Dr Terry Byers: how different digital devices affect pedagogies, student cognition and learning experiences.


A profound understanding of ‘learning’ (the spiral process and the outcomes) highlights those skills that students need to succeed in the classroom of today and navigate a radically transformed tomorrow. Besides a proficiency in traditional subject areas, students will need to develop an understanding of how they learn and collaborate to be better critical thinkers, problem solvers and more creative.

Over a three-year research project Dr Terry Byers, Director of The Centenary Library and Innovation in Learning at Brisbane’s Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie), sought to test a hypothesis that the affordances of different digital devices affected pedagogies and student cognition and learning experiences. Dr Byers is also a Research Fellow on the 2016-2019 Australian Research Council Linkage Project Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change.

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Longitudinal empirical research revealed that the way in which teachers taught and students learned is impacted heavily by the nature of the device they were able to access. At Churchie it was possible to compare and contrast, through a real-time Linking Pedagogy, Technology and Space (LPTS) observational metric, the way people using a laptop taught and learned when compared to people using a Microsoft Surface 2-in-1.

Dr Byers’ work strongly suggests that investing in new generation computing devices supporting multimodal inputs, namely the intuitive nature of the stylus, delivers the potential for a step change in learning impact- reflecting the current thinking and practices as suggested by the cognitive sciences.

While laptops, and latterly tablets, have made their way into classrooms, this research infers that equipping students with a Microsoft Surface 2-in-1 that blends screen, keyboard and—most critically—a stylus more easily augments and modifies the learning environment. The use of the stylus, like a pen, is more attuned than a keyboard to scaffold effective thinking in a visual schema that better supports the cognitive flow to support problem-solving and foster greater communication and collaboration.

Dr Byers’ research makes clear the impact that well-directed and forward-thinking technology investment can enhance student learning experiences and outcomes across Years 7 to 12.

It suggests that students equipped with current generation Surface devices demonstrated deeper learning than those using keyboard-only devices, who largely operated at the surface level of learning. It has also revealed that, in classes where different generation devices are used, the teacher is forced to revert to the lowest common denominator, which can stall the rollout of active and responsive pedagogy and limit the impact of considerable human and financial investment.

When there is an investment in state-of-the-art devices, complete with a stylus, teachers are free to implement more responsive pedagogies. These pedagogies were more likely, than that observed when a laptop was in use, to scaffold those learning experiences that caused students to intertwine thinking processes (apply, analyse and evaluate) with the new and existing knowledge to deepen their understanding.

Figure 1. The average duration of lesson spent in learning activities using a Laptop (Blue, n = 102) and Microsoft Surface Tablet PC (Grey, n = 104)

Figure 1. The average duration of lesson spent in learning activities using a Laptop (Blue, n = 102) and Microsoft Surface Tablet PC (Grey, n = 104)

The impact is particularly acute in maths and sciences. Dr Byers’ research program reinforces previous investigations indicating that creating more diagrams, symbols and numbers using a stylus/pen interface tapped into the power of ‘Dual Coding’. The intuitive nature of the stylus, mimicking that of a pen, makes it easier for students to combine text and visuals to make learning more concrete, annotate/cue for retrieval, ideate and prompt inferential reasoning that leads to deeper understanding.

According to Dr Byers; “When teachers and students use a Surface device, it is easier to guide students by break downing information into an organised, visual schema that structures the thinking process. By modelling and thinking aloud, we iteratively build their understanding to tackle problems that stimulate germane or higher-order processes but moderate the load on their working memory. This greater incidence of exposure to these learning experiences has been shown to correlate with the enhanced academic performance of students at Churchie.”
Independent research by Dr Sharon Oviatt had previously revealed that when students solved science problems using a digital pen, their ability to write numbers, symbols and diagrams helped increase the number of hypotheses they generated by 35 percent, they solved 24.5 percent more problems correctly. When brainstorming with a digital pen, students came up with 56 percent more ideas than they did with a keyboard.

Churchie’s research also reinforces the teaching impact that investing in state-of-the-art devices can have. In classes forced to use a blend of devices of differing vintages and capabilities, teachers are forced to return to more didactic instruction and passive facilitation, and abandon innovative pedagogy signaling a wasted learning opportunity.
Microsoft’s recently released Transforming Education report provides additional insights into the impact of technology on teaching and learning.

Tips from Dr Terry

  • Investing in state of the art Surface 2-in-1 featuring styluses, for all students and staff, acknowledges current thinking in cognitive science regarding optimal learning outcome using verbal and non-verbal input.
  • Access to multimodal input devices allows teachers to develop responsive pedagogies that leverage that capability to maximum effect.
  • The stylus has been shown conclusively to be a more intuitive learning device than a device featuring keyboard alone.
  • Coupling state-of-the-art devices, equipped with a stylus, and cloud-based productivity platforms such as Office 365 turbocharges education innovation and also allows teachers to efficiently assess student activity and performance and provided feedback in real-time
  • The mix of device interface and different capabilities in the classroom creates a misalignment of digital affordances that inhibits pedagogies and causes them to retreat to the capability of the lowest common denominator device; also slows curriculum innovation and learning impact.
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