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Engagement vs Enhancement

There was a report released in the UK in 2009 by the Department for Children, Schools and Families about the effective use of ICT in UK Primary schools. It's worth a read, but one aspect jumped out at me in particular. 

They noted (p10) that: 

In almost all cases the pupils were clearly motivated and stimulated by the ICT approach they were demonstrating.

That's great - though notice that they said "almost all". Sometimes the use of ICT was merely a distraction, but in almost all cases they were motivated and stimulated.

The really interesting thing to note is that the authors went on to say: 

In some cases the use of ICT achieved high levels of engagement but little beyond that; the learning objectives were achieved but the use of ICT, in itself, did not lead to deeper learning.

Why? Was there any pattern or reason for this? 

The distinction between ‘engagement’ and ‘enhancement’ activities was often partly a consequence of the type of ICT resource being used... However, what was more important was how the ICT resource was being employed by the teacher. The link with pedagogy was very strong.

So, for example, software which on the face of it had very limited potential for enhancing learning was sometimes used by a teacher to create a very rich learning experience for the pupils.”

The authors went on to list some examples of activities that merely engaged the students, and activities that enhanced their learning. 

Activities that engaged students but didn't significantly enhance their learning

  • "games, puzzles and activities... to practise skills in calculating, estimating and problem solving"
  • "the use of revision websites... to practise skills and reinforce knowledge and understanding"
  • "the use of onscreen tools... to provide demonstrations"

Does that mean we shouldn't do these things? Of course not! I want my students to be engaged. But if that's all we're using ICT for, we're missing an important opportunity.

Activities that enhanced the students' learning

(copied directly from the document - check out the original)

  • The use of spreadsheets to record data and produce graphs and charts to discuss and interpret.
  • The use of spreadsheets to investigate a problem given in context, e.g. the cost and amount of card needed to make Christmas gift boxes of different sizes.
  • The use of simple formulae within spreadsheets to perform calculations.
  • The use of simulations, including adventure games, to introduce investigations, explore patterns and generalisations and solve problems.
  • The use of film to focus and address misconceptions and to promote discussion and articulation of methods.
  • The use of dynamic geometry software to demonstrate and visualise aspects of shape and space, e.g. reflections and translations, nets and 3D shapes.
  • The use of onscreen turtles/Logo to produce shapes and explore their properties.
​Notice that these have common themes - they involve students creating, reflecting, discussing, finding patterns, manipulating, investigating, exploring... all the higher-order thinking activities that we already know are effective for enhancing learning, and for developing students' conceptual understanding. 

So what? 

Engaging students is worthwhile - and the report found that engagement is almost automatic with the use of ICT.
But enhancing learning is better.