Summary of results
This study shows that there is little high-quality evidence that the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in teaching literacy is effective. Therefore, it calls for a large and rigorously designed randomised trial to be conducted before more resources are spent on ICT equipment and training in the field of literacy learning.
What is the evidence for the effectiveness of ICT on literacy learning in English amongst 5-16 year-olds, or, more simply, is there evidence that 'proves' that the use of ICT in teaching literacy is effective, that is, improves learning?
School governors are expected to ensure that students in their schools have the best learning opportunities possible. Literacy is one of the key areas targeted by the Government for improvement, and schools are under enormous pressure to attain, and maintain, high test results. A great deal of money has been spent, much of it on IT equipment accompanied by the development of software and training for teachers, on the assumption that using ICT is an effective way of achieving good results.
Researchers, led by Professor Richard Andrews and Carole Torgerson at the University of York, have conducted a systematic review of research into the impact of ICT on reading and writing. Systematic reviewing involves a rigorous methodology for identifying, analysing and summarising research studies so as to provide a state-of-the-art, unbiased overview of current knowledge on a particular topic. UK health service professionals undertake systematic reviews of research worldwide to inform National Health Service (NHS) clinical practice and guidance in many areas, such as prescribing drugs. The education review work is funded by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI Centre).
Much of this paper is devoted to a detailed description of the research methodology by which the team, starting with 2,319 'potentially relevant reports', narrowed down to a final 12. Most governors will find this section mind-numbing and off-putting, but this reviewer suspects it is there to assure other researchers that no stone was left unturned to assure methodological rigour.
Governors may be surprised by the results of this study which are: there is little high-quality evidence that the use of ICT has a positive effect on literacy learning; indeed, there is a chance that the effect may be negative. The authors were concerned that they might have missed some studies, but feared that those as yet unpublished were more apt to be negative than positive. Given that there is no 'proof'of the benefit of using ICT, they call urgently for a large, rigorously designed randomised trial on this subject.
While school governors look to their headteacher for leadership in educational decisions, they are expected more and more to be in a position both to challenge and demand evidence for the educational effectiveness of the direction in which their school is going. Reviews such as this one and others in the overall project begin to address the need for objective, inclusive information on a range of issues that often translate, at school level, into funding choices. One of the 'givens' in today's world is that ICT is absolutely necessary for all aspects of learning. Consequently, a great deal of money is spent on computers, software and teacher time. It would be gratifying to be certain that this is the best use of school budgets.
It is to be hoped that this kind of research will lead to everyone at school level, including governors, proactively asking researchers to focus on matters of practical interest. It is disappointing that so few of the studies already done were of high quality in relation to the question asked. Given the massive investment of time and resources in ICT in schools, and the need for evidence-based education, it would be good to think that the future will bring improvement in this regard.
The parent governor is Chair of Governors at a York secondary school and a member of the Advisory Group for the Review. This perspective is written in a personal capacity.