Digitally-Enabled Learning — Learning & Teaching
This section aims to explore some of the ways in which digital technologies can enhance learning outcomes for all learners. These ideas are based on a vast amount of research evidence and the practical experiences we have collected over many years and across a variety of different contexts.
These general themes are equally applicable to the use of digital when exploring the concept of number with four year olds or quantum physics with university undergraduates.
Judging the potential effectiveness of a digital project against each of these will help inform your decision about whether or not to proceed.
Of course, there are several different viewpoints within the Hive Knowledge Group about approaches to teaching in general and with new digital tools in particular.
The ideas presented below were seen to apply across the board to the different approaches that some of us take. We believe that whatever approach you take towards teaching and learning within your organization these ideas will help inform your development of digital tools, technologies and resources.
However, you approach learning and teaching within your institution we hope that the ideas presented here will be applicable and help you make more effective judgements about your investments in digital, be they time, people or monetary.
Effective digital technologies should help engage learners in the learning process more fully through resources and activities that take account of their particular needs, interests and aspirations.
Engaging digital tools and resources have been around since the earliest days of computing but it is not enough to be simply engaging. Something can be bright, colourful with beautiful sound and video but it may not actually help improve learning outcomes.
The real stars of the digital technology world within education are those tools and resources that engage learners in activities that help them move their understanding of a topic forward.
Learner engagement is a much-studied element of the educational jigsaw and is seen as a crucial part of any effective learning environment. Without real engagement in the learning activity any resulting ‘learning’ may be superficial and transient which may mean that little, or no, learning has actually taken place.
Sometimes effective tools may be very basic, such as the black screen with a small, white turtle in the centre that is encountered when learners first start using the Logo programming language. Despite its minimalist user interface Logo often engages a wide range of learners, especially those for whom school has been somewhat disheartening.
By placing the learner at the centre of activities the effective use of Logo will often engage learners in ways that gives them the confidence to explore complex mathematical concepts as well as challenging areas from other parts of the curriculum.
Similarly, tools such as simulations help engage learners by encouraging experimentation and exploration outside the normal boundaries set within non-digital environments.
Simulations, such as the free, science based models found on the PHET website, engage learners through an easy-to-use approach, highly graphical presentation and powerful backend models. Through the use of powerful, yet easy to use, models learners engage in the exploration of complex scientific concepts.
Using these simulations their exploration can be personal and private in a way that allows the learner to both fail and push their exploration further than could be possible within a formalized classroom setting.
Engaging learners in activities that promote active learning has been one of the most touted benefits of digital technologies ever since they were first introduced into education.
When considering a digital resource, you should evaluate how much of the engagement is focused on active learning in order to judge its value.
Note: In future updates of this resource we will be presenting more evidence and examples around the topic of digital tools and engaged learning.
Digital tools, technologies and resources enable learners and those who support them to take part in activities that were difficult or even impossible using other methods. This aspect of digital is becoming increasingly important as technologies enable an increasingly varied toolset of experiences and activities.
At one end of the spectrum of technologies that support this ‘enabling’ aspect there is the, relatively simple, ability to work collaboratively on a variety of different documents, data sets, presentations, spreadsheets, etc. Aligned to these collaborative tools are associated technologies that enable students, staff, and parents, if appropriate, to track who is doing what and when.
This means that all those involved have the ability to track activity, intervene if support is required and reflect on the collaborative process, and the part that they played in that process.
By enabling real-time and historical access to collaboration that happens within a group project these digital tools increase the ability for students and staff to learn from such activities and assess their value and outcomes.
It really is impressive to see the learning gains that can be made when effective collaborative activities are introduced through products such as Google Drive, Microsoft Office 365 or education-focused tools such as the Just2Easy suite.
At the other end of the spectrum are tools and technologies that will enable students to interact with and experience three-dimensional, virtual reality environments.
These tools, crude and expensive at the moment, will soon become affordable, even for individual use and will open up new opportunities for learning organizations.
Virtual-reality tours, using 360 degree videos, of museums, historical monuments and rarely accessed natural areas will become increasingly available in the very near future.
