Making the Most of ICT – what the research tells us

Steve Moss looks at what the educational research says about how to maximise the impact of ICT on learning.

In 1981 the then Conservative government announced that the Department of Trade and Industry would provide funding for one microcomputer in every school. Throughout the ensuing three decades there has hardly ever been a year when there has not been some earmarked or ring-fenced funding for ICT in schools in England. But in 2014 we are in new territory. The Harnessing Technology Grant, which for several years was the main source of devolved funding to support ICT in schools, is no more and many schools will have to make do with the ICT equipment they already have rather than spending on the latest technology. Yet teachers should still aim to make the very best use of the resources available to them and aspire to excellent teaching with ICT.

ICT under the microscope? FPEX Research by Idaho National Laboratory

John Hattie’s research

Over the past 30 years much research has been conducted into the effective use of ICT in classrooms. In Visible Learning (2009), a remarkable survey and analysis of published research in education, Professor John Hattie looked at 76 meta-analyses of 4,498 studies on ICT in education involving 3,990,028 students and teachers over 30 years. His summary findings provide valuable information for every head teacher and subject leader who wants to know how to make the most effective use of their existing ICT resources. Hattie is interested in “effect size” as an indicator of the impact of educational strategies. With regard to ICT, his own meta-analysis draws some important conclusions and identifies six aspects of ICT use which have the greatest effect on student learning.

ICT has most positive effect on learning when...

There is a diversity of teaching strategies

The method of teaching is most likely to be different from when the teacher instructs the students.

At minimum, students get to experience two different teaching strategies and are offered “deliberative practice” in learning knowledge and concepts.

ICT as a supplement not a replacement for teacher instruction is best.

There is teacher pre-training in the use of ICT as a learning and teaching tool

For too many teachers, teaching using ICT is not part of their “grammar of schooling”.

Many teachers “are still on the threshold of understanding how to design courses to maximise the potential of ICT”.

More than 10 hours of training over a few weeks is the most effective model of professional development.

There are multiple opportunities for learning

For example, tutorials, programming, word processing, drill & practice, simulations, problem solving.

Drill & practice is important for learners in some subjects. It can, and should, be engaging and informative.

Key attributes of effective ICT use for practice include, learner control, clear learning goals, instant feedback.

The student, not the teacher, is in “control” of learning

Pacing, time allocation, sequencing, choice of practice items, reviewing.

Word processing (in all its forms!) – students are more engaged and motivated in writing and also produce work of greater length and higher quality than students writing on paper.

Peer learning is optimised

Using ICT in pairs is much more effective than when used alone or in larger groups – perseverance, positive peer interactions, less help requested from teacher.

Heterogeneous groups more effective than homogeneous groups but both more effective than working alone.

Feedback is optimised

Explanations and remediation are more useful than simply providing the correct answer.

Evidence vs intuition

Much of this will be familiar to anyone who has been responsible for developing ICT use in schools and many of the key findings will resonate with teachers who have made frequent use of ICT in their teaching. Some of the findings are counterintuitive however, and one in particular runs counter to the current aspirations of some schools. The large amount of ICT capital funding available to traditional, sponsored academies and schools in the Building Schools for the Future programme from 2004 onwards led many to try to achieve 1:1 pupil:device ratios. “A laptop for every student” or, more recently, “an iPad or iPod Touch for every student” became a goal.

Yet the research evidence is clear. Students learn best when they use ICT in pairs, and working alone with ICT is less effective than sharing a computer with a larger group of peers. To those of us who view learning as a social rather than a solitary activity, this will come as no surprise. However, this does not mean that schools who have a clear vision for the ways in which 1:1 provision will support teaching and learning should not pursue that route. It does, however, mean that restricting students to individual use of a tablet or laptop and not planning for collaborative work is unlikely to result in the best possible learning gains.

Other research findings

Another piece of research which has not had the impact it deserves since it appeared in 1999 was the study commissioned by the then Teacher Training Agency into the effective use of ICT to support teaching of English, mathematics and science, published and distributed to schools in England as a pack entitled “Ways Forward Using ICT”. The research team from Durham and Leeds Universities conducted their own meta-analysis and identified three features of ICT which can enhance teaching and learning significantly:

  • the capacity to present or represent ideas dynamically or in multiple forms
  • the facility for providing feedback to pupils as they are working
  • the capacity to present information in easily changed forms.

Despite significant advances in technology in the twelve fifteen years since the study was published, I would argue strongly that the findings are still valid and that any teacher planning to use ICT in their class should consider the extent to which the activity they have planned uses one or more of these features of the technology. If it doesn’t then it is unlikely that the use of ICT will have a significant, positive impact on learning or help to turn an otherwise good lesson into an outstanding one. All teachers know that some content or concepts are more difficult to teach successfully than others and that some pupils have more difficulty learning when new material is presented in “traditional”, static form. Knowing when and how to use ICT to help overcome these difficulties should be a key part of every teacher’s professional learning.


So here’s my proposition. If we are to achieve “excellent teaching with ICT” more systemically than is currently the case then professional learning – both pre- and in-service – should provide opportunities for teachers to understand what it is about ICT that can help them teach more effectively; which resources best embody these features; and how they can organise/manage ICT use with their students to achieve the best possible results. They should then be supported in applying this learning

Being able to demonstrate convincingly that ICT used well enables learners to make better progress may be the key to unlocking strategic government funding for technology in schools in future.

Steve Moss, Learning Technology Strategist and Consultant

Steve was Strategic Director (ICT) at Partnerships for Schools where he oversaw the provision of technology in the Building Schools for the Future programme. Steve has an international reputation and has supported ministries and schools in China (Hong Kong), Jordan, Australia, UAE, Russia, Sweden and USA. He was a speaker at the inaugural World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar in 2009. He blogs on Learning Technology issues (and cricket) at

This article first appeared in the newsletter Digital Education.

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