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A systematic review of the impact of networked ICT on 5-16 year olds' literacy in English. Policy-maker perspective

The question that the review set out to address

This review focuses on the impact of networked ICT (the Internet and email) on literacy learning in the English language for 5-16 year olds.

This topic is particularly significant for education policy in England. A computer-literate teaching profession needs to know about the impact of ICT on literacy learning in order to encourage the best use of resources in the raising of literacy standards. Policy-makers need to know the results of this research in order to shape future policy with regard to ICT in the curriculum.

The Government in England has invested a large amount of money in recent years to provide schools with computers and connections to the Internet. Questions remain as to what impact ICT has on schooling and in particular, on literacy learning. The focus of the review is on the impact of networked technologies on literacy learning.

How the review group went about it

The English Review Group is one of the review groups set up by the EPPI Centre. It investigated the impact of ICT on literacy learning by systematically reviewing an international range of research studies dating from 1990 to the present. The Review Group consists of parent governors, teachers, parents and policy-makers as well as researchers.

The Group started its work with the definition of key terms in the study: 'ICT', 'literacy' and 'impact'. For the purposes of this review the focus was on networked ICT and literacy. Literacy was defined broadly as understanding and creating written language, including graphical or pictorial representation and social or cultural representations. Impact was defined as the result on end users (here children between 5 and 16) of an intervention aimed at improving the learning of literacy, or the result of a non-intervention activity which could reasonably be expected to increase or decrease literacy.

A plan was written which set out the criteria for the systematic literature review. Searches were made of the international literature, both electronically and 'by hand', exploring a wide range of journals, reports, books and other formats. From these searches, 188 studies were selected on the basis of the criteria identified in the plan.

Most of these studies were carried out in the USA, though a significant minority arose from research in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Sixty per cent related to primary schooling and 40% to secondary schooling. About two-thirds of the papers assume that literacy development is an individual matter concerned with writing and reading processes (a psychological approach), with a third assuming that literacy development is a matter of the academic and social communities in which you learn (a sociological approach). Over half, 55%, are focused on writing, graphical or pictorial production, and 45% on reading.

Of the 188 studies identified, 16 related to the impact of networked ICT on literacy learning. Data were extracted from these 16 studies and provided the basis for the in-depth review. Half of the 16 studies were outcome evaluations (evaluations of the results of an experiment or innovation) and half were process evaluations (evaluations of the processes involved in development or implementing interventions) or other types of study.

Review conclusions

Findings from studies on the impact of networked ICT on literacy learning are suggestive rather than authoritative:

  • Five studies suggest increased motivation and/or confidence in pupils as a result of ICT use in literacy development;
  • One study sees empowerment and ownership as an important factor to bear in mind in an increasingly diverse digital world;
  • More attention needs to be given to ways in which ICT is used in the classroom in support of teaching;
  • Teachers need to take more account of the ways in which young people work at home on computers;
  • ICT needs to be seen as one tool among many for the improvement and support of literacy learning.

Weaknesses of the review

  • In general, these studies assume that a positive impact is made on literacy development by networked ICT, and explore how that impact is made; in most of the studies, the conception of literacy is narrow, based on pre-digital notions of reading and writing;
  • An analysis of the weight of the evidence suggests that there should not be much confidence in the results of these studies in terms of addressing the question of impact;
  • Although a large number of studies was identified initially, not many were relevant to the focus on networked ICT. Of these, the quality was not high overall.

Strengths of the review

  • The processes are transparent;
  • The review took a broad approach both in terms of the topic and the type of study included;
  • The approach taken was systematic;
  • The outcome is in an accountable, authoritative attempt to answer the main research question.

Recommendations for research

  • Large-scale studies are needed, including randomised controlled trials that can assess impact. Small pilot trials should be undertaken to evaluate other uses for networked technologies with a view to informing the design of larger trials;
  • A large-scale longitudinal study is needed focused on literacy development, to complement the work undertaken by the ImpaCT2 project;
  • The maintaining of a range of study types is suggested in order to build a fuller and sharper picture of the interface between ICT and literacy development;
  • More needs to be done to integrate the findings from quantitative and qualitative research in ICT and literacy.
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