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Without curriculum reform #EdTech will not improve students’ #DigitalLiteracy or prepare them for the workplace

Traditional literacy and numeracy underpin access to digital literacy

New research published today by the Nuffield Foundation, “Growing up digital: What do we really need to know about educating the digital generation?” finds that computer use in schools does not on its own boost digital literacy or exam results.

While personal ownership of digital devices by pupils continues to grow and starts at an increasingly earlier age, there is relatively little use of digital technologies in schools beyond the study of computing itself as a subject.

Growing up digital examines how digital technologies are used in schools to enhance learning and identifies research questions to inform better practice and policy. The study warns that without curriculum reform and more opportunities for teachers to develop their own digital skills, students will be unprepared for the workplace.

A leading author and international authority on technology enhanced learning and teacher development, the report’s author, Professor Angela McFarlane, examined ten years of existing evidence from the UK and internationally, to explore the question:

What effect does the use of digital technology have on learning?

She found:

  1. Putting computers into schools is no guarantee that there will be a positive impact on learning outcomes as measured in high stakes assessments or on the development of digital literacy.
  2. How digital technologies are used is as important as whether they are used.
  3. There is no shared picture of what effective digital skills teaching looks like.
  4. Teachers may not have opportunities to develop the skills they need to make effective use of technology.
  5. The current use and knowledge of computer-based technology in schools and at home is leaving many young people vulnerable to adverse influences and unprepared for the world of work.

These findings undermine the notion of children being digital natives who intuitively know how to use digital technologies simply because they were born into a world where these technologies already existed.

Moreover, traditional literacy and numeracy underpin access to digital literacy. This is particularly worrying as the UK, along with most European nations and the US, is sliding down the international league tables of literacy and numeracy skills. 

The report also suggests research questions which could inform the debate on how best to prepare students to participate in the digital society.

Professor Angela McFarlane said:

“There is no doubt that knowledge underpins mastery but what you carry in your head is no longer enough to guarantee social or economic success. We all need to know how to navigate the digital world, make sense of what we find and nurture our health and well-being.

“We need to understand how education can best prepare children and young people to be proficient users and shapers of digital technology, competent and confident. The alternative is a nation of click bait.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation said:

“Curriculum changes in 2014 made Computing mandatory to age 16, but there are questions about the capacity of schools to deliver on the aspirations of that reform. Access to technology is not in itself sufficient to promote digital skills – we need to develop a shared understanding of the purpose of digital education and of the best teaching approaches to achieve that purpose.

“The rapid growth in the use of digital technologies has had a transformational effect on our economy and society. Such technologies are now fundamental for large swathes of the workforce and people’s lives are increasingly digitalised and connected, with computers and algorithms mediating many daily activities. The acquisition and use of digital skills underpin participation in the labour market, and in consumer, social and civic life.

How has the education system responded to this?

“The requirement for young people to develop digital competency and fluency drove changes to the curriculum introduced in England from 2014, with Computing becoming mandatory up to age 16. Concerns have been raised about the implementation of this major curriculum reform, including a 2017 Royal Society report that highlighted challenges around the capacity of the teaching workforce to deliver on the aspirations of reforms.

“As such, the recent establishment of a National Centre for Computing Education, focused on improving teaching across English primary and secondary schools, is a welcome development. We must also consider the efficacy of information and communication technologies for teaching and learning.

“As the Education Endowment Foundation (2019) and others have found, putting technology into schools does not in itself boost young people’s learning or enhance the skills of teachers in improving learning outcomes. The integration of technology with pedagogical approaches and a clear understanding of the purpose of technology in the classroom are essential.

“Overall, despite all the activity and investment, there is no shared view of what the digital education agenda is aiming to achieve and what the priorities should be for policy-makers and practitioners. In a context of relatively rapid change in what is taught, how it is taught and why, it is particularly difficult to ensure that policy and practice are informed by high quality evidence.

“We commissioned this report to clear the ground, assess the existing evidence base, and identify key questions and issues for future research. Professor Angela McFarlane’s wideranging experience at the interface between policy, practice and research made her ideally placed to undertake this exercise. In producing this report, she has consulted closely with the Foundation and a range of other stakeholders with relevant expertise.

“The report provides a significant contribution to the debate around computing education and digital skills, exposing challenges for a field that appears to want to move rapidly from problems to solutions.

“It also provides pertinent guidance for those seeking to improve the evidence base around the cornerstones of educational reform:

  • Curriculum
  • Assessment
  • Pedagogy, and
  • Teacher supply and development

“The use and impact of digital technologies is a priority for the Nuffield Foundation in our work to advance social well-being. We hope this report will act as a stimulus for well-directed and high-quality research proposals for the Foundation and other funders, that can improve the evidence base and inform policy and practice on education in the digital society.”

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