More complex virtual-reality environments, using complex algorithms to model and present physical phenomena will follow soon after. In a very short period of time students may be able to put on a virtual-reality headset and take a walk through the human body.
Another approach to the use of three-dimensional interfaces to learning tools, augmented, or mixed, reality technologies, may soon enable the re-configuration of learning spaces. Augmented reality may provide the ability to design learning activities that enable digital and physical environments to interact.
Such tools, although expensive, already enable NASA Scientists to ‘walk’ around Mars from their laboratories on Earth.
The practicality of these tools is only just being explored but the potential is to truly enable learners to actively engage with concepts, models, processes and environments that are currently unavailable to them.
Less expensive are the three-dimensional, 360-degree videos that can be created quickly and easily with relatively inexpensive equipment.
Support for these is already available on sites such as YouTube and relatively immersive viewing experiences can be explored using very inexpensive add-ons to standard smartphones.
Digital tools empower learners and those who support them through greater access to accurate information that enables a better understanding of the needs of the individual and their learning progress. This is another aspect that will see huge strides forward in the coming few years as technologies, currently being developed within the commercial world, are adopted for educational uses.
We have already mentioned the ability to reflect upon work carried out when working collaboratively on digital documents and other resources.
Using such technologies, a student and teacher can discuss the progress, and importantly the process, of their work on these projects by looking back at the times that work was carried out, the amount of work within a session, and even the place where the work was carried out.
Now extend those ideas to other areas. Being able to review with the learner when they achieved better outcomes, what were the conditions that helped them achieve those outcomes, what type of learning resources they used to help them achieve well and who else may have been involved in supporting their achievement.
Consider taking this further by including all their learning-related activities, even those informal ones that are often important but rarely recorded, into a digital portfolio that enables the learner to reflect back on their performance, identifying ways in which they learn more effectively, and providing the opportunity to look forward to help them to plan ways that will aid them in achieving their next learning goals.
Then add into the mix the ability to compare their learning journey to other learners, past and present, who have similar attributes to themselves.
There is huge potential in empowering learners to be able to explore how others may have moved forward with their learning, what resources and activities gave them success and the steps that they took to achieve the learning outcomes required.
Extend this rich dataset and feedback environment to include teachers and senior leaders within organizations. Imagine the power of being able to see, at a glance, those learners in your class, year group or whole organization who are not moving forward at the pace expected and being able to drill down to look at their individual progress, including valuable elements such as their self-reflection, portfolio of work and activity maps.
Or, being able to spot an individual who has suddenly found a learning pathway that is helping them to become a potential high achiever and being able to actively intervene early on in their enlightenment to help them achieve more than would otherwise be the case.
At the moment there is still a relatively large degree of human interaction and manipulation of data required in this process but the science and technologies required to handle big data are developing so rapidly that it may not be long before a digital system will be able to alert you when an intervention is required for an individual learner.
Engage, Enable and Empower
The Power of Three
Tools that have the ability to enable learners, engage them effectively or empower them to understand their learning journey may, individually, have some value but it is clear that the most effective technologies combine at least two and preferably all three elements in ways that engage, enable and empower students.
It is often difficult to find tools, technologies and resources that combine all three of these elements in one package, despite what some of the marketing literature would have you believe. Therefore, you may want to explore combining several digital resources within one learning activity in order to ensure that learners have their learning enhanced through these three benefits that digital brings.
Creating a digital environment where the ability to engage, enable and empower are the underpinnings of all your digital-related activities will help bring structure and discipline to your digital developments.
This does not mean that all effective learning activities involving digital components need to be long, highly planned affairs.
Some of the more effective uses of digital tools may be short interactions that reinforce non-digital classroom activities.
Short, focused feedback activities that enable learners to express their understanding of a particular concept or topic during a lesson may only take a few minutes, sometimes less, but enable both learners and teachers to reflect on learning progress and may help inform future lesson activities.
One teacher used a collaborative mind mapping tool to challenge each class, in their first lesson of the week, to create a mind map of their learning activities from the previous week. They were given 5 minutes at the start of the lesson, after which the mind map was discussed, edited, stored and could be used for future revision.
