Digital learning, reducing inequalities and promoting inclusion
There is indicative evidence that digital tools and resources can help to reduce gaps in subject attainment where they are effectively implemented. There is promising evidence that digital equipment and resources can help learners with additional support needs to improve their skills and competences in literacy and numeracy.
Teachers' skills and competences in recognising how to use digital tools and resources and apply them effectively are critical to achieving positive results for learners with additional support needs or who are disdvantaged in other ways.
Becta reviewed the literature (2007) on the potential for digital learning to overcome disadvantage and disaffection. They found evidence that digital learning increased learners' interest in learning, their confidence in practising a skill and the time they spent on non-formal learning.
There is very little meta-analysis covering this area or examining specific groups of disadvantaged learners. In the main there are small numbers of small scale empirical studies in a variety of contexts for different groups of learners. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions, although Higgins et al (2011) concluded that digital tools and resources can be 'particularly practical for lower ability learners and those with special educational needs where they allow for differentiation and more intensive practice, and provide a greater motivation to learn.
In one controlled study of the use of laptops in classrooms for literacy and numeracy learning which examined differences between girls and boys (Yang et al, 2013), no difference was found in the results.
Reducing inequalities between learners
The groups of learners for whom the literature provides evidence from studies with comparative groups and/or testing learners before and after digital learning can be broadly divided between those where the digital learning provides assistance to close gaps in attainment, and those who have additional support needs where digital learning provides assistance to overcome learning problems.
Closing the gap
Clas et al (2009) found that digital tools could help secondary school learners who had relatively lower literacy, many of whom were learning the language of instruction. Tests of knowledge and understanding (in social studies) before and after the use of an online thesaurus and online dictionary showed that both improved their subject knowledge and their understanding, and that the online dictionary made a bigger difference, most probably because it was easier to use.
Reed et al (2013) found that digital resources could help learners over the age of 8 who were 6-12 months behind their age group in their reading age to catch up. The phonics programme which was followed in class helped most learners to improve both their reading and spelling in standard tests. Murphy and Graham (2012) found from a wider review of studies that word processing generally had a positive impact on the writing skills of weaker writers. This was related to help with revision and spelling before assessment.
Zheng et al (2014) found that providing a laptop to access digital resources, in order to improve disadvantaged lower secondary learners' science learning, was effective in reducing the gap in knowledge and understanding, as well as increasing their interest in science subjects. They attributed this to the more individualised learning that was possible. Jewitt and Parashar (2011) found that providing a laptop and internet connection to low income families in two local authority areas in England increased the completion/quality of homework, the time spent on it and the extent of independent learning.
Providing assistance to overcome learning challenges
There is promising evidence that digital equipment can support learners with learning disabilities. O'Malley et al (2013) found that among a small number of learners the majority benefited from using an iPad to increase numeracy. While Gonzalez-Ledo et al (2015) found that literacy among a group of learners with learning difficulties increased when they were provided with a computer graphics organiser (they wrote more words and included more story elements in their composition). Seo and Bryant's (2009) review of 11 studies of using digital tools with learners with learning disabilities for maths found no conclusive evidence, though most of the studies had a positive effect on addition skills.
Having digital resources can improve numeracy skills such as subtraction. Peltenberg et al (2009) found that, among 8-12 year-old learners in some special schools in the Netherlands, the approach to learning and practising subtraction in the e-learning resources had a positive effect on their competence (measured by comparing their scores on online tests using the tool and using pen and paper). They argued that the learners were better able to see their mistakes and to better understand what went wrong.
Devlin et al (2013) demonstrated how virtual interactive worlds can be used to enable a small group of secondary age looked after children to develop their team work and negotiation skills.
Ingredients for success
Many of the studies point not just to the importance of teachers' ability to use the equipment and tools but also to their understanding of how they can be used to respond to learners' needs in both guided learning, homework and non-formal learning - i.e. successful pedagogical use has to be a feature of training. Mouza et al's (2008) study of a smallscale laptop initiative for secondary age learners from low income families in the US found that much of the difference in learners' improvements in competences related to their teachers' skills in redesigning learning. D'Arcy (2012) attributed the progress in engaging travellers' children in learning with a laptop and digital resources after they had dropped out of secondary education to the tutors' ability to guide and interest them.
Several studies suggest that improvements could have been greater if teachers had received effective training beforehand (O'Malley et al, 2013; Clas et al, 2009). This also applies to parents and volunteers where digital resources were being used for learners with disabilities. Cavanaugh et al (2013) attributed the scale of improvement to the time that parents were able to help and their ability to do so. Celedon-Pattichis et al (2013) identified that undergraduate volunteers were critical to an out of school learning project using digital resources for learners with learning needs.
Email: Catriona Rooke
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