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The impact of digital tools on student achievement

The surprising impact of digital tools on student achievement

5 min read
  • Phones, AI & technology

Technology has become a fundamental part of 21st century education, with 95% of teachers reporting that they regularly use online and digital tools in their classroom. Numerous studies have highlighted the benefits of incorporating technology into classroom practice, which include:

  • Encouraging collaboration between teachers, students and parents
  • Developing an essential life skill
  • Expanding educational resources and opportunities for teacher development
  • Improving engagement and memory recall

However, recent information from Visible Learning raises the question of how beneficial technology is when it comes to improving student achievement. Let’s take a closer look at the findings…

What is effect size?

In research, the effect size is a statistical test used to measure the strength of a relationship between two variables. The effect size can be any number between 0 and 1; the closer the effect size is to 1, the stronger the relationship between the two variables is.

In essence, the effect size tells us how much of an impact one variable has on another variable.

What does the research say?

Visible Learning analysed the research findings from 9 meta-analyses that looked at a combination of 344 studies and 67,226 students to determine how beneficial using online and digital tools were on improving student achievement. The findings are summarised below…

Online learning

The researchers analysed the findings of 52 studies. They found that students who studied in either blended learning or purely online learning environments performed better academically than students who were in traditional face-to-face teaching environments.

However, this effect size was quite small (0.24) and most studies were made up of either university or mature students. The five studies that looked at primary and secondary school students found that the impact of online learning on student achievement was not that different from traditional classroom instruction.

Use of ebooks

Research from seven studies using 401 primary school students looked at whether using ebooks in the classroom improved students’ reading comprehension and writing proficiency skills. This is because ebook features, such as being able to highlight sentences as they’re being read or clicking on words for their pronunciation, make it easier for the students to follow along and recognise words. The researchers concluded that utilising ebooks in the classroom had a positive effect on literacy skills with an effect size of 0.41. 

Effectiveness of pedagogical agents

Pedagogical agents can be defined as onscreen characters that help guide students through the lesson content. The meta-analysis analysed the effectiveness of pedagogical agents using research from 43 studies and 3088 students. The results showed that pedagogical agents had a small but significant positive effect on learning, with an effect size of 0.19. The key findings:

  • Pedagogical agents were more beneficial in learning for primary school and secondary school students compared to students in higher education.
  • Learning was more positively impacted when the pedagogical agent communicated through onscreen text that the student could follow compared to using narration.

Hypertext glosses and language acquisition

Let’s first define what hypertext glosses actually are. ‘Glosses’ can be defined as the translation or definition of unfamiliar words in a body of text. ‘Hypertext’ is when a word or sentence has a hyperlink to another page or a new document. So ‘hypertext glosses’ can be defined as definitions of unfamiliar words that include hyperlinks to other helpful documents that can further develop understanding.

So what did the meta-analysis find? Analysing the results from 10 studies and 866 students, the researchers found that using hypertext glosses to improve language acquisition had a positive effect on student achievement in their language lessons, with an effect size of 0.31.

Educational technology and reading achievement

Educational technology (ED) relates to any source of technology that encourages collaboration between students and creates an active learning environment. This could be through using things like interactive whiteboards or computer programs to teach material.

The researchers looked at the findings of 85 different studies on 60,721 primary and secondary school children to see the impact of educational technology on reaching achievement. The researchers found that using ED had a positive, but small effect (0.16) on students’ reading achievement compared to more traditional teaching methods

Using digital tools

Looking at the research from 20 different studies, the researchers found that using digital tools such as online storybooks and literacy acquisition websites has a positive effect (0.49) on students’ reading comprehension abilities. The researchers also highlighted the growing importance of students gaining computer literacy skills due to the digital world we live in today.

Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

Online discussion strategies

Online discussions are defined as either text-based interaction with peers or face-to-face discussions via online platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. As these online discussions are expected to reflect the same conditions as traditional face-to-face classroom discussions, researchers examined their effectiveness in online classes.

The findings from 72 studies showed that utilising strategic discussions had a small positive effect on student achievement, with an effect size of 0.23. However, the results were more prominent for college students than high school students.

Digital textbooks

A growing number of studies have suggested that using digital textbooks can improve student motivation and learning outcomes due to their portability, accessibility and interactive features such as hypertext.

The current meta-analyses explored this relationship further by analysing 26 studies that looked at the learning outcomes of South Korean students and found a moderate positive effect size of 0.34. The researchers believed that using digital textbooks greatly improved student motivation and engagement which, in turn, contributed to improved academic achievement.

Pedagogical agents

Pedagogical agents or “computer characters” are a great way of reducing student boredom whilst learning so they can effectively engage with the task. The researchers looked at 2150 students studying in Singapore across 30 different studies to see whether interactions with these characters improved learning outcomes. With a large effect size of 0.61, using pedagogical agents in computer learning programs:

  • Improved student motivation.
  • Improved students’ knowledge retention, but to a smaller extent.
  • Increased the likelihood of memory being transferred to the long-term memory store.


Despite the meta-analyses highlighting the benefit of online and digital tools on student achievement, we need to take their findings with a pinch of salt. Especially so since the overall effect size of this research was 0.33. Using Visible Learning’s own chart, this effect size indicates that although online and digital tools had a positive effect, the difference with traditional face-to-face classroom instruction was trivial.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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