Collection, collation and presentation of experimental data during science lessons can enable students to explore both the underpinning scientific concepts and the different ways that such data can be presented much more speedily than in the past.
This, in turn, enables more effective classroom discussion about the science and helps promote a better understanding of the link between experimental data and the exploration of scientific concepts which is at the heart of the scientific process.
Such in-class activities may be followed up with out-of-class explorations of the science involved through the use of simulations, available online or as apps on a device that provide the learner with the ability to explore concepts from their own point of view, being given feedback about their understanding through the simulation whilst being challenged to complete some form of assessment from the teacher.
These examples, done well, do not take much time within the overall lesson and should release more time for less mechanical activities that enable deeper learning.
A single activity may not have all three attributes of effective use of digital tools but the learning experiences associated with a particular set of learning activities should have these embedded across them and provide a coherent and effective use of digital tools to drive deeper learning.
Much of the success of your journey towards a more digitally-enabled learning environment will depend on your ability to accurately track and assess the learning journey of each individual.
The ‘chaos’ that was often associated with so-called ‘progressive’ approaches to learning and teaching from the 60’s and 70’s could be partially attributed, amongst other things, to a lack of knowledge about how students were progressing.
Luckily some of the tools that you need to use in order to effectively assess the impact of digital within your learning organization are also digital and can help you build a more informed picture of the learning that is being experienced by your students.
Engage, Enable & Empower — Assessment for Learning
Several years ago education leaders in a City that had seen its main industries devastated within a very short period of time looked at data about the pupils in their City and saw a worrying trend.
Pockets of severe deprivation were leading to incredibly poor outcomes for young people attending schools in these areas. They decided that something radical had to be done in order to try and reverse this downward trend in academic achievement.
It was time to significantly change the culture of learning and teaching.
Assessment for Learning
Having explored the ideas found in the research “Inside the Black Box” that had been carried out at King’s College London, the team identified schools within the most deprived areas of the City and worked with their leaders to develop an approach to the use of effective assessment for learning within their core teaching and learning activities.
At the centre of this new approach was a new way of thinking about the teacher, student and parent relationship applied to the individual’s learning journey. Learners would have important milestones in their progression within different subject areas clearly signposted so that they had a clear target to aim for and could identify even small steps forward.
Learners would complete each learning activity within a subject and then work with the teacher who would help them understand how their work in that activity had moved them closer to achieving the next milestone.
Over time, it was hoped, students would begin to be able to make judgements about their progress themselves and begin, even in a small way, to take a greater degree of ownership for their own learning progress.
Parents were also given more information about the different subject milestones. Students shared both their work and their understanding of their own progression with their parents who could comment on the work and help their children based on a greater degree of knowledge of where they were and what they had to do to achieve the next milestone.
Teachers were there to structure activities that were flexible enough to enable each individual to move forward with their own, personal learning goals and to provide positive, structured feedback to each student about how they could improve and what areas of learning they should focus upon in order to achieve the next milestone.
Assessment was focused on how best to move towards a learning milestone and always positive. Somewhat controversially, teachers assigned no numeric feedback, marks out of 10, to any of the work.
The main focus of the change programme may have been on classroom practice, and a change in the learning environment, but a crucial element in enabling that change was the development of a digital ePortfolio.
This was designed to empower learners to understand their own learning journeys more effectively and bring together teachers, learners and parents to allow everyone to see the learning progress being made and to actively support it.
This ability to share the outcomes of learning activities with parents, and even the wider family group, was particularly important since, for a number of reasons, many parents across all the target schools, rarely, if ever, came into the school.
Digital Portfolio and achievement
The district funded the development of a simple ePortfolio that provided:
Digital Locker A place for students to store their work and other evidence of achievements from outside school. The contents of these digital lockers could be shared with other users within the system or, subject to permission from the teacher or parent, published as a web resource.
Student Achievement Route Map
Student-friendly descriptions of learning milestones for each subject, along with some examples of work that demonstrated what was expected for each milestone.
