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Does ICT Improve Learning?

The intuitive answer to those of us involved in ICT is “of course it does”. However, the evidence from research is not conclusive. I think the reason is that it’s actually very difficult to carry out robust research in this area. As the impact of ICT has been a topic for discussion recently in the Naace and Mirandanet mailing lists, I thought it might be useful to try and clarify the issues as I see them.

The question “Does ICT improve learning?” naturally leads on to a set of other questions that need to be addressed:

What ICT?

The question as stated is too broad. A computer is not the same as a suite of computers. It’s not even the same as a laptop, which is not the same as a handheld device. Software is not the same as hardware, and generic software, such as a spreadsheet, is not the same as specific applications, such as maths tuition software.

What other factors are present?

ICT doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What is the environment in which the technology is being used? How is the lesson being conducted? What is the level of technical expertise of the teacher? What is the level of teaching expertise of the teacher? These and other factors mentioned in this article are not stand-alone either: they interact with each other to produce a complex set of circumstances.

What is the ICT being used for?

What is being taught? There is some evidence to suggest that computers are used for low-level and boring tasks like word processing, in which case comparing technology-“rich” lessons with non-technology-rich lessons is not comparing like with like. On the other hand, technology can be, and often is, used to facilitate exploration and discussion. Since these are educationally-beneficial techniques in their own right, the matter of validity needs to be scrutinised (see below).

How is the impact of the ICT being evaluated?

There are several ways in which this might be done, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, in-depth case studies yield rich data but may be difficult to generalise from. Also, there are three other problems. One is that it is difficult to conduct experiments using a suitable control group, because no teacher wishes to try something which may disadvantage a particular group of students. Another is the so-called “starry night” effect, in which case studies focus (naturally) on the successful projects whilst ignoring all the ones which either failed or were not believed to have deliver the same level of benefits. Finally, there is the danger of all kinds of evaluation study, that the methodology itself may affect the outcome.

What exactly is being measured?

This is the issue of validity, already touched upon. Are we measuring the ability of a teacher to conduct a technology-rich lesson, in which case it’s the effectiveness of the teacher rather than the ICT that is being weighed up? By implication, it may be the quality and quantity of professional development which is being measured. It may be students’ home environments that are inadvertently being evaluated, or student-staff relationships.

How much is ICT being used?

I suggest there may be a difference between schools in which ICT is being used more or less everywhere, and those in which it’s hardly being used at all. In the former, presumably both teachers and students would be accustomed to using it, there would be a good explicit support structure in the form of technical support and professional development, and a sound hidden support structure in the form of being able to discuss ideas with colleagues over lunch or a cup of coffee.

Is there an experimenter effect going on?

This is the phenomenon whereby the results of a study confirm or tie in with the expectations of the people or organisation responsible for the study. This is an unconscious process, not a deliberate attempt to cheat. I’ve explained it in my article called Is Plagiarism Really a Problem?


My own feeling – backed up by experience --  is that in the right set of circumstances, the use of ICT can lead to profound learning gains. However, rather than falling into the trap of arguing whether ICT is “good” or “bad”, we need to move the debate onto a much sounder intellectual basis.

Further reading

I’d highly recommend Rachel M. Pilkington, “Measuring the Impact of Information Technology on Students’ Learning”, in The International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education, Springer, 2008, USA.

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Reader Comments (12)

