes work where learners search or browse information or engage in playful, game-like interactions. It can be opportunistic or more structured.

    • two principles: learners are given the freedom to act; they need to regulate their own actions (which is itself an important skill for learning).
    • Digital tools provide new ways to explore information and structure the environment to explore.
    • Limited research studies suggest it is underused and undervalued.
    • The few examples were of high quality suggesting potential.
  5. Learning through inquiry.
    Exploring the natural or material world by asking questions, making discoveries, and rigorously testing them. Technology may help organise inquiry or connect learners’ inquiries to real world scenarios.

    Enables learners to think critically and participate in evidence-based debates. More structured towards an end than learning through exploring. Seen to include: simulation, case-based learning, problem-focussed learning and scripted inquiry. The degree of structure varies.

  6. Learning through practising.
    Perhaps the most contentious application in some areas, but probably the most used. Helping learners practice skills. Most effective when a variety of representation and interactions are used and doesn “simply sugar-coat uninspiring or unchallenging activities”.

    Practice builds foundational knowledge to be used in other context. use of tech in this sphere is rarely seen as innovative, but plusses include rich multimodal environments used to create challenging problems and appropriate feedback.

    Zombie Division is given as an example. Which leads me to the “Serious Game Classification” site. Another example has kindergarten students using a digital dance mat to practice/compare number magnitude. Light-bot is nice, appeals to the inner-programmer in me.

    Hello programmed instruction.

  7. Learning from assessment.
    Being aware of what a learner understands is fundamental to increasing their understanding and knowledge. Technology can help: compile learning activities and enable both teachers and learners to reflect upon them; track progress of learning and present that information in rich and interactive ways. There is little innovation in technology-supported assessment. Research innovation is modest. Most innovative focusses on self-assessment through reflection, not teacher-led. Most innovation is based on summative assessment of traditional subject. More work on formative assessment and assessment of other skills is required. Suggests learning analytics holds promise. Also e-assessment using social networks and other technologies that facilitate peer, collaborative and self-guided learning.

    The subtle stone is used as a way to gain insight into students’ emotion.

  8. Learning in and across settings.
    Context of learning plays an important role in the quality of learning. Knowledge is deepened when applied across different locations, representations and activities. Technology provides a variety of devices to capture, store, compare and integrate material from a variety of settings.

    Key success factors

    • Understanding what parents really need in order to get them involved;
    • Recognising that activities designed for school are not necesarily transferable to the home (and vice versa)
    • providing on-going support and ensuring use of technology at home is purposeful.

    Purple mash is used as an example of transferring learning between home and school. Augmented reality for field trips gets a mention and uses of mobile devices to support field trips etc.

Chapter 3 – Bringing learning together

“To achieve a more rich, cohesive, and productive learning experience, we must consider the
links that exist between different learning activities within and between themes.” Providers learners with a coherent episode. Reinforces learning and strengthen future learning.

Suggests the following

  • Learning themes are mad up of
    • Learning activities (e.g. creating an animation) which are connected/embedded across different themes into
    • Learning episodes (e.g. lessons, projects units) that are linked/sequenced to create..
    • broader Learning Experience at class, school etc levels.

Linking learning activities

57% of examples encompassed two or more forms of learning. Some with different learning activities within the one theme, others had learning activities across multiple themes. Often there would be a primary theme and another used as supports.

Through making, with others and through exploring most often used in a supporting role.

Chapter 4 – Context is important

Context is crucial for success with technology. Realising the potential of digital tools is contingent on how we use them and the context of learning.

Uses one of the author’s models – Luckin’s Ecology of Resource which essentially

  • Has the learner surrounded by
    • Environment;
      Most examples from formal schooling – primary and secondary. The classroom may have specialist equipment/expertise that makes it easier. Digital tools tend to be usable in many environments.

      All learning environments have formal/informal rules for behaviour of teacher and student. This can limit technology use. Existing infrastructure may also limit it.

    • Knowledge and Skills;
      The way knowledge is organised shapes learning. e.g. separation in disciplines. Certain learning activities better suit some subjects. The whole question of what is knowledge is also a factor.
    • People;
      Teachers’ have a role to play in having innovations succeed. PD is an issue. Peer learners also impact on learners. Technology can help. Not to mention other people within school – technical staff, teaching assistants, leadership etc. Not to mention the broader community.
    • Tools.
      Breaks digital tools into hardware, applications, networks and platforms. Mentions infrastructure. Cloud computing. Thin clients (dead already). BYOD not mentioned. Lists three factors that can constrain wider adoption: cost, complexity, safety.
  • Between those and the learner are a set of filters.
  • Understanding these helps predict likely impact of technology and help roll them out.

Chapter 5 – Bringing research into reality

Understanding how technology can be used to improve learning is only part of the answer. Systemic challenges need to be addressed.

Learning from the evidence

Repeats the adage that technology alone won’t improve education, “we need to make better and more creative use of them” (p. 59)

The most compelling opportunities to improve learning through technology are

  • Improve assessment.
    “too little innovative technology-supported practice in the critical area of Learning from assessment“. Don’t restrict it to the end of a learning episode and don’t make it “dull or dispiriting”. Learning analytics, adaptive assessment and the potential for instant statistics, knowledge maps, class data and badges. Also, how to assessment knowledge and skills such as collaboration and leadership.
  • Learn by making.
    Lots of digital tools being used in making. Coding, robotics kits etc. But “careful consideration needs to be given to how the process of making leads to the desired learning outcome”.
  • Upgrade practising.
    The longest and most popular aspect of technology. “But not all types of practice are equally beneficial”. It is most effective when it involves rich, challenging problems with appropriate feedback, rather than on easy activities. Challenge here is in determining which ones are most effective, for whom and in what context.
  • Turn the world into a learning place
    Most learning is in school and escaping the constraint of location is not simple. But digital tools enable this. It can “link learners with other learners, experiences and settings”. We need to stop thinking of learning taking place in isolation, in schools.
  • Make learning more social.
    Promote better teacher/student discussion and learner/learner discussion. Use technologies to create audiences for participatory or performance activities.
    • Key priorities for technology in learning

      • Link industry, research and practice.
        The gap between these groups is problematic. Advantages to all 3 if connected. Role of government and other stakeholders. Informal connections help, but formal connections required.

        The role of context in research also needs to be mentioned to enable comparisons.

      • Make better use of what we’ve got.
        WHile access to technology is important, an emphasis on hardware limits examination of other opportunities.

        Teachers need to move to a “think and link” approach where tools are used in conjunction with other resources and a variety of learning activities. Teachers need to be able to digitally “stick and glue”. Teachers need ways to share ways of using new technologies.

      • Connect learning technologies and activities.
        “Linking learning activities and using a variety of technologies and approaches” can lead to a richer experience. “Focusing on individual learning activities with single use technologies will not achieve the maximum impact”

        But the tools aren’t there yet.