Literature Review on the Impact of Digital Technology on Learning and Teaching

This literature review was commissioned by the Scottish Government to explore how the use of digital technology for learning and teaching can support teachers, parents, children and young people in improving outcomes and achieving our ambitions for education in Scotland


This section sets out a summary of the available evidence of the impacts that the use of digital technologies in schools has on learning and teaching, followed by a consideration of the factors which are essential for implementing successful use of digital technologies for learning and teaching in schools.

Impacts on learning and teaching

It is important to note that the research literature has some shortcomings for a study of this kind. Much of it describes uses of digital tools and resources without any assessment of the outcomes or how and why they were achieved or not achieved. Most studies that attempt to measure any outcomes focus on short and medium term outcomes, small numbers of learners or teachers or schools, and commonly measure these qualitatively. The studies that do measure change, and measure change quantitatively against a comparative group or other ways to attribute the change to the digital tools or resources being applied, tend to do this over short periods (four weeks to six months).

As a consequence, this led Higgins et al (2012) to conclude that 'taking the body of research as a whole, there is not a conclusive case for the impact of digital technology on longer term educational attainment outcomes', but there is compelling evidence that digital technology provides teachers with tools and resources that can aid learning and teaching and enhance the ability of some children to learn effectively. The meta-analyses discussed provide some strong evidence of impact, while the qualitative studies provide evidence about how the these impacts are achieved.

All this is reflected in the conclusions which can be reached. In the cases where studies of similar digital tools and resources have been systematically reviewed or where there is a large body of evidence from different studies which have measured change (three stars and better in Table 2), it is possible to state there is conclusive evidence. In other cases where the evidence base is weaker (mainly studies with one or two stars in Table 2, it is only possible to state that there is indicative evidence or promising evidence.

Based on this, this review provides:

  • Conclusive evidence that digital technologies can support educational attainment in general and improvements in numeracy/mathematics and science learning;
  • Indicative evidence that digital technologies can support educational attainment in literacy and closing the gap in attainment between groups of learners;
  • Promising evidence that digital technologies can provide assistance to overcoming the challenges faced by some learners; improvements in employability skills and knowledge of career pathways; improved communications with parents; and time efficiencies for teachers.

Table 5 Summary of quality of evidence for each thematic area

Thematic Area Strength of evidence
Raising attainment  
General Conclusive
Numeracy/mathematics Conclusive
Literacy Indicative
Science learning Conclusive
Tackling inequalities and promoting inclusion  
Closing the gap in attainment between groups of learners Indicative
Provide assistance to overcoming the challenges faced by some learners Promising
Improving transitions into employment  
Improvements in employability skills and knowledge of career pathways Promising
Enhancing parental engagement  
Improvements in communications with parents Promising
Improving the efficiency of the education system  
Improvements in time efficiencies for teachers Promising

While many studies clearly focus on specific learners in terms of age, settings (primary, secondary, special education) and domestic circumstances, none make any comparisons between the impact of digital technologies on educational priorities for different age groups. As a consequence, it has not been possible to identify any differences in the use and impact of digital technology in primary and secondary school settings. However, it is generally the case that the impacts found apply relatively equally to primary and secondary school learners.

The literature review identifies areas where more research evidence is required in order to draw stronger conclusions. These are around comparing the impacts of digital learning in primary and secondary settings and evidencing impacts on improving transitions into employment, enhancing parental engagement and improving school efficiency

Successful implementation

Studies which have assessed what has worked to bring about positive outcomes from using digital tools and resources for learning and teaching show that it is teachers that make the changes to exploit and harness digital technology. As the OECD (2015) study concluded: 'technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching'. Teachers achieve this through having digital proficiencies with equipment and tools; being able to identify suitable applications for teaching and assessment and integrating them into specific lessons and curriculums; and being able to adapt their pedagogical approaches for classroom teaching, guided learning (homework), and formative assessment.

To do this they require the following support. These are little different to the ingredients required for any significant shift in pedagogy.

Organisational leadership

Professional development of school staff

It is crucial that teachers have opportunities to learn how to use all applications and get support in using them initially if they are to enhance their pedagogies and increase their confidence and capabilities. Where they do, they are better able to identify knowledge and skills which can be acquired through digital tools and resources, the learning styles which can be better suited to these, and opportunities for children to learn outside the learning in class. This can be from blended learning and communities of practice as much as off site training courses, since teachers need support while they put what they have learnt into practice and become comfortable with tools and equipment. Schools need to support the development of networks as well as participation in training since informal peer support and collaboration are effective means of knolwedge sharing and learning.

School leaders as agents of change

It is important that if schools wish to obtain greater benefits from digital technologies they must move usage towards Plomp et al's third stage of development: "teachers enter an inventive stage in which they experiment and change the use of technology to support active, creative and collaborative learning." If this is achieved, learners are more likely to exploit digital technologies and increase the time they spend on active learning. School leaders need to direct the development of digital technologies and ensure that teachers have time to undertake training and, when adopting digital teaching, have additional preparation time and opportunities to take risks.

Knowledge exchange and support for teachers

Continuing professional development

Teachers benefit from opportunities to use, observe and practice changes to teaching. This is particularly important with digital technologies where it is clear that changing practices towards learner centred approaches appear to bring greater benefits to learner attainment. This can be achieved through supported learning in small groups and online commuities of practice.

Initial teacher training

New entrants to teaching need to be equipped to use digital technologies and understand their benefits and applications. Teachers are more likely to adopt digtial technolgies for teaching when they are competent themselves.

Understanding the benefits

While many teachers can be resistant to using digital technologies because of their confidence and competence in using them, once the benefits of digital learning are better understood they are more convinced of the value of using them in their teaching.

Infrastructure including access

Access to equipment, tools and resources

It is crucial that if digital technologies are to be used in learning and teaching that schools have equipment and tools that can be used by learners as well as teachers. Tools and resources require sufficient bandwidths. Digital technologies also need to be kept up to date. Schools need to budget for maintenance of the existing infrastructure as well as its upgrading.

Support to use

Where digital equipment is provided, training is needed to support appropriate and effective use in the classroom.

Flexibility in learning and teaching

It is crucial that teachers have discretion in how lessons and homework ensure educational outcomes are achieved. Allowing teachers flexibility will give them opportunities to ensure digital technology can be fully utilised.

In summary, successful implementation requires support to teachers in the form of opportunities to learn (both formally and informally), embedding digital learning in continuing professional development and initial teacher training, direction and leadership within a school, functioning digital equipment and tools, and an environment that gives teachers the flexibility to introduce and use digital learning.


Email: Catriona Rooke

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