I remember learning about the "Media Effect" and that there is yet to be proof that the medium (video vs text) affect learning outcomes. Given the power of video in our lives, I find it interesting that we can't prove that teaching some things via video is more effective than text. You do a great job of highlighting why educational research has been unable to prove the effect of ICT or video in the classroom. I did a study where I taught adult learners computer skills. One group of learners had a paper handout, the other watched screencasts. What I found was that the more tech savvy a user was, the more they learned from screencasts. This to me highlights the literacy issue. I think that some students are literate in ICT/multimedia. They can use a computer to learn. Many other students can use a computer/multimedia for entertainment, but don't have the literacy skills to effectively process, decode, store, and later retrieve information in these new media (social, video, hyperlinked websites). We need to teach students these new literacies to truly get the bang for our buck in ICT.
July 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterColin Matheson
Thanks, Colin, that's really interesting . In fact, I'd intended to mention the fact that half the time when you think you're measuring IT capability you're actually measuring literacy, cultural values or somethinirely. Also, if you test people using a different method than when they were taught (eg pencil and paper test for computer skills) that tends to adversely affect the outcome.
Thx for highlighting the video vs text issue and sharing some of your own research.
Have to agree with what I interpret Terry as saying - namely that you cannot answer this question 'Does ICT improve learning?' decontextualised from the context in which that learning is taking place and/or your views of what 'good' learning looks like.

Ultimately - and you knew I was going to say this - the starting point for any policy debate about ICT needs to be based on your vision for education which informs your vision for how ICT should be being used in education - we don't have shared educational visions, we don't have shared visions for how ICT should be being used in education - do the dICTatEd questionnaire -- -- then check the summary of the results so far (which show up at the end) if you don't believe me ...
July 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPeterT
Thanks, Peter -- that'S EXACTLY what I am saying. Have just comleted the questionnaire, thx for providing the link.
One thing is for sure using ICT will improve capability in ICT. If we believe the current adult population have sufficient ICT skills and knowledge look at .

I rest my case :-)

PS We had the National Agency visit to-day for our EU project interim review. I showed them how we use free software and web applications to manage the project, language translations etc. They now want me to go and show their staff. Most of the government agencies we deal with are still at the level of passing Word documents around as file attachments. ICT skills in the adult population are weak so we don't need to justify ICT in supporting learning in subjects, it's important in its own right.
July 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIan Lynch
Read Nicholas Carr's brilliant book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Studies have shown that students learn more from straight reading than from reading with hyperlinks and they learn more from listening to a lecture without laptops and internet access than with access even if they go to sites pertinent to the lecture. For all the ease of accessing a gigantic library on an as needed basis, we are sacrificing some of the skills of "deep reading" that accompanies the kind of thinking you get from the author of one book. Carr's is a cautionary tale well worth heeding. My company, uses technology to bring the best children's nonfiction authors to teachers and students. The idea that a good read about the real world fosters both literacy and learning is not a new idea but the idea of using authors and technology to "sell" it is.
July 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVicki Cobb
@Jonathan thx for the link. It looks like an interesting read.
@Ian, everything you say resonates with me, especially your final sentence, unfortunately.
@Vicki I'm sure Carr is right in many respects, but in the spirit of the article here I couldn't take it as "truth" without knowing a lot more about who and what he did his research on, and how, because I think that reading hyperlinked text is a different skill, and that you can learn more widely than you can with non-linked text. On many occasions, I think it's arguably more useful to have breadth rather than depth of knowledge in a particular area.
Rachel M. Pilkington, “Measuring the Impact of Information Technology on Students’ Learning”, in The International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education, Springer, 2008, USA.i
s that this book at £360?
July 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdavid
David, yes. It's a bit eye-watering, isn't it? I will be reviewing it soon, but I imagine it's something that research libraries would be interested in.
Hi, thank you for that very interesting article. I'm a final year (high school) student from the Caribbean currently working on a project that gauges the effects of the use of ICTs in education at my own school. Its a topic of particular interest to me because I personally use ICTs extensively in preparation for my exams whether to write papers, research information or find supplementary information on a particular topic covered in my classes.

In all honesty the project I'm doing which is graded as part of my final year exam will not allow me to go into the depth I would like on the issue due to its word limit, however the questions you asked and responded to do give me a very good basis upon which to structure my own research and I simply wanted to thank you for that.

February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P
Thanks very much, Jayson. I'd be interested in seeing the results of your research once you've completed it. Cheers, Terry

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