Research School Network: Digital Technology: Keystone or Just a Stone? Considerations for effectively integrating digital technology into lessons, to support and maximise teaching & learning.

Digital Technology: Keystone or Just a Stone?

Considerations for effectively integrating digital technology into lessons, to support and maximise teaching & learning.

by Staffordshire Research School
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In March 2020, every word in the Oxford English Dictionary’s top 20 list of keywords – terms used significantly more frequently that month – was related to coronavirus, with an exponential rise in the use of single word terms (e.g., SARS, virus, respiratory, lockdown) ¹ 

It wasn’t just the quarterly update of new word additions to the Oxford Dictionary that saw a bumper crop of Covid-related additions, in education our vocabulary saw seismic shift too. Looking beyond the daily use of the terms bubbles, zones, cases and masks, the names of new modes of technology has exploded. In the quest to support more effective learning experiences for children, how many platforms are you now using that you weren’t 8 months ago? I’ll go first with 8, can you raise me? They are: Mentimeter, Jamboard, nearpod, desmos, quizizz, Teams, Polly and Loom.

This is a good thing. Teachers have developed, modernised and have shown yet again their adaptability and the lengths they will go to, to support learning. They are becoming increasingly competent and skilful at the delivery of lessons using online platforms and EdTech tools. Either to whole classes of isolating students, or by juggling synchronous (live) and remote teaching simultaneously, as well as providing asynchronous learning for those not able to attend lessons live or remotely, via a whole range of additional on-line platforms. All of which are challenges that teachers have risen to and in many cases have been extremely successful.

These tools’ are a collection of intelligent, highly credible and useful resources in their own right, supporting the mode and efficiency of delivering lessons… but alone, they are not the fix. The technology will not instantly make us a better teacher or make children learn better. What will, is well ‑planned and carefully designed lessons, starting with disciplinary pedagogy that utilises the evidence of how children learn best.

Digit tech recs

The EEF’s Remote Learning Rapid Evidence Assessment², along with the Using Digital Technology to Improve Learning Guidance Report³, draw on a rich foundation of evidence from over 60 systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Granted, from research not conducted during a global pandemic, but key findings from a wide range of contexts and settings that can be extrapolated to the circumstances we face, where the remote learning needs of students are key drivers of the approaches we have explored and taken. 

Quite clearly, a lack of access to technology is a fundamental barrier to accessing learning, particularly impacting disadvantaged students. The recommendations that emerge from the evidence-base foreground pedagogy, planning and how children learn best over and above the search for the technological fix’. More effective remote learning models contain the following ingredients and core features²: 

  • Features of good teaching in the classroom are the same for remote or distance learning and need to be included in plans, tasks and learning e.g. clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback, regardless of the method of teaching (live or pre-recorded delivery)
  • Worked examples help to reduce cognitive load by allowing pupils to focus on small chunks’ in learning
  • Peer interactions can motivate pupils and improve outcomes (including sharing models of good work, live discussions of content and peer feedback), most notably with older students 
  • Prompt & model metacognition, metacognitive talk and self-regulation - Prompting pupils to reflect on their work or to consider the strategies they have used/​will use if they get stuck. Modelling expert schema, thought processes and decision making to make the implicit, explicit – have all been highlighted as valuable and most likely to benefit disadvantaged pupils.
  • A lack of technology and technological literacy is a barrier to successful remote instruction, particularly for disadvantaged students. 

As well as³: 

  • Technology helps to engage, but the clarity of how explanations and models are conveyed is key
  • Technology can help us highlight how and what experts think and do (supplementing modelling)
  • Consider the pedagogical rationale for introducing technology – how will it improve learning?
  • Don’t assume students already have the skills or overlook modelling an introduction of how to use technology efficiently
  • Have a clear implementation plan for the roll out of an initiative using digital technology that considers student and staff capacity, needs and usage 

Josh Goodrich frames the situation well by stating:
Remote teaching is still teaching. But it’s teaching where some of the key elements of effective practice are hugely amplified while others are quietened, some completely muted. To teach effectively online, we need to focus all our attention on lesson design and pedagogy that targets the amplified principles.”

A key point for school leaders and teachers to consider and continually return to is that the evidence of using digital tech is anchored in pedagogy and cognitive science. The technological tools that we decide to employ must be selected because of the ways in which they challenge and engage thinking, reduce cognitive load, support scaffolding and modelling, aid encoding and retention, organise thinking and assess to identify successes and misconceptions.

Peadogy before tech model SRS

As the model above attempts to demonstrate, the mode of delivery is only one piece of the complex structure of effective lessons, planning and situation we find ourselves in. The technology being the keystone of a lesson that is placed only when the cognitive science of how children learn best has been considered and securely planned for, binding together and strengthening the learning processes and accessibility to learning. Without a keystone an archway (the lesson) clearly fails, but without the supporting arch (components in the green box above) the keystone is merely just a stone.

Which is it in your lessons? A keystone, employed after evidence is used to inform your pedagogy and planning? Or just another stone, a fragment of a lesson used as a vehicle to deliver information with a primary purpose of engagement? With engagement being a bad proxy of learning, start with the green box – by building the arch with the what, why and how’ of learning, before the how’ of technology.

Nathan Morland, Director of the Staffordshire Research School.

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