Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology: What the research says

by David Longman, 4th Feb 2018


Rosemary Luckin, Editor

UCL IoE Press

Published 24 Jan 2018


Reviewer’s note:
I reviewed the Kindle edition of this book. Print equivalent page numbers are not provided (publisher’s choice). Where quotes are included I have used the abbreviation ‘loc’ for the location number in the ebook. Print readers should not be too disadvantaged because the context is clear from the review and should assist a page-wise, manual search.

About the Book
I opted to review this book with some enthusiasm, alerted by pre-publication advertising, drawn by the editor’s reputation (especially on the topic of AI in Education), and finally the blurb on Amazon where the book describes itself as an “...accessible introduction to learning and teaching with technology for teachers and other educational professionals, regardless of their experience with using technology for education.” That sold it to me, a well explained and accessible catch-up for the busy educator covering some recent thinking by specialist academics about educational technology. I fit right into the intended audience!

From the Preface we learn that the editor and authors are colleagues in a community-of-practice with the title “What the research says” and the chapters are a selection from research conducted in that context (though the time period is not clear). This book is anticipated to be the first of a series of books aiming to provide accessible research summaries. It is ongoing work, the fruits of academic conversations and communications.

A Good Start
The book begins well, setting out some clear aims and, interestingly, it lays out useful pedagogical intentions designed to engage a wider audience of interested readers. The focus is on the communication of research findings through a well-structured and “accessible” exposition:

“ [to]…provide good quality, accessible research summaries to everyone interested in how technology can be designed and used for learning and teaching to best effect.” (loc. 467)

The book is organised into six parts with chapters grouped by themes more than by content: learning, applied educational technology, learner engagement, maximising potential learner benefits, adult learning, and how technology can support teaching. Some similar educational technology topics appear in different parts of the book (e.g. games and gamification, or tutorial systems) providing different framing for the content and common themes appear across chapters (e.g. assessment or pedagogy). An overview of the content may be gleaned from Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature. Some chapters are quite individual in both content and style. This reflects perhaps the diversity of interests and backgrounds of the community. The collection might not draw every reader into all parts of the intended discussion.

It is most obviously relevant to higher education, further education, and college lecturers although many secondary teachers involved in such curriculum developments as the Wales Digital Competence Framework may find some useful think pieces here. In particular, the final chapter in Part Six ‘Technology to provide educational practitioners with what they need’ is a detailed and useful set of three case studies about the use of technology for professional development. There is something here for educators in all phases of education. However, apart from this, it is not clear that the book has a great deal to offer directly to early years or lower primary education professionals.

Freedman’s Rule
The nicely written Introduction by Terry Freedman, “How Research is reported in the news”, offers some useful analysis and advice about following up the sources on which such news reports rely, querying them for the accuracy of details and of interpretation. He notes how distortions, inaccuracies, and omissions creep in, some inadvertently through journalistic imperatives but equally through wilful manipulation. Drawing on the example of how science is reported in the news the chapter ends with what I have condensed into “
Freedman’s Rule: follow the sources”. This sets a purposeful starting point for the book’s aims and how to read it.

A Significant Constraint
However, a glance at the several reference lists suggests an immediate constraint on Freedman’s Rule, for a significant number of the reference sources are held in repositories that might not normally be accessible to a wider audience. Thus for many readers, there will limits to how far a ‘search for research’ might be taken to follow sources. Until there is change in how publicly funded research outputs can be accessed then readers who work outside the academic environment (but nevertheless are stakeholders) will continue to rely on books such as this to produce summaries and expositions by academic gatekeepers because accessing the research literature is not straightforward. There are a few strategies that might ease some of these constraints and perhaps future volumes might build on those.

Does the Book Succeed
Does the book succeed in its aim to communicate research? Unfortunately, I cannot say that it does even while it has value. As is clear from the Preface it aims to address important and perennial concerns about the accessibility of research and research data. But as the reader turns the page and begins in earnest with Part One we are back in familiar territory. While the collection aims to provide useful, transferable, explanations of some important ways of thinking about educational technology, most chapters have followed their own lights in relation to the style, presentation and use of sources and therefore vary somewhat in style and approach.

Thus this is more like a regular book of academic essays with the addition of summaries for each part of the book and a list of ‘key findings’ condensed from each chapter. For this reader at least, parts of these extended lists of findings are sometimes too conditional. There are many things that “may” enhance learning with educational technology but is that a ‘finding’? It could be, but not yet. A discussion about methods of inquiry might help to know what kind of science is required to take such uncertainties forward. Nevertheless, there are some good essays in this book covering many issues of interest and relevance.

What’s Good, And What’s Not
The chapter on plagiarism and academic integrity in Part Three is a well constructed and clear discussion. It should provoke some thinking and ideas about how to restructure assessments so as to avoid the more obvious opportunities for wilful cheating or surprise pitfalls for the unwary. Strategies in relation to technology are discussed but it could be timely for a discussion about the value of Turnitin as a major example of current tools.  Another enjoyable chapter ‘Unintentional Learning’ discusses different ways to understand the value of games in learning and culture more generally. Later in Part Four, some examples of ‘face-value’ issues are discussed in ‘Tablet Devices in education’ where the authors argue that while educational technology is usually promoted on its face-value benefits to learning and education, issues such as distraction from learning by technology or forms of social ‘addiction’ to technology are never simple binary issues and require deeper investigation.

