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Department of Education

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Millions of families around the world are using digital technologies to support children’s learning, but are these technologies as educational as they claim to be? How could they be improved? A new research hub launched by the Department’s Learning for Families through Technology (LiFT) project aims to answer these questions.

The Digital Play Family Research Hub invites families with 2-7 year-old children to take part in innovative research to test and develop new educational apps.

The first opportunity to get involved is already up and running. Families with 3-5 year-old children are invited to help researchers design and develop a new drawing app for adults and children to use together to encourage creativity.

Sandra Mathers, Co-Investigator of the LiFT project, said: “It’s important to include the voices of families and children in our project to ensure that our research is relevant and informed by real life experiences. Families can also advise us on the best ways to communicate our research findings. We would love for as many families to take part as possible!”

If you would like to get involved or keep up to date with all the latest news from the hub, sign up on the LiFT Project website.

Abdul Karim has completed a Bachelor of Science in Bioengineering and Computational Medicine (Imperial College London), a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (Queen Mary University of London), and Master of Science in the Philosophy of Science and Economics (The London School of Economics).

He has delivered lectures on the Philosophy of Human Nature and the History of Metaethics at the University of Cambridge and for Health Education East Midlands. This, in addition to the current positions he holds as a Hospital Doctor and Health Policy and Management Advisor at the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.

Abdul Karim’s current areas of interest include the biological definition of psychological states relevant to the learning environment, and the influence of language on the variable interpretation of a particular social context. For the latter of which he has published primary research.

Another is the appraisal and deployment of physiological measurement devices in learning environments as a means of quantitatively evaluating psychological states. Such research areas hold promise in enhancing the questionnaire-based evidences of contemporary theories in education, such as those regarding motivation, self-determination and engagement. This will to contribute to the evidence-based public policy optimisation in education and social care.



Ismail, A.K. 2017. A Cross Sectional Study to Explore the Effect of the Linguistic Origin and Evolution of a Language on Patient Interpretation of Haematological Cancers. Advances in Biological Research. 11 (4): 225-232.

Ismail, A.K. 2017. The Origin of the Arabic Medical Term for Cancer. Advances in Biological Research. 11 (4): 198-201.

Ismail, A.K. 2018. The Impact of da Vinci’s Anatomical Drawings and Calculations on Foundation of Orthopaedics. Advances in Biological Research. 12 (1): 26-30.

Renyu completed her BA degree in Psychology at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) and her MPhil degree in Education at University of Cambridge.

During her MPhil study, she worked with children aged 4 to 6 years to investigate the relationship between bilingualism, vocabulary size, and inhibitory control, and also to validate a novel app designed to assess early language development. For her Dphil study at Oxford, Renyu aims to explore the factors that might affect L2 pronunciation learning in young children and the interaction between children’s L1 and L2. She is particularly interested in the psychological factors that might influence a child’s L2 pronunciation.

Prior to studying at Oxford, Renyu worked as Research Assistant at the Assessment Research Group at British Council for one year and a half. She was involved in various projects, including gap analysis on reading demand and reading ability, participant feedback questionnaire design and analysis, design and recruitment for a new EAP task study, etc.

Abbey is a Probationary Research Student in the Department of Education, in collaboration with the Department of Engineering.

Before joining the DPhil program, Abbey obtained a B.A. in Applied Linguistics with minors in Russian and Chinese from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MSc in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition from the University of Oxford. She was the recipient of a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship through U.S. Department of State for study in Russia and was awarded two Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships for study in both Russia and China. She holds both TESOL and TEFL certificates and has taught English as a Second Language in various contexts to a wide variety of learner populations.

Abbey’s main research interests lie in the use of technology to facilitate language learning. Her DPhil research focuses on the development of a virtual reality program to bridge the gaps that students face when learning languages through distance learning.

Laura is researching the potential of digital games as an informal immersive language environment. Predominantly, she is interested in the language used in online cooperative games and how learners can improve their speaking fluency through gameplay. She wants to adopt an exploratory approach in order to analyse game language as well as observe gaming and track language developments over time.

Laura holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Latin and a Master of Education from Bielefeld University in Germany. She completed her PGCE at Oxford University in 2016 and subsequently taught German, French and Latin at schools in London and Switzerland. She has also gained teaching experience in Zambia and China, and taught adult refugees in Germany. In her Master’s project, she explored language development through films with or without subtitles. She is committed to finding new ways to learn languages with digital media and technology.



The Open University has a 50-year history of designing and evaluating innovative technologies for learning at scale.

New open learning platforms and MOOCs can offer courses to thousands of learners. How to design effective learning at large scale? Recently, the OU has adopted an approach of pedagogy-informed design.