Parent Guide Parent-friendly, including multi-language, descriptions of learning milestones for each subject, along with some annotated examples of work that demonstrated what was expected for each milestone.
Teacher Assessment Guides Teacher-appropriate descriptions of learning milestones for each subject, along with detailed, annotated examples of work that demonstrated what was expected for each milestone.
Student Reflection Tool The ability for students to record their reflections on the work that they had produced. Optionally, those reflections could also be shared with teachers, their parents and their peers. The ability for learners to reflect on their learning and only share those reflections if they felt it appropriate was seen as vital.
Teacher Feedback Tool The ability for teachers to comment on the work completed by the student and their subsequent reflections and for both students and parents to see those comments.
Parental Feedback Tool The ability for parents to comment on the work produced by their child and to add their own comments and reflections in response to those of the child and the teacher.
Student Progress checker A simple way for students to record their progress towards their next learning milestone.
Teacher Progress Checker A simple way for the teacher to record where they felt the student was in their progress to the next learning milestone.
Group Progress Checker The ability for a teacher to view where all their students, or a subset of them, are in their learning journey, including any disparities between the learner view and that of the teacher.
School Progress Checker The ability for senior leaders within the school to view where their students were in their learning journeys and to cross reference progress in different subjects.
Working collaboratively to design the tools
Great fun was had, by staff, parents and students in the pilot schools, in the creation of pupil-friendly, parent-friendly and teacher-friendly milestone descriptors. Right from the start it was seen as important that students and parents were totally involved in the development of the programme and, especially, in the design of the ePortfolio.
Lots of introduction and exploration sessions were held in schools to help staff and parents understand the changes that were expected and the ways in which the technologies being used, including things such as digital video, digital imaging, audio and other digital tools were going to help improve learning.
Particular focus was placed on the dropping of numeric assessments, with parents in particular needing reassurance that this new way of working would be effective.
Alongside the digital portfolio, schools were provided access to a library of other online learning resources, including video tutorials and general lesson resources.
This was another key element to the programme since both students and staff had other reasons, apart from the ePortfolio, to log into the online platform. Within a very short period of time staff were using the online discussion areas to share ideas, complain about issues and offer each other help.
Students watched videos, took lessons and used the discussion areas in a variety of ways too. Perhaps unsurprisingly some of these ways were not very educational and there was certainly a lot of ‘social’ interactions being carried out within the platform during after-school hours.
But this was the students environment as much as the educators and the educational leadership had taken the decision at the start of the programme not to do too much censorship.
Given the socio-economic makeup of the students families and the focus on empowering them to take greater responsibility for their own learning progress, it was decided to keep censorship to the very bare minimum.
Interactions were monitored if concern was expressed but intervention was limited and focused on reinforcing positive behavior.
Evaluation of impact
At the start of the programme the district contracted a local university to act as an external evaluator of its effectiveness. Three years into the programme the university reported back. An overview of their findings showed that:
Support for low-achievers Outcomes in high-stakes, national tests, had improved by 15% for students who had previously been regarded as low-achievers.
Support for high-achievers Outcomes in high-stakes, national tests had improved by 8% for students who had previously been regarded as high-achievers.
Support for average-achievers Outcomes in high-stakes, national tests, had improved by 3% for students who had previously been regarded as average-achievers.
Parental engagement Parental engagement with schools had increased enormously with the majority of parents now having at least one, significant, learning -related interaction every week.
Student engagement Student engagement in learning activities outside school had also increased as they now had access to a range of resources from home.
Teacher workload Teacher workload, after an initial spike at the start of the programme, was perceived to have been reduced as a great deal of assessment was now carried out within the lessons alongside the learners.
Informed senior leadership Senior leaders reported that they felt that they understood a great deal more about the actual learning that was going on in their schools with the ability to track student progress and evaluate the work being carried out through the use of the digital portfolios.
The project was seen very much as a success and was developed further by many of the schools, even after central funding was withdrawn.
Schools focused on extending the use of the ePortfolio to younger students so that they could enhance and enrich the opportunities for students to reflect on their learning outcomes and their overall learning progress.