Use of technology in schools does not on its own improve students’ digital literacy or prepare them for the workplace

18 July 2019

New research published today by the Nuffield Foundation finds that computer use in schools does not on its own boost digital literacy or exam results. While personal ownership of digital devices by pupils continues to grow and starts at an increasingly earlier age, there is relatively little use of digital technologies in schools beyond the study of computing itself as a subject.

Growing up digital examines how digital technologies are used in schools to enhance learning and identifies research questions to inform better practice and policy. The study warns that without curriculum reform and more opportunities for teachers to develop their own digital skills, students will be unprepared for the workplace.

The report’s author, Professor Angela McFarlane examined ten years of existing evidence from the UK and internationally, to explore the question: What effect does the use of digital technology have on learning? She found:

  1. Putting computers into schools is no guarantee that there will be a positive impact on learning outcomes as measured in high stakes assessments or on the development of digital literacy.
  2. How digital technologies are used is as important as whether they are used.
  3. There is no shared picture of what effective digital skills teaching looks like.
  4. Teachers may not have opportunities to develop the skills they need to make effective use of technology.
  5. The current use and knowledge of computer-based technology in schools and at home is leaving many young people vulnerable to adverse influences and unprepared for the world of work.

These findings undermine the notion of children being digital natives who intuitively know how to use digital technologies simply because they were born into a world where these technologies already existed. Moreover, traditional literacy and numeracy underpin access to digital literacy. This is particularly worrying as the UK, along with most European nations and the US, is sliding down the international league tables of literacy and numeracy skills.

The report also suggests research questions which could inform the debate on how best to prepare students to participate in the digital society.

Professor Angela McFarlane said: 

“There is no doubt that knowledge underpins mastery but what you carry in your head is no longer enough to guarantee social or economic success. We all need to know how to navigate the digital world, make sense of what we find and nurture our health and well-being. We need to understand how education can best prepare children and young people to be proficient users and shapers of digital technology, competent and confident. The alternative is a nation of click bait.” 

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation said: 

“Curriculum changes in 2014 made Computing mandatory to age 16, but there are questions about the capacity of schools to deliver on the aspirations of that reform. Access to technology is not in itself sufficient to promote digital skills – we need to develop a shared understanding of the purpose of digital education and of the best teaching approaches to achieve that purpose. 

“The use and impact of digital technologies is a priority for the Nuffield Foundation, and we hope this report will stimulate further research proposals that can address the challenges it identifies.”