The digital school and enhanced student learning

The signs are suggesting that the greatest impact digital technology will have on learning will come from the technology's underpinning role within a digitally-based school ecosystem; an ecosystem that is integrated, focused and which simultaneously addresses all the variables that enhance student learning.

When children are able to tackle a group project employing the digital technologies that they use in their daily lives, teachers can astutely build upon each child's digital and social competencies and address shortcomings, all while teaching the desired material in a more individualised manner.

The signs also indicate that the sophisticated digital base that already provides schools additional opportunities, will do even more so in the years ahead.

However, until schools develop an appropriate digital school ecosystem, adopt a culture that empowers the teachers, students and parents, and support all that take a lead role in the use of the digital in teaching, they won't be able to take advantage of those opportunities and continually enhance their productivity.

No-one in 2015 would suggest that a carmaker could enhance productivity by simply installing a robot, or that Apple's success is solely dependent on a single piece of technology like the iPad.

The enhanced productivity of the digital masters in the corporate world (Westerman, et al., 2014) comes from skilfully shaped, expertly led, highly focused, tightly integrated, and evolving digital ecosystems.

Yet in 2015 teachers, principals, governments, technology companies and journals globally perpetuate the myth that one simply has to acquire the latest digital kit and - as if by osmosis - school learning will be enhanced.

Decades of research affirm there is no significant linear connection between the use of digital technologies and enhanced student attainment (Higgins et al., 2012).

It is time to appreciate that the traditional, simplistic way of looking at digital technology's impact on learning has to fundamentally change.

The impact of the digital on student learning can be profound if an apposite school ecosystem is created. However, as indicated in Digital schools – an evolving ecosystem and The importance of BYOT, its creation is challenging and requires that a plethora of critical variables – human and technological – be simultaneously addressed over time.

We need to recognise that the impact of digital technology on student learning is complex, and far more deep-seated than previously thought. It is largely non-linear in nature, and appears to flow in the main from the astutely shaped, evolving, higher order digitally-based school ecosystems that marry the ins and outs of school learning.

That impact is evidenced in those pathfinder schools in the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand and Australia that already are operating on a digital base. In these schools the school community is able to benefit from the normalised use of the digital in the teaching and learning (Lee & Finger, 2010), (Lee & Levins, 2012), (Lee & Ward, 2013), (Lee & Broadie, 2014), (

It is important to note that all of the schools studied were performing above their socioeconomic status and adding value to student learning. That said, all were moreover astutely led and managed, were highly efficient, and had empowered staff that had embraced a culture of change. Staff who weren't afraid to take risks and who make the best use of the openings afforded when the school community has the digital in their hands.

The implications

The implications of the emergence of these digitally-based school ecosystems are many, profound, are often unexpected, and are only now becoming apparent.

That said, there are two areas of flow-on that warrant close immediate consideration.

Research on the impact of the digital technology

The time has come for those in schools, education authorities and tertiary institutions to cease looking for a linear connection between technology and enhanced learning. Instead, they must address the impact of the digital school ecosystem upon each child's learning and try to understand how that impact might be enhanced.

In their 2012 meta-analysis, Higgins and his colleagues at Durham 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).

In researching and writing The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools (Lee and Winzenried, 2009) and examining the claims made and research undertaken on each of the major instructional technologies of the 20th Century, the author found this conclusion consistent with the findings on the impact of all the earlier technologies.

The challenge of analysing and researching unique, tightly integrated, rapidly evolving school ecologies experiencing natural organisational growth is likely to be immense, and will require fundamental rethinking and different methodologies. This is a very different mode of schooling to the traditional insular, loosely coupled, paper-based school characterised by its constancy and continuity.

Where the former could readily conduct a two year longitudinal study, in a digital ecosystem a plethora of variables, not least of which will be the software, are likely to change significantly within months.

Potential opportunities to enhance student learning

A digitally-based school ecosystem, one where all within the school community have in their hands a suite of sophisticated technologies, provides a platform from which educators can potentially harness an array of opportunities that enhance the learning of each child. Those opportunities are explored in depth in Digital Technology and Student Learning.

Suffice to say, the pathfinder schools have already taken advantage of the digital to cultivate opportunities that are simply impossible or impracticable without the digital platform. They have:

  • Markedly strengthened the degree of home-school collaboration;
  • Adopted a 24 hour, seven day a week mode of networked schooling;
  • Used the personal technology to better individualise the teaching;
  • Made the teaching more relevant and attractive to more students;
  • Enhanced teacher efficiency; and
  • Achieved previously impossible synergies.

Importantly, the schools, like businesses (Thorpe, 1998), have also recognised that in this rapidly evolving environment unintended benefits will emerge, benefits that need to be immediately optimised.

To conclude, the digital transformation of schooling and the emergence of evolving digital school ecosystems fundamentally alters the way educators need to address schooling, teaching and learning.


Higgins, S., Xiao, Z., Katsipataki, M. (2012). The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning: A Summary for the Education Endowment Foundation. London: EEF. Retrieved from

Lee, M. (2014). ‘Digital Technology and Student Learning'. Educational Technology Solutions. Retrieved from

Lee, M. and Broadie, R. (2014). A Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages. Broulee Australia. Retrieved from

Thorpe, J. (1998). The Information Paradox: Realising the Benefits of Information Technology. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.

Westerman, G., Bonnett, D. and McAfee, A. (2014). Leading Digital. Turning Technology into Business Transformation. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.