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Growing up digital

Researchers: Angela McFarlane

Project overview

This report examines how digital technologies are used in schools to enhance learning, and identifies research questions to inform
better practice and policy.

The rapid growth in the use of digital technologies has had a transformational effect on our economy and society. Such technologies are now fundamental for large swathes of the workforce and people’s lives are increasingly digitalised and connected, with computers and algorithms mediating many daily activities. The acquisition and use of digital skills underpin participation in the labour market, and in consumer, social and civic life. How has the education system responded to this?

The requirement for young people to develop digital competency and fluency drove changes to the curriculum introduced in England from 2014, with Computing becoming mandatory up to age 16. Concerns have been raised about the implementation of this major curriculum reform, including a 2017 Royal Society report that highlighted challenges around the capacity of the teaching workforce to deliver on the aspirations of reforms. As such, the recent establishment of a National Centre for Computing Education, focused on improving teaching across English primary and secondary schools, is a welcome development.

We must also consider the efficacy of information and communication technologies for teaching and learning. As the Education Endowment Foundation (2019) and others have found, putting technology into schools does not in itself boost young people’s learning or enhance the skills of teachers in improving learning outcomes. The integration of technology with pedagogical approaches and a clear understanding of the purpose of technology in the classroom are essential. Overall, despite all the activity and investment, there is no shared view of what the digital education agenda is aiming to achieve and what the priorities should be for policy-makers and practitioners. In a context of relatively rapid change in what is taught, how it is taught and why, it is particularly difficult to ensure that policy and practice are informed by high quality evidence.

We commissioned this report to clear the ground, assess the existing evidence base, and identify key questions and issues for future research. Professor Angela McFarlane’s wideranging experience at the interface between policy, practice and research made her ideally placed to undertake this exercise. In producing this report, she has consulted closely with the Foundation and a range of other stakeholders with relevant expertise.

The report provides a significant contribution to the debate around computing education and digital skills, exposing challenges for a field that appears to want to move rapidly from problems to solutions. It also provides pertinent guidance for those seeking to improve the evidence base around the cornerstones of educational reform: curriculum, assessment, pedagogy and teacher supply and development.

The use and impact of digital technologies is a priority for the Nuffield Foundation in our work to advance social well-being. We hope this report will act as a stimulus for well-directed and high-quality research proposals for the Foundation and other funders, that can improve the evidence base and inform policy and practice on education in the digital society.


  • Angela McFarlane

  • Director, Education
    Nuffield Foundation
  • Head of Student Programmes
    Nuffield Foundation

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We aim to improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We are an open, collaborative and engaged funder that offers more than money. Through connecting the individual projects we fund, we strengthen their collective impact and give voice to an overarching narrative.