The Holy Grail - research, evidence and the impact of digital technology on learning

There is an abundant back catalogue of industry sponsored “research” and “evaluations” that can add to the narrative that technology can enhance learning, but it’s not simple.

I am going to cut to the chase. There is NO evidence of a causal link between any technology and improved learning outcomes. Ask at an EdTech show “If my college was to buy your excellent product/service will it improve my students’ learning?”.  If the immediate response is unequivocally YES, then move on quickly. If the response is “Well it depends on a number of complex interrelated factors which we can help you consider”, then stick around for a chat.

No silver bullet

There is research evidence that suggests a correlation between how technology is used effectively by teachers and learners and improved learning. I am old enough to remember the now defunct and archived BECTA Impact Studies which cast some light on this issue. These track how “A new realism has emerged about the impact of technology on educational outcomes. Technology is no longer seen as a ‘silver bullet' but as a facilitating factor that can enhance teaching and lead to more effective learning.”  

The bullet metaphor resurfaced last year when I spent some time with Stanford University Professor Larry Cuban at his home in Palo Alto. “First you take an existing technology and you fit it in to the way you have been teaching .…there are other folks who move on to a different stage where they adapt it and they use some of the strengths of the hardware and software, particularly the software, to extend students’ learning....I am looking at examples where the technology is no longer front and centre but is used in subtle ways ….. it’s not a bullet by any means – it’s far more like a butterfly landing there and then there”.

Steve Higgins for Durham University also adds weight to the suggestion that it is not what technology you have but who is using it and how it is used? “Studies linking the provision and use of technology with attainment tend to find consistent but small positive associations with educational outcomes. However a causal link cannot be inferred from this kind of research. It seems probable that more effective schools and teachers are more likely to use digital technologies more effectively than other schools. We need to know more about where and how it is used to greatest effect, then investigate to see if this information can be used to help improve learning in other contexts”.

It’s all in the blend

Blended Learning is a popular term at the moment and refers to the combination of face to face and online learning to suit individual learner needs. The most comprehensive meta-analysis of Blended Learning was done in 2010 by the US Department of Education Technology which concluded:  “In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.”

A study of HE students published in October by ECAR also suggests that Blended Learning is the option preferred by students: “ To the degree that digital technologies can increase flexibility in classroom activities, can give students room to explore, and can engage them in active problem solving, instructors should embrace those technologies. This should be especially true when blended techniques and technologies can be combined with active learning classroom spaces and flipped classroom models for the face-to-face component”.

New kid on the block

Professor Rose Luckin at UCL is currently leading a ERDF funded project which aims to create a triangle based on the synergy between research evidence, classroom practitioners and the digital industry. The EDUCATE project ( was formally launched at the BETT show in January. They plan to recruit a number of new teacher entrepreneurs every three months who will work with them on their ideas to develop new EdTech products and services.  Further Education and/or Work Based Learning are listed as particular areas of interest.

So there you have it….no silver bullet, no quick fix…but it is how teachers and learners confidently and competently use technology which seems to be the answer.

So how can you create some butterflies?.


BECTA Impact studies are archived at:

Cuban, L (2018) The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet? Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning. Harvard Education Press.

Higgins, S.  Xiao, Z. and Kapsipataki, M (2012) The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning: A Summary for the Education Endowment Foundation. Accessed at:

U.S. Department of Education (2010) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning. A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Accessed at

ECAR (2017) Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. Accessed at