Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen

Diet pills and digital learning


Many claims are made for the benefits of using digital technologies in education. For example, a recent post on the JISC blog (Crawford-Thomas and Bloxham 2015) argues that “The learning experience needs to be compelling and engaging to capture and keep learners’ attention, and using technology can actually be one of the most effective ways of doing this.”   Conole, in 2008, compared digital ‘fast learning’ to ‘fast food’ but enthusiastic endorsements of technology are more similar to advertisements for diet pills and slimming aids where the small print says “May aid weight loss when used with a calorie controlled diet and regular exercise”.

Research into digital technologies for learning is often based on short-term interventions. For example, from the ‘online first’ section of the Journal of Computer-Assisted Learning (JCAL) there is a paper by Labus et al (in press) reporting on an intervention to embed a social game into an e-learning environment (Moodle). This was a quasi-experimental study in which two groups of students worked with resources and activities in Moodle. One group was given the game, which included learning and formative assessment activities, whilst the other group had no additional resources. At the end of the intervention, which lasted for one semester, both groups of students were given an assessment and the intervention group was also given a questionnaire to explore satisfaction with the game. The study found that students in the intervention group scored higher marks on the assessment and thought that the game was interesting and motivating.

Another JCAL online first paper, Mo et al (in press) attempts to address the ‘short-term intervention’ problem with a study in which the experimental group was given supplementary digital tutoring for a year and a half. The study found that the students continued to find the digital materials and activities engaging and that, on tests, they scored more highly than students in the control group. The authors claim that this study shows that improvements in motivation and learning persist even once the novelty of using digital tools has worn off.

The two examples above have been chosen simply because they are in the online first section of a well-regarded journal. They illustrate two of the major problems with research in the field of ‘digital learning’. The first is problem of short-term studies. Although Mo et al specifically wanted to look at persistence, 18 months is still relatively short-term. In that time, students may become accustomed to using the digital program but they are aware that it is still not part of the everyday educational experience. The second problem is that in both cases the treatment group was given additional resources whilst the control group was not. This is similar to giving one group of people diet pills whilst giving nothing to the control group. An effective trial of diet pills would give the real medicine to half of the participants whilst giving dummy pills to the other half (ideally, a random double-blind trial). Double-blind research is not possible in education but if one group of learners is given additional materials, activities or tuition then the other group needs to be given something similar otherwise the only valid conclusion is that supplementary resources enhance learning.

Claims that digital tools enhance learning need to be examined as carefully as miracle diet claims. For example, Crawford-Thomas and Bloxham (2015) claim that digital gamification will create “lessons that actually maintain attention, aid retention and improve performance over the long-term”. However, they link to a JISC article which points out that gamification may reduce motivation and have an adverse effect on work quality (JISC 2014). Studies such as Labus et al are similar to crash diets in that it is easy to see an effect in the short-term which may not necessarily be sustainable in the longer term. Learning gains may not persist and there might even be a detrimental impact on, for example, motivation. Even a slightly longer study (or diet) does not necessarily demonstrate that the effects are sustainable and will lead to long term learning gains (or weight loss).

The central point of Conole’s 2008 paper (and many others, both before and since) was that digital tools and resources must be embedded in pedagogy in order to achieve long-term change. Long-term weight loss requires lifestyle change that includes both exercise and healthy diet but the changes need to be made in a way that fits the individual and her/his context. Similarly, effective use of digital technologies requires them to be used within a pedagogic approach that fits the learners, the domain and the context. Digital tools for learning need to come with the small print: “May aid learning when used with a well thought-through approach to learning and teaching”.


Conole, G. (2008) “New Schemas for Mapping Pedagogies and Technologies” Ariadne Issue 56 (accessed 7th July 2015)

Crawford-Thomas, A. and Bloxham, J. (2015) “Five Reasons Why You Should Go Digital”

JISC (2014) ‘Gamification’ in Crowdsourcing – the wiki way of working (accessed 7th July 2015)

Labus, M. Despotović-Zrakić, B. Radenković, Z. Bogdanović and M. Radenković (in press) “Enhancing formal e-learning with edutainment on social networks” Journal of Computer- Assisted Learning. Article first published online: 29 JUN 2015 | DOI: 10.1111/jcal.12108

Mo, L. Zhang, J. Wang, W. Huang, Y. Shi, M. Boswell and S. Rozelle (in press) “Persistence of learning gains from computer assisted learning: Experimental evidence from China” Journal of Computer- Assisted Learning Article first published online: 4 JUN 2015 | DOI: 10.1111/jcal.12106

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