There are some useful organising frameworks in this book although they seem underused, particularly as a way to draw out from individual chapters specific examples and cases. For example, the introduction to Part Two sets out a typology of ‘Learning Acts’ as a scaffold for thinking about differences in the value of different educational technology applications but the chapters in Part Two make little direct use of this scheme. Where do these learning acts arise when using iPads in classrooms, coding with Scratch, learning with mobiles, game design or Citizen Science? Similarly, the introduction to Part One presents the reader with seven ‘principles for learning’ derived from meta-analyses. Again, an interesting and useful list but like the Learning Acts, it does not seem to form an organising framework for the chapters. The reader must do the mapping.

Part One explains that the learning principles are derived from four studies using a technique known as ‘meta-analysis’. There is no detail about what sort of method it is but we are assured that:

“This process [i.e. meta-analysis] enables the most robust of results and findings from the research and the review articles to be extracted.” (loc. 717)

What makes meta-analysis robust? That is not described. The list of learning principles that follows is derived from these studies but perhaps more detailed citation for each principle would be useful to look into this further: which of the cited sources should the reader consult in order to look at the data or the research studies that underlie each of the principles? As it stands we can only take the author’s word for it (which is not to imply issues about trust but only that science proceeds on the basis of something like Freedman’s Rule).

Similar comments may be offered in respect of Part Six “What the research says about how technology can support teaching”. Here we take a look at what might be regarded as one of the advanced fronts of research and development, the application of AI to assessment, classroom management, and above all ‘closing the achievement gap’. Chapters 6.1 and 6.2 focus on examples of software built around AI methods with a focus on assessment and closing the ‘achievement gap’. But there is no analysis of what is really meant by the ’achievement gap’ and given that the causes of differences in achievement are complex ranging from additional learning needs right through to the social effects of race, class, and gender, it would be useful to know what achievement factors, signals or variables these systems capture and process in order to narrow the ‘gap’. Sophisticated AI-driven data-rich software tutoring machines could close ‘the achievement gap’ but the chapter does not really show how they might succeed. All the same, some of the technologies described here are intriguing and educators do need to pay attention for, even leaving aside question about pedagogy, implementation and sustainability of such systems will present major challenges.

In another example a surprising claim is put forward in Part Six:

“The continual growth of LA [learning analytics] and EDM [educational data mining] indicate that the possibilities for personalization of learning and improving teaching are greater than the inherent risks.” (Loc. 5370).

However, no sources are given that would enable the reader to follow up on the literature on such risk assessments. This looks like an example of a ‘face-value’ issue of the kind discussed in Chapter 4.2. For example, in one day alone while writing this review six stories appeared in my news feed expressing topical concerns about social media and its effects on the quality of life, nurture of personality, and the accumulation and marketing of personal data. Social media companies are currently regarded increasingly as presenting significant risk to social and individual well-being. These companies are already in the pedagogy market using AI tools and techniques, including data analytics and data mining to draw in participants to their information environments.

Chapter 1.1 is a puzzling contribution because its relevance to the discussion about enhancing teaching and learning with technology is particularly unclear. On seeing its title in the contents list a reader might expect, as I did, a discussion about assistive technology and how powerful devices embodying up-to-date technology can stimulate and interact with children and adults across the range of additional learning needs arising from a variety of causes. That’s an exciting field where AI, alongside with other technologies, has been applied in fascinating ways to extend, augment or amplify personal life for individuals. This approach to the topic, however, is not taken.

Even the key finding listed for this chapter is somewhat hesitant:

“Chapter 1.1 … highlights how a better understanding of genetic inheritance may help schools work with children with ADHD, dyspraxia and other conditions.” (loc. 485)

As noted earlier, lots of things “may” help schools and teachers but research needs to provide at the very least demonstrable evidence-based findings or that there is some sort of ‘cost-benefit’ to be gained. Chapter 1.1 does not provide any clear or reasoned justification for asserting ideas about genetic inheritance and it makes little attempt to demonstrate how knowledge of inherited characteristics might influence practice in general or specifically in relation to educational technology. Again, if treated as  a face-value issue a quick Google search for content about the link between ADHD/dyslexia/dyspraxia and genetic inheritance indicates that there is no straightforward answer. Above all, we do not learn from this chapter how the repertoire of current pedagogical strategies for addressing ALN in education might be enhanced by knowledge of genetic inheritances nor how it might guide our use of educational technology.

Chapter 1.1 includes some unusual remarks about teachers and education which, it seems to this reader, might add to the alienation that the author suggests inhibits consideration of genetic factors in learning. It does not help rational discourse to read that “Education needs to stop putting its head in the sand about the possible role of genetic inheritance in school performance.” (loc. 856) or that  “…it is hardly surprising that educators, who by and large have liberal leanings and are in favour of social justice, have rejected genetics as a way of understanding …” (loc. 874). Again there is no research cited to support such generalisations.

Conclusion
To conclude, this is an interesting and topical book that can, and should, provoke some lively discussion. But it must be read critically, as I assume the editor and authors intend.  It is in the spirit of Freedman’s Rule that readers who are concerned to ground their understanding in research must keep asking “Who says that?”, “Where?”, “Is that right?”, I’d better check that?”. And so on. The mission to promote a critical reading of research and to encourage questions about the meaning, validity and relevance of research is a crucial element in building knowledge on scientific foundations.

About the Ebook Edition
Some final comments about the production standard of the Kindle ebook edition are justified. The ebook production is not good. There is no utilisation of the core features of an ebook, particularly internal cross-linking between text, footnotes/references, and the typography and layout appear not to have been adjusted for the medium. Such details make the difference between a satisfactory, liquid reading experience and a frustrating one. Given the foundational importance of reading to teaching and learning this use of ebook technology makes reading a little more challenging than it should be. That is a little unfortunate.