Technology offers the best chance of taking effective learning practices to scale
On Monday, I attended the Education Endowment Foundation's Evidence in Action Seminar, which was full of good people, proposing good ideas, for closer aligning what goes on in the classroom with what we know about learning. However, I was struck that there was no talk of how technology can support this aspiration. As I often do, I thought I would collect my thoughts in a blog post. Below is what I ended up with:
Too often, the argument for making more use of technology to support learning doesn't get much further than an incredulous stare, an observation that while technology has revolutionised so many other parts of our lives its impact on education has been slight. And we have all seen those slides (I've made them myself) that show a Victorian classroom alongside a contemporary one, and naughtily ask the audience to spot the difference.
But to give the debate an edge, and also to point to the type of digital products/services that we need more of, it is helpful to move beyond this. What is it that technology can offer that purely analogue models cannot?
I think there is a very simple answer to this - in the absence of any breakthroughs in our understanding of how learning happens, the task becomes one of changing what goes on in and outside of the classroom to better reflect our current understanding of how learning occurs. Technology, I think, offers our best chance of achieving this.
Allow me a bit of philosophising. What technology and innovation scholar Richard Nelson calls 'human know-how' can be located in various places - in people's heads, in libraries, and in physical technologies which can range from a well-designed hammer to a defribulator. For education, think text books, online revision aids, lesson plans, and also the practices and routines that teachers use every day.
Writing ten years ago, Nelson highlighted education as a field where we have seen little progress, and one explanation he offers is that the understanding that is needed to illuminate the effective design of learning technologies and practices provides too dim a light. Unlike biomedical research, say, it does not have the power "to illuminate and facilitate the improvement of practice". Yet since then, through efforts like John Hattie's Visible Learning and the OECD's The Nature Of Learning, we have got much better at articulating our knowledge about learning in a way that can guide and inform practical action. Nesta's own report, Decoding Learning, also advances this important task.
Now, more than ever, we can go about the task of designing, testing and then filtering out or adopting technologies that embody the full gamut of effective learning practices. By embodying our know-how, technology can facilitate the bridging of the evidence-practice divide. And digital technologies must be the most promising technologies for this task - they can connect, support collaboration, gather and make sense of data, be interactive, and create immersive environments. And they can go to scale at little cost - through Udacity, Sebastian Thrum is now teaching classes of 160,000, rather than 200!
In many instances, realising this will involve some changes in classroom practice if the technologies are to be used effectively - but here technology can provide a nudge. For example, one of the things I most like about Khan Academy are the reports that allow you to get a view on a class's learning progress. Clearly having these reports available does not mean that they are viewed, or acted on, but I think seeing that one student has mastered some content while another is struggling must at least make it more likely that you will think about pairing them up for peer-to-peer tutoring.
NQuire is another example. Here technology is used to guide, support and structure student enquiry. It provides 'out-of-the-box', the well-structured part of well-structured, enquiry-based learning. Other examples require less change in practice. For example, Beluga maths, offers a constructivist approach to maths learning that it claims does not require external - i.e., teacher - input.
To be clear, I am not arguing for a dumbing down of teaching - quite the opposite. The view I am proposing is of a teacher orchestrating the use of useful technologies, and deploying their craft expertise, knowledge and understanding in a way similar to that in which a surgeon co-ordinates the activities and the technologies in the operating theatre. Digital technologies won't get rid of the need for teacher professional development, but it can nudge, support and embody our know-how in a way that offers the most promising avenue for aligning practice with evidence.
To do this will require some effort and investment, but we need to remember the prize: "In the classrooms of the best teachers, students learn at twice the rate they do in the classrooms of average teachers - they learn in six months what students taught by the average teachers take a year to learn." If technology can embody part of what these best teachers do, we will have made some progress.
 Richard R. Nelson 'On the uneven evolution of human know-how'