Steven Spence

I recently read an article in FE News titled ‘How Education Technology Works for Every Learning Style’ and followed a few of the threads on Twitter from the educational community rightly criticising the article. The article was written by a Vice President at a leading education technology manufacturer.

This is not a direct response to the aforementioned article, and to be quite frank I am not in the game of attacking others so after this next point I will not refer to the article again. The article was based on learning styles, which have very little evidence to support their use in education (Coffield, 2004; Goswami, 2006; Geake, 2008; Purdy, 2008) but it did make me consider how technology can be used effectively to embed sound evidence, and that is the focus of this current article.

I write this article from an educational perspective, as a teacher in further and higher education for 14 years and the evidence discussed below is primarily applied to post-16 delivery. Additionally, I have been engaged in research for approaching ten years, first completing a master’s programme and on the final bend of my doctoral study. This has enabled me to work with some excellent researchers and learn from them, so I believe I am in a good position to write this article. One final point to make here is that I will not reference any one technology or technology company specifically but I believe without this the examples are still useful.

So can education technology (EdTech) be used by teachers effectively to embed principles from research and evidence? Well I believe it can, and present some of these reasons with links to the salient research below.

The first piece of research of focus is by Dunlosky et al (2013). This paper presents a systematic overview of the research around effective learning strategies. For me, it has been a key piece of research that I have used in my own practice, and in later years directed other teachers to. I would highly recommend anyone to read the paper but I want to concentrate on the key findings, which were that practice testing and distributed practice are highly effective learning strategies.

So, can EdTech be used effectively to utilise these effective learning strategies?

The answer is yes. It is very simple to set practice tests, in whichever is the most suitable format to ensure that students are going through the process of encoding and retrieving key information, thus strengthening vital connections that underpin learning and developing schema (the term schema was first introduced by Jean Piaget (1952)). A key point to mention here is that practice testing is part of the learning process, and low-stakes tests and quizzes are simple to set up through a wide range of software and platforms that all teachers can benefit from. Furthermore, and related to the ease of which practice testing can be supported through EdTech is how the same applies to distributed practice (spreading out study and practice).

EdTech gives teachers the opportunity to create materials (including practice testing) that distribute learning over a prolonged period of time, enabling the deep learning of concepts to constantly build and develop in relation to new knowledge acquired. What is really useful for teachers is that the bulk of this can be set up and organised during the planning stage of delivery, with materials only being released at certain points throughout a year, or when certain progress markers have been met.

The simplicity in which EdTech can support practice testing and distributed practice can only be viewed as a positive, especially with research highlighting that students don’t always use the most effective strategies if left to their own devices (Foerst et al, 2017; Karpicke et al, 2009; Kornell & Bjork, 2007). I have personally witnessed many teachers harnessing EdTech to embed low-stakes testing with great effect. Likewise, with distributed practice, where teachers have cleverly constructed online tasks that build and scaffold learning over a prolonged period of time, enabling key concepts to be revisited throughout this process.

Research into interpolated testing offers further insights to support teachers and is based on the premise of administering some form of testing during the input (lesson/lecture). Szpunar, Khan and Schacter (2013) found interpolated testing beneficial for sustaining attention, improving note-taking and reducing test anxiety when a programme of study is assessed through large summative exams. Pastotter and Bauml (2014) state that information is more likely to be remembered when testing has been implemented and suggest that interpolated testing enhances learning of subsequent, not yet studied information. Finally, Healy et al (2017) found improvements in motivation and retention through their research (two studies do question the positive impacts of interpolated testing, suggesting that frequent testing between retrieval and encoding impairs new learning, see Davis and Chan (2015) and Davis, Chan and Wilford (2017)). I also refer to this research as I worked with Dr Philip Higham from the University of Southampton on a pilot study around the use of interpolated testing in education, following his own research showing the value of it.

So, the obvious question to again ask is can EdTech be used effectively to support the use of interpolated testing within delivery? The answer is again yes. EdTech makes it very straight forward for teachers to embed quick tests into lessons/lectures to challenge students to be attentive to key information throughout the duration of delivery. A myriad of EdTech enables this approach, from basic testing embedded into presentations, to quizzes, to specific software, embedding interpolated testing is very simple to do, and one of the benefits of using EdTech is that all the questions and resources are always available for use at a later time, or as part of other effective techniques discussed previously (for example, questions used within the lesson/lecture could be incorporated into later practice testing). Furthermore, and with video tutorials being utilised more than ever in education, it is simple for the content to be broken up with short retrieval quizzes to support the learning process.

I hope at this point I have put a measured argument for how EdTech can be used effectively to embed research and evidence that support learning. To conclude the examples I would like to offer two further points that are considered vital in the role of learning. Firstly, that of practice, and to be more specific deliberate practice (Ericcson, Krampe and Tesche-Romer, 1993). There is a plethora of research into the role of practice and over recent years this has been captured in mainstream media with books such as Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geffrey Colvin and Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed. As with all research and inquiry there will be contentions along the way but it is generally accepted that practice, and the right kind of practice are vital components for learning. The same can be said of assessment, with much research supporting the impact of this (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Black et al, 2003; Shute, 2007 and Kluger and DeNisi, 1996).

As before, the question to ask is can EdTech support with both practice and assessment and the answer is yes once more. The correct use of EdTech can support students to engage in meaningful practice in any subject, at any time, with the teacher directing this practice through carefully designed activities. Rosenshine (2012) states the importance of practice in supporting students to overlearn and become fluent in a skill, and this can be supported through EdTech, for example with worked examples available for students to complete online, with the scaffolds reducing as they become more proficient. Furthermore, and closely linked to the above point it is now easier for a teacher to utilise assessment for learning in practice resources, to inform future delivery. This assessment for learning can be in any form, from multiple choice questions to actual exam questions, and what is more, much of the marking and assessment can be done through automated means to save time for teachers (as with every technique, this must be used effectively and not over relied upon). As stated earlier, by using EdTech to do this all resources can be kept, shared, released at certain points, adapted with minimal effort and planned to distribute learning.

This article set out to put a case together for how EdTech can support teachers, and be used effectively in line with research and evidence. It is written from the perspective of a teacher and researcher of education first and foremost, and someone who has been delighted to see the greater voice of research and evidence over the recent decade with a plethora of excellent books based on evidence contextualised brilliantly for teachers (for example, What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology by David Didau; Walkthrus by Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli; How Learning Happens by Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick). However, I do not solely reside in the evidence-based research camp or subscribe to the ‘them and us’ mindset which seems to be the case for evidence-based research or EdTech. I firmly believe a rich evidence base is vital for education and should always be the starting point when contemplating any initiatives, however, I completely refute the idea EdTech has no value in education. I think it is also vital to recognise that there is not a set of off the shelf, simple set of instructions for teachers (Wiliam, 2018), and we must support teachers to work in unpredictable circumstances (Ainscow, 2018) as that is the reality of day-to-day teaching.

To conclude, EdTech, if used effectively can support learning and be research informed. Can EdTech be misunderstood and used poorly – yes, but that is the same for any approach. Is it EdTech or evidence-based practice – no, can they intersect to support learning – yes.

Steven Spence is the lead for Teaching, Learning and Innovation at The Sheffield College. Having completed an M Ed in 2013 he is now in the final stages of his doctoral study.  

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