Towards digital enablement: A literature review

Publication Details

This report is a literature review looking at digital technology and the role this plays in education.

Author(s): Charles Newton, Commissioned by the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: December 2018

Executive Summary


Digital technology, given its ubiquity, the connections it affords, and the agency it provides learners and teachers (Wenmoth, 2013), has a pivotal role to play in education. It is a driver of fundamental changes in how our world works and what education must deliver. It is also a powerful enabler in how we respond to pressing challenges.

The pervasive digital environment is redefining what it is students need to know and the competencies they must develop. At the same time, rapid advances in the science of learning underscore “the importance of rethinking what is taught, how it is taught and how learning is assessed” (Bransford, et al, 2000, pp 23–25).

Impact to date

Strong evidence exists that information and communications technology (ICT) can have a positive impact on student motivation and engagement, but evidence is weaker for an impact on lifting achievement. While we can find examples of technology interventions raising achievement, these are exceptions as any ‘specific initiative’ gains in achievement do not reflect the system-wide reality.

“Learning centred approaches to technology-enabled learning can empower learners and leverage good learning experiences that would not otherwise be possible” (Groff, 2012, p 10). Digital technology offers valuable tools for other building blocks in effective learning environments, including individualised instruction, cooperative learning, managing formative assessment, and many enquiry-based methods (ibid).

Deployed smartly, digital technology can reduce geographic, socioeconomic, and cultural barriers to accessing quality education (Walker et al, 2012). Internationally and in New Zealand, online learning is on the rise. Technology supports powerful connections and collaboration and has the potential to increase equality of educational opportunity. Technology is critical to the preservation of te reo Māori.

Data-informed decision-making is increasing the accuracy and precision of decisions at all levels and across relevant agencies. Access to high-quality, timely information about learning enables a comprehensive long-range view of education (Marsh et al, 2006). Increasingly, powerful learning analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies are aiding the support of students’ learning and well-being and freeing up teachers to provide targeted, in-depth teaching and mentoring to students.

Technology is also laying the foundations for enhanced AI-enabled formative assessment and new forms of ‘just-in-time’ summative assessment. This is enabling a rethink of the format, content, location, and timing of summative assessment. We are seeing examinations sat, marked, and moderated online. New models of credentialisation (including micro-credentialisation) may better provide what our fast-changing economic and social systems require (Hill and Barber, 2014, p 17).

“Technology has enormous potential especially when it reshapes the different components, relationships, partnerships, and principles integral to learning environments” (OECD, 2013, p 11). Technology broadens the scope of educators supporting learners and allows specialist resources to be shared widely (ibid). When aligned with emerging pedagogical drivers, the powerful suite of emerging technologies will be a significant disruptor, supporting greater flexibility and choice for learners.

Technology is supporting powerful connections and collaboration, enabling significantly increased coordination and cohesion within and between institutions. Teachers are expanding their professional practice by leveraging technology to facilitate collaborative inquiry informed by richer student achievement data. This sharing of pedagogical knowledge and emerging best practice is critical to building professional capability, as schools learn from each other in what Michael Fullan (2005) calls “lateral capacity building”.

The globalisation of education is growing the capability and tendency for school systems to learn from each other at every level. The new pedagogies emerging in our innovative classrooms reflect the commitment of our teachers and leaders to leverage digital communications, discussion platforms, and personal learning networks locally and internationally, to engage in, and be informed by, rich pedagogical discussion.

The pervasive use of technology is raising a slew of increasingly challenging ethical issues that require “fine-tuned ethical and moral modes of thought and action” (Kereluik et al, 2013, p 132). Used responsibly, big data, analytics, and machine learning offer significant opportunities to improve learning, but we must protect the data while promoting innovation (Executive Office of the President, 2014). Critical to this balance will be raising the digital fluency of all stakeholders.

Establishing the right conditions

The OECD (2015b, p 4) suggests that, for a variety of reasons, “the real contributions technology can make to teaching and learning have yet to be fully realised and exploited”. Despite concluding that research findings on digital technology’s impact on learner outcomes are disappointing, Michael Barber (in the foreword to Fullan and Langworthy, 2014) believes we cannot abandon our ambition to use technology in classrooms, because it will underpin the new pedagogy we now need.

However, much is to be done if technology is to support the significant education system transformation many believe essential. “There is no evidence that technology is a particularly good entry point for whole system reform” (Fullan, 2011, p 15). Rather, Fullan and Langworthy (2014) argue that only when system change knowledge, pedagogy, and technology are thought about in an integrated way can technology make a dramatic difference to outcomes.

Research has identified the factors underpinning the effective deployment of digital interventions. However, the greater challenge is to initiate and sustain the broader transformational shifts required for technology to help truly modernise our education system.

