Leading the Innovation Charge: Research and Teachers (NESTA Report on Digital Education)

I’m currently reading the NESTA report “Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education” and the report talks about ways of learning with technology and sources of innovation. At the start, in scene setting, the two sources of innovation are identified as being either research efforts that were based on large amount of gathered evidence (research-led) and informal literature such as blogs and teacher networks (teacher-led) – which means, woohoo, if anyone does anything based on what I’ve written in here, it’s a teacher-led innovation. (I realise that there is argument for overlap in here but it appears that formal research publication denotes the division and it appears that there was no reason why a teacher-led initiative couldn’t be high quality if it was still evidence-based, even if there was no strict formal publication.)

Looking across the world, the report started with 210 cases that were either research- or teacher-led and narrowed this down to a representative sample of 150. What’s interesting, to me, is the split by country between research- and teacher-led projects. The US has 65 ‘innovations’, 28 teacher-led, 37 research-led. The UK has 64, 45 teacher-led, 19 research. Australia has 9, all of which are teacher-led. Outside of the UK and Australia, the most likely approach to educational innovation is through a research-based approach. It appears that our relationship to the UK educational system may be even closer than we thought in this respect. However, to look in more detail at these innovations, we have to look at the breakdown of that ways that we see students learning with technology. The learning themes in this document are:

  • Learning from Experts
  • Learning with Others
  • Learning through Making
  • Learning through Exploring
  • Learning through Inquiry
  • Learning through Practising
  • Learning from Assessment
  • Learning in and from Settings

Most of these are pretty self-explanatory (and highly constructivist, unsurprisingly) but they are based on the learners’ actions and include factors such as the resources employed and the structure – which gives a greater potential depth to the classification as you can’t just say you’re doing X, you have to support it with technological resources and learning design.

A very important point raised early on in the teacher-driven, research-driven dichotomy is that the requirement for large volumes of evidence, in the case of research publication, can have a tendency to make the research-led initiatives more risk averse, in that much more information has to be gathered before recommendations can be adopted or conclusions can be drawn. The teacher-led initiatives can highlight serious innovations that are worth trying, but may not yet have the evidence behind them to actually provide a convincing argument. What a dilemma! I can either have evidence for something that I probably already thought of or take a chance on something for which I have no evidence – and in the world of technology, where innovation often costs money, good luck getting a solid amount of cash with a good feeling about an innovation direction. I need to go and look further in the case of Australia, because I know a great number of excellent educational researchers here who are, as far as I know, proposing solid research-led innovations but they aren’t showing up on this particular radar. And, being cynical, if it’s not showing up on NESTA’s radar, it’s probably not showing up at the government level and, hearts and minds, we want the government to be aware that the research approaches (often University-driven) are visible, viable and valuable. (Another thing for the to-do list, apart from finding alliterative phrases starting with ‘x’.)

In looking at the themes, I find it interesting to think about how these themes are both guidelines of good practice and cautionary tales. When set up technology that enables us to Learn from Experts, which is one of the potential underlying principles of the MOOC, we have to make sure that we’re actually providing experts. There’s an interesting example of the statistics expert who tore about an on-line stats course and, while it was rapidly corrected, we have that slight worry that the power to set up a course in no way correlates with your ability to actually provide the course information. Of course, I’m not a trained teacher but my qualification in my academic discipline and prior industry experience does provide me with a level of expected expertise in an area. I’m not allowed to get out in front of students unless I reach a certain bar of qualification – but that is most certainly not always the case. Suddenly the technology innovation theme “Learning from Experts” becomes the source of a philosophical reflection on how we are doing this at all – do we even refer to experts in innovation, education or the discipline? If we want a combination of these, how does it work? As noted in the report, it’s not just access to the expert that learners need, it’s the supporting dialogue between them that assists in knowledge construction and learning. How can innovation in technology support this new dialogue in a way that works?

The future is not just about the provision of information; we solved that problem in the first instance with the book, refined it with the library and then did … something … with it when we developed Wikipedia (all joking aside, on-line resources have added immediacy and ubiquity to the information provision solution). The future is about successful learning, which involves the development of knowledge, and thus involves the arrangement, storage, organisation, retrieval, and development of information in order to support that newly constructed knowledge. There’s a lot of scope for the development of innovative technological tools in this space but, as the report clearly indicates through its themes, this involves thinking about how we learn, how we’re going to learn and how the tech can help us to achieve it.

There’s still a lot of research- and teacher-led innovation to come, which is great because we all love a challenge, but I’d like to finish by noting what is not one of the key themes from the NESTA report. There is no “Learning from watching dull videos of uninteresting material presented with the least effort possible, because that’s how it’s always been done” because this is, quite simply, not innovative. We already know how well that works and that’s why we have to innovate now. Viva the glorious fusion of cutting edge innovation and sufficient evidence to allow us to leap off the metaphorical cliff!

Oh good, it's Monday.(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Oh good, it’s Monday.
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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