Digital Technology And Student Learning: The Impact Of The Ecology – Part 1

pic-1By Mal Lee.

There is no significant linear connection between the use of digital technologies and enhanced student attainment. The traditional, simplistic way of looking at the impact of digital technology on student learning has to fundamentally change. All associated with schools need to understand that the impact of digital technology on student learning can be profound if an apposite school ecology is created.

Further, it needs to be recognised that the impact of digital technology on student learning is complex, far more deep-seated than previously thought, is largely non-linear in nature and appears to emanate in the main from the ever-evolving digital operational base and integrated ecology found in those schools that have infused the use of digital technology in all facets of their operations.

That profound impact is evidenced increasingly in pathfinder – early adopter – schools in the UK, US, NZ and Australia, where all teachers in the school have moved the school from a paper to digital operational base by using digital technology in their everyday teaching.

Those schools have, often unwittingly, created digitally based, tightly integrated, strongly educationally focused and ever-evolving school ecologies that simultaneously address the many factors that enhance each student’s learning. That ecology is not simply amplifying the impact of the suite of variables known to enhance student learning, but is also facilitating the emergence of an additional set of variables, intended and unintended, that have the potential to markedly lift school attainment globally.

What needs to be understood by all, and in particular government and the media, is that at best there is limited direct connection between the use of a particular digital instructional technology and improved learning in the academic curriculum. It is particularly important that the school principal, the primary orchestrator of the apposite ecology within each school, understands that reality and the necessity of the new focus.

It is imperative that the impact of digital technology is understood. Educators need to appreciate that it is the total school 24/7/365 use of digital technology by all within the school’s community that is key to helping shape the desired teaching and learning.

The Research

For the last century, educators, governments, technology companies and the media have promoted the assumption that by introducing a new technology, be it a magic lantern, film, educational TV, video, a PC or iPad, there would be an immediate improvement in student learning (Lee and Winzenried, 2009). From the 1950s onwards and the then concerted research into the impact of educational television (Schramm, Nelson and Betham, 1981), study after study focused on a direct link between the new technology and enhanced student attainment. Rarely was any kind of linkage found, and only then usually in the research commissioned by the technology corporations.

Typically, the studies focused in a micro fashion on a particular technology – its strengths and weaknesses, the technology’s use within the classroom and its impact on students’ attainment within the existing curriculum. Scant or no consideration was given to the macro scene, trend lines, school’s ecology or any unintended benefits that might have been realised.

In 2009, Underwood ( 2009) prepared a major study for Becta on the impact of digital technology on schools. The study concentrated solely on the connection between the kit and learning, not touching on the considerable impact of digital technology on every facet of the ecology in those schools that had gone digital.

Little wonder that by 2012 Higgins and his colleagues at Durham, in their meta-analysis of the numerous studies on the impact of digital technology on student learning, concluded, “Taken together, the correlational and experimental evidence does not offer a convincing case for the general impact of digital technology on learning outcome” (Higgins et al, 2012).

Disturbingly – nay dangerously – that and like studies have prompted some educators and administrators to make the leap and conclude that, as there was no significant impact, it is not worth using digital technology in the classroom.

Interestingly, the same people must have been watching the profound impact of digital technology on their own lives and the learning and teaching of their children over the last couple of decades outside of school walls. Indeed, since the mid-1990s, parents and society in general have talked of the profound impact of digital technology, and in particular the Internet, on the learning, lives and outlook of young people outside of the classroom. Early work by Tapscott (1998) and Meredyth et al (1998), and later studies by Green and Hannon (2007), Tapscott (2009), Lee and Finger (2010) and Ito et al (2013), all affirmed the very considerable impact the young’s all-pervasive use of digital technology has had on their daily lives, their learning and preferred mode of teaching outside the school walls. Indeed, Tapscott’s 2009 Grown Up Digital study is aptly subtitled ‘how the net generation is changing your world’.

What those studies did, in marked contrast to the in-school studies, was examine the actual impact digital had, directly and indirectly, on the learning and teaching of young people, and not what some educators would like to see happen. That same focus on the actual was taken in the author’s study of the impact of digital technology on the transformation of those schools in the UK, US, NZ and Australia that had normalised or nearly normalised the use of digital. Significantly, this study examined the impact on every facet of the school’s operations and thinking, educational and administrative, in and increasingly outside of the school walls. That research and its initial findings are detailed on the School Evolutionary Stages blog at

Digital School Ecologies and Student Learning

The transformational impact of digital school ecologies has been dramatic in every way, creating a mode of schooling and a teaching and learning culture fundamentally different in outlook and form to the traditional paper-based school.

While the purpose of the study was not to examine student attainment, it was of note that all the schools were performing above their socio-economic standing. What the study did reveal was that when schools move to a digital operational base they will experience considerable natural growth, largely outside the control of the organisation, and will continue to evolve and transform. The schools become evermore tightly integrated, ever higher order with distinct ecologies, marrying the in-school and out-of-school teaching and opening the way for them to markedly enhance student attainment.

Significantly, every school studied, regardless of level or nation, had the overarching educational focus of providing the best possible holistic 24/7/365 education for the 21st century. Somewhat surprisingly, all took the view that if they provided an apposite, more personalised holistic education – of the type enunciated by Pellegrino and Hilton (2012) – it would not matter what type of tests or exams each student would experience.

These are tightly integrated organisations where the use of digital and network connectivity underpins not only all relationships and every operation, but also the mindset of the school’s community. Digital connectivity by all is as imperative to these schools as the pen, paper and blackboard availability was to the traditional school.

It is that digital operational base and the associated digital convergence that enabled these schools to create an ecology that simultaneously addresses the key variables known to enhance student learning. Look, for example, to Hattie’s (2009) meta-analysis of the known key learning variables and readers will see all the pathfinder schools had a clear, shaping educational vision; had set high expectations; had clearly identified the desired educational benefits; had an astute principal willing to lead and develop a culture that encouraged risk; and had striven to empower all their teachers to consistently lift the quality of teaching, to employ a diversity of teaching strategies and to foster the collaboration between the school and the home.

By all within the school having their own suite of digital technology – often in their hands – the teachers and students were able to instantly access the desired information anytime, anywhere, to analyse it, to re-configure it as desired, to video, record, photograph and create their own quality multi-media presentations, to author e-books and to swiftly store and/or despatch those materials whenever desired. Little wonder the student attainment in all the pathfinder schools was above the socioeconomic status (SES) norm.

Part two of this article continues in the next issue of Education Technology Solutions Magazine, where the discussion considers the potential for schools and students where schools are operating under a digital ecology.

Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now, author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.



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  1. […] structured, it’s already been identified. See John Hattie, as quoted in Mal Lee (2015) Digital Technology And Student Learning: The Impact Of The Ecology > “Hattie’s (2009) meta-analysis of the known key learning variables […]

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