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

Digital learning and improving the efficiency of the education system

Key findings

There is promising evidence that teachers' efficiency can be increased by using digital equipment and digital resources to prepare for teaching. There is similarly promising evidence that digital tools and resources enable teachers to do their job better in relation to teaching, assessment and their own on the job learning and development.

This section provides a review of the studies which include evidence of how digital learning and teaching can improve the efficiency of the education system, focusing on teachers and schools.

Teachers expect digital teaching to enable them to source materials for lessons and provide formative assessment more efficiently, as well as meeting a wider range of learner needs more effectively. As a consequence, within a school, preparation and assessment might be less time consuming and teaching time more productive through digital learning and teaching.

Improving teacher and school efficiency

A review of the literature indicates there is little empirical evidence explicitly showing a relationship between the increased uptake of digital learning and teaching and an improvement in the efficiency of teachers or of schools. Studies have mostly focused on increased effectiveness (better results) rather than efficiency (cost benefits/value for money of the investment and use), although two studies provide some estimate of cost saving.

The evidence (including small scale anecdotal evidence, as well as larger scale self-reported survey results and comparative studies) is provided below in relation to aspects of digital learning and teaching for which there are reported efficiencies.

Digital equipment

Blackwell (2013) found, from a small-scale qualitative survey and observation of schools in the US, some evidence of increased teacher efficiency in early childhood education as a result of using tablet computers and associated software and applications. These came from:

  • Using video, camera and audio recorders to document learning and provide longitudinal assessment (e.g. of speech and cognitive development);
  • Automatic gathering of tests and quiz results, writing examples etc, to support quicker and more accurate assessments;
  • Using touch screens and having faster booting up and logging-in compared to computers.

Blackwell concludes: 'While little evidence exists on how tablet computers are being integrated into the classroom and how this integration is changing or reinforcing current teaching practices, these unique features provide evidence that tablet computers could enact such changes in the education environment.'

Similarly, a small scale qualitative evaluation of iPad Scotland (Burden 2012) found that the use of iPads encouraged teachers to explore alternative activities and forms of assessments for learning. Teachers generally reported that iPads required virtually no training for them to be used effectively, allowed them to develop and extend homework activities, and enabled them to provide better feedback to learners about their learning. The initiative was described by stakeholders as 'the most easily accepted, successful and problem-free [digital] initiative they had ever witnessed' because of the low levels of resistance to their use.

PBS and Grunwald Associates LLC (2010), using a survey of 1,400 classroom teachers in the US, also report that teachers (pre-school to secondary school) believe that a variety of technology devices and web-based systems 'help them do their jobs better' and 'help them to engage students in learning'. For instance, 68% of teachers surveyed reported that they value interactive whiteboards as a means to supplement and support teaching. Similarly, Peterson and McClay (2012) in a mixed-methods study with over 300 teachers in Canada found that teachers saved time in classroom teaching by using smart-boards - examples were easier to demonstrate and could be saved for future use.

Digital tools and resources

Teachers' have increasingly found online learning and knowledge exchange platforms to be useful (PBS and Grunwald Associates, 2010) and this may be enabling teachers to prepare for lessons more efficiently and tailor lessons to learning outcomes. The study reports that 97% of teachers surveyed used digital media for searching for, and managing, interactive games, activities, lesson plans and simulations.

Increasingly, digital media is reported by teachers as a means to support content management (rather than paper files and reports). Teachers report using data management systems to track assessment scores (76 per cent), refine the curriculum (71 per cent), develop individual education plans (62 per cent), or get professional development or feedback (54 per cent).

There is indicative evidence that learning assistance tools (which provide useful hints or feedback to learners to 'reinforce learning') can free up teacher time in classrooms. For instance, Huang et al (2010) reported that 'teaching loads were significantly reduced [by the learning assistance tool] because appropriate hints or feedback were automatically provided to learners without teacher involvement'. Cook et al's (2010) meta review of efficiencies concluded that digital teaching does not guarantee greater efficiency in teaching, but in some instances can facilitate efficiency by enabling learners with varying aptitudes to work more effectively. This allows teachers to spend more time with those who need it.

In relation to preparation, Passey (2011) found that Espresso digital resources, which are widely used in primary schools in the UK, were quicker and easier to use than other digital resources. While the time savings estimated were not large (about seven hours a year per teacher), the study found that these would be greater for higher users of the resources. For the GIGO digital resources for learning about work reported in the previous chapter (ICF, 2014), participants using the digital resources had a unit cost of about £175, which compares to an estimated unit cost for a work placement of about £1,300.

Hargis and Wilcox (2008) discussed some of the free and ubiquitous resources that can be used to support teacher efficiency, including online collaboration tools (e.g. Skype, Google documents, Second Life). Some promising evidence is provided of how these tools have improved teacher efficiency (albeit in a university setting):

  • Presenting a lesson to a wider audience such as in another school or another class within a school simultaneously; and
  • Helping learners who are off site.

The Blackwell study (2013) indicated that there was limited evidence that teachers used technology to share learning about the most effective teaching practices.


Email: Catriona Rooke

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