System stewards must ensure an informed, cohesive, and inspiring response to the emerging 21st century imperatives. This stewardship must be based on a sound understanding of the forces at play, leveraging the drivers of good performance and nurturing successful innovation (State Services Commission et al, 2016, p 5). “New change leadership” merges top-down, bottom-up, and sideways energies to generate change that is faster and easier than past efforts at reform (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014, p ii). New Zealand education needs to be seeking wider alliances and partnerships with communities, iwi, business, and the wider public sector to advance digital learning.

Decision-makers need to understand that technology is a tool, an enabler, and, at best, a catalyst (Higgins et al, 2012), so technical intervention alone will not solve a learning problem. The complexities of teaching and learning require a tripartite collaboration that leverages learning sciences, pedagogical understanding, and technological innovation.

Teachers’ pedagogic actions are key to the successful integration of technology (Wright, 2010),with student-centred, facilitative approaches at the heart (Bolstad and Gilbert, 2012). Excitement surrounds the moves to personalise students’ learning experience, to broaden the scope of educators supporting their learning (OECD, 2013) and to ensure learning occurs in increasingly authentic contexts. A coherent set of themes (ibid) is underpinning significant structural changes in innovative schools, driven and sustained primarily by teachers and students and supported by leaders who foster collaborative, risk-sharing cultures (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014).

Students need to be engaged in appropriately challenging tasks and extending discourse (Jesson et al, 2015) and be supported to achieve cognitive acceleration (Garnett, 2014). Therefore, it is of concern that, for the last decade, the level of cognitive demand in the use of digital technology across New Zealand schooling has been low (Bolstad, 2017). We need to ensure technology is used to enhance highly effective pedagogical interventions that make teaching and learning ‘visible’ and support ‘teachers as activators’ (Fullan, 2013a).

Institutions’ curricula need to reflect the importance of “new knowledge” (Bolstad and Gilbert, 2012) and that digital literacy is now essential foundational knowledge for all 21st century learners (Kereluik et al, 2013). Foundational knowledge remains vital, but new skills and knowledge are necessary to collaborate digitally and across disciplines as technology changes the methods and techniques of acquiring, representing, and manipulating knowledge (Summers, 2012, cited in Kereluik et al, 2013, p 132). Connectedness is impacting on all spheres of human activity (OECD, 2012, p 17). While literacy and numeracy remain vital, less well-defined outcomes such as problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, and building effective relationships now need significant attention (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014).

Both teachers and students need increasingly sophisticated tools to help them constantly know the status of learning so they can adjust their teaching and learning appropriately (Hill and Barber, 2014). While research confirms that collaborative inquiry informed by evidence is one of the most powerful determinants in lifting student achievement and closing gaps (ERO, 2016), not all educators have access to the information and tools needed, sufficient data fluency, or the pedagogical capacity to change their teaching practices in response to the information they receive.

Extensive data has been available to schools and the wider system for many years, but this has not translated into ‘information richness’ (Schifter et al, 2014). Technology’s promise to power data-informed decision-making requires raising the sector’s data literacy capability. It also requires the comprehensive technical infrastructure and user-friendly tools and systems that allow busy educators easy access to multiple sources of valid data and appropriate options for analysing and organising this to inform their practice (Marsh et al, 2006).

New Zealand must address significant problems of inequality and uneven performance, particularly reflected in outcomes for Māori and Pasifika (Ministry of Education, 2013). The digital divide is defined by the ability to use new media to carry out the expert thinking and complex communication at the heart of the new economy (Levy and Murnane, 2004).

When resourced equitably, speedy internet connections and one-to-one computer access coupled with high teacher expectations can help address these disparities – especially where these are compounded by the lack of access to technology in students’ homes (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014). The OECD recommends every child attains a baseline proficiency in reading and mathematics to enable effective use of ICT tools for learning (OECD, 2015b).

Technological affordances are already supporting collaborative endeavour, which has been identified as a key driver of school and system improvement (Hargreaves, 2016; Hattie, 2015c). The need to facilitate greater collaborative endeavour across our system is essential. Robinson and colleagues (2011) concluded there is insufficient teaching and leadership capacity available in self-managing schools to lift the equity and excellence of student outcomes.

It is critical that the system invests in the continuous capability building of our teachers and other educators because the quality of teaching is still the greatest determinant of student achievement (Hattie, 2015b, 2015c). Our system needs to embrace a culture of continuous learning for teachers and educational change leaders is required (OECD, 2015b). Andreas Schleicher encourages education policy-makers to provide better support for teachers as they learn and practice new pedagogies (Shapiro, 2015, p 4). A capable workforce also helps sustain the innovation required to drive the transformational changes now needed to modernise the system (Fullan, 2015b).