In this seminar, Mike will describe this approach to agile software design and give two case studies: Learning as Conversation as a foundation for the FutureLearn platform, and Citizen Inquiry to inform design of the nQuire project as a partnership between the OU and the BBC.

About the speaker

Mike Sharples is Emeritus Professor of Educational Technology in the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University, UK and Honorary Visiting Professor at the Centre for Innovation in Higher Education, Anglia Ruskin University. His research involves human-centred design of new technologies and environments for learning. He inaugurated the mLearn conference series and was Founding President of the International Association for Mobile Learning. He founded the Innovating Pedagogy report series and is author of over 300 papers in the areas of educational technology, science education, human-centred design of personal technologies, artificial intelligence and cognitive science.


This seminar will be of interest to educational technologists, online learning designers, software designers, and education policymakers.

By Dr Rebecca Eynon (Associate Professor between the Department of Education and the Oxford Internet Institute) & Professor Jo-Anne Baird (Director of the Department of Education)

Now that the infamous Ofqual algorithm for deciding the high-stake exam results for hundreds of thousands of students has been resoundingly rejected, the focus turns to the importance of investigating what went wrong. Indeed, the office for statistics regulation has already committed to a review of the models used for exam adjustment within well specified terms, and other reviews are likely to follow shortly.

A central focus from now, as students, their families, educational institutions and workplaces try to work out next steps, is to interrogate the unspoken and implicit values that guided the creation, use and implementation of this particular statistical model.

As part of the avalanche of critique aimed at Ofqual and the government, the question of values come in to play. Why, many have asked, was Ofqual tasked, as they are every year, with avoiding grade inflation as their overarching objective? Checks were made on the inequalities in the model and they were consistent with the inequalities seen in examinations at a national level.  This, though, begs the question of why these inequalities are accepted in a normal year.

These and other important arguments raised over the past week or so highlight questions about values. Specifically, they raise the fundamental question of why, aside from the debates in academia and some parts of the press, we have stopped discussing the purposes of education. Instead, a meritocratic view of education, promoted since the 1980s by governments on the right and left of the spectrum has become a given. In place of discussions about values, there has been an ever increasing focus on the collection and use of data to hold schools accountable for ‘delivering’ an efficient and effective education, to measure student’s ‘worth’ in ways that can easily be traded in the economy, and to water down ideas of social justice and draw attention away from wider inequalities in society.

Once debates about values are removed from our education and assessment systems, we are left with situations like the one now. The focus on creating a model that makes the data look like past years – with little debate over whether the aims should have been different this year is a central example of this. Given the significant (and unequal) challenges young people have faced during this year, should we not, as a society have wanted to reduce inequalities in our society in any way possible?

The question of values also carries through into other discussions of the datafication of education, where the collection and analysis of digital trace data, i.e. data collected from the technologies that young people engage with for learning and education, is growing exponentially. Yet unlike other areas of the public sector like health and policing, schools rarely have a central feature in policy discussions and reports of algorithmic fairness. The question is why?  There are highly significant ethical and social implications of extensive data use in education that significantly shape young people’s futures. These include issues of privacy, informed consent and data ownership (particularly due to the significant role of the commercial sector); the validity and integrity of the models produced; the nature of the decisions promoted by such systems; and questions of governance and accountability. This relative lack of policy interest in the implications of datafication for schooling is, we suggest, because governments take for granted the need for data of all kinds in education to support their meritocratic aims, and indeed see it as a central way to make education ‘fair’.

The Ofqual algorithm has brought to our attention the ethics of the datafication of education and the risk that poses of compounding social inequalities. Every year there is not only injustice from the unequal starting points and the unequal opportunities young people have within our schools and in their everyday lives, but there is also injustice in the pretence that extensive use of data is somehow a neutral process.

In the important reflections and investigations that should now take place over the coming weeks and months there needs to be a review that explicitly places values and ethical frameworks front and centre, that encourages a focus on the purposes of education, particularly in times of a (post-) pandemic.

By Imogen Casebourne (Research Student, Learning and New Technologies Research Group, Department of Education)

Over the course of my studies I have been thinking about mobility and place in the context of learning for work. Recent events have thrown some of the issues I have been considering into sharp relief.

Suddenly mobility has been hugely restricted for many, but not for those whose movements between places of work, or whose movement from home to a specific workplace are essential for society to function (even if at risk to themselves). Others who can only work in a specific location, but whose work is not regarded as essential at this time find themselves unable to work at all. Finally there is another group, who may typically travel to a place of work but in theory at least are able to work from home. For this third group of individuals place is, in theory, not especially relevant to their work, which, again in theory can be done anywhere.