New models of professional development are required if teachers are to develop and sustain the increasing pedagogical and technical competence now expected. Feedback from teachers suggests it is proving increasingly difficult for them to broaden their knowledge and skills effectively within the existing models of teacher development (Purcell et al, 2013). New Zealand’s leading teachers display commendable commitment in constantly refreshing and improving their knowledge and practices. In line with the experience of the world’s top-performing education systems, they are embracing a “teachers are researchers” mindset (Darling-Hammond et al, 2017, p 12).

We need “teachers to become active agents for change, not just in implementing technological innovations, but in designing and evaluating these too” (OECD, 2015b, p 4). The challenge is to expand pockets of educational innovation into broad, holistic change across our system (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014, p ii). Despite leading teachers’ commitment to exploring innovative practices, current policy settings limit their deep engagement with innovation processes (Hallgarten et al, 2015), hindering the broader uptake of digital technologies.

The student assessment, teacher evaluation, and school accountability regimes that currently define success for education systems are barriers to innovation. New ways to define and measure success are urgently needed to give students, teachers, and leaders a clear picture of what now needs to be achieved and the strategic actions that can be taken individually and together (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014).

Providing the enabling digital infrastructure

Technology has a crucial role to play in helping address many of these educational challenges, but the research identifies priorities a sector-wide enabling digital infrastructure must first address to serve the sector’s pedagogical and stewardship needs.

New Zealand’s devolved education system means each early childhood education service, school, and tertiary provider is responsible for its own teaching and learning resources, assets, and infrastructure. Integration between administration systems is difficult, the duplication is time consuming and costly, and not all education providers have the ICT expertise to maintain a reliable internal network.

Education needs a cohesive digital ecosystem that enables an increasingly seamless and collaborative learning environment. Building ICT infrastructure and capacity is a priority for most education jurisdictions. New Zealand is viewed as an international leader in building the physical infrastructure. However, moving to a more cohesive digital ecosystem “so all students and educators … have access to a robust and comprehensive infrastructure when and where they need it for learning” (US Department of Education, 2017, p 69) is a challenge.

This infrastructure needs to be robust so education can take advantage of the increasingly powerful suite of emerging digital technologies the impact of which will be far broader than the current focus on devices in classrooms.

There are costs to teachers and learners when systems lack coherence and interoperability. Critical information does not easily follow learners as they move. For example, learners’ progress is hindered as they transition from one education setting to another, risking disrupted progress and vulnerable learners ‘falling through the cracks’. Educators waste valuable teaching and learning time re-testing learners already at risk.

Interventions are needed to help individual education institutions provide the infrastructure needed to meet their users’ increasingly sophisticated requirements. Wylie (2013) reported that most teachers saw real benefits for student learning from the use of ICT, but both principals and teachers identified that inadequate ICT equipment and internet access needed to be addressed. While most schools now have adequate and reliable internet access, it is concerning that 46% of teachers report that students do not have access to digital technology when they need it (Bolstad, 2017).

The integration of digital technologies must reduce rather than exacerbate educators’ workload issues. Many of the technology issues that affect teacher workloads are due to infrastructure and technical support issues, such as accessibility, speed, and reliability of networks (particularly wireless), and the accessibility and reliability of hardware and software (PPTA Workload Taskforce, 2016). Schools report that managing a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy is time consuming, and teachers worry that the expectation they be available 24/7 is “unsafe, unfair and unrealistic” (ibid, p 100).

New Zealand education needs teachers and system leaders who have the knowledge, competencies, and confidence to capitalise on the undoubted potential of digital technologies.

That said, leadership at all levels needs to be both informed and discerning and to hold realistic expectations when investing in technology. Working in partnership with all stakeholders to build capacity across all facets of the system will be vital.

Then, in accepting John Hattie’s (2012) challenge to “know thy impact” we must continuously evaluate our progress in implementing key digital interventions.


  1. “In this view, knowledge is seen as something that does things, as being more energy-like than matter-like, more like a verb than a noun. Knowledge, in the Knowledge Age, involves creating and using new knowledge to solve problems and find solutions to challenges as they arise on a ‘just-in-time’ basis” (Bolstad and Gilbert, 2012, p 4, emphasis in original).
  2. ‘Connectedness’ is the capacity to benefit from connectivity for personal, social, work, or economic purposes.
  3. Hattie challenges teachers to “know thy impact” by constantly and deliberately evaluating the impact they are having on their students’ learning and, from the evidence of this impact, changing their approaches as required. This requires understanding where a student is in their level of thinking and then challenging them to

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