But as this third group of people suddenly found themselves confined to their homes, it became very apparent that a formal function of place is to exclude some activities in order to enable others. For example, most workplaces, as well as most places of formal study, such as lecture theatres and University libraries, typically exclude young children, so that activities related to caring for children must happen elsewhere. Today, many individuals attempting to work from home also find themselves attempting to teach and care for their children in their home at the same time.

While the occasional intrusion of children into an apparently non-appropriate workplace context can be charming, as with the BBC commentator who was suddenly joined by his children while live on air, the reality is that households and homes are unequal places. Obviously homes may be more or less well equipped with technology that enables communication with others, which is a problem in itself, but they are also different sizes and shared with more or fewer people. This means that they afford very different opportunities to distance oneself from other activities and other people in the home in order to concentrate on work or learning. Finally, roles within households may be gendered and there are concerns that evidence from previous pandemics suggests that a prolonged period of lack of access to public spaces set aside for work or study during a pandemic may lead deepening gender inequity. For example, there appears to be anecdotal evidence that during the pandemic publication rates may have decreased for female academics.

These types of concern were quickly raised by students and other commentators. For example, final year students asking for the choice not to take exams online, on the grounds that not all students would have access to a quiet environment in which to do so.

Learning technologies have obviously been hugely important in enabling learning to continue through this crisis, and things might have been much more difficult without them. In the first weeks of the lockdown I was invited to online meditation classes and realised that I could take a virtual tour of many of the world’s great museums or national parks. Meanwhile friends started learning languages, taking music classes and educating their children with the help of online resources such as Khan Academy, and for the past weeks, I have taken part in daily live virtual exercise classes.

However, learning technologies cannot by themselves eradicate existing inequalities of access to place or availability of discretionary time, while unequal access to devices and unequal quality of connection may introduce other inequalities. For example, a German study suggested that individuals whose poor bandwidth had the effect of slowing their speech as it was heard by other online participants, might be perceived as mentally slower by those other participants. Perhaps with these types of issue in mind, some commentators on equality have added the term ‘situational impairment’ to their lexicon.

Today in the UK there has been a heated debate about when children should return to school, and alongside all important considerations about the safety of all involved, concerns about the potential disadvantages of online learning for some are rightly a part of that debate. If were to turn out that a return to the previous practices associated with learning at educational institutions remains unsafe for some time to come, a broader debate may be needed about other ways in which current inequalities might be addressed.

Meanwhile, for workers in the UK who are unable to go to work at present and have therefore been furloughed, one of the few work related activities that is currently permitted while furloughed is work related learning. Presumably, that would be demanding for those who are also home schooling, but it is notable that there has so far been relatively little coverage or debate about what, if any, work related learning activities this group may be undertaking and what their experiences have been.


BBC Commentator interrupted by his children

Online learning resources mentioned in this blog

Example virtual exercise classes, there are many more

The Khan academy

Live mindfulness sessions

Online tours

Online language learning

General resources

Related studies into work, learning and mobility

Bekerman, Z., Burbules, N., & Silberman-Keller, D. (2006). Learning in Places: The Informal Education Reader. Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Billett, S. (2013). Mimetic Learning in Circumstances of Professional Practice. In Technology-Enhanced Professional Learning: Processes, Practices, and Tools (pp. 85–96).

Cohen, R. L. (2010). Rethinking “mobile work”: Boundaries of space, time and social relation in the working lives of mobile hairstylists. Work, Employment and Society, 24(1), 65–84.

Jamieson, P., Fisher, K., Gilding, T., Taylor, P. G., & Trevitt, a C. F. (2000). Place and Space in the Design of New Learning Environments. Higher Education Research & Development, 19(2), 223–235.

McNeill, B. (2014). Time and the Working Online Learner. In Barbera, E., & Reimann, P. (Eds.) Assessment and Evaluation of Time Factors in Online Learning and Teaching (pp. 24–62). IGI Global.

Schoenenberg, K., Raake, A., Koeppe, J. (2014) Why are you so slow? – Misattribution of transmission delay to attributes of the conversation partner at the far-end. In International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (pp. 477-487).

Sharples, M. (2019). Seamless learning: Continue learning across locations, technologies and activities. In Practical Pedagogy 40 new ways to teach and learn (pp. 54–58). Routledge.

Wacjman, J. (2016). Pressed for Time THE ACCELERATION OF LIFE IN DIGITAL CAPITALISM. University of Chicago Press.

A selection of articles and blogs written in response to changes in working and learning caused by the pandemic

Pandemics and PHDs