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How does digital technology support learning?

Diana Laurillard explains how six learning types can help teachers create online learning experiences.
Everyone who teaches wants their students to have a good experience of learning because that’s what drives their future learning. In this video we look at what it takes to learn in the context of formal education and then we can think about how to make that happen. The Conversational Framework is intended to help teachers think about teaching and learning from the student’s point of view. Basically it’s a distillation of the main educational literature on the key findings and principles about learning. This is the full framework. It’s complex but it has to be. The process of teaching and learning is a highly complex activity. And this diagram is about as simple as it could possibly be.
It starts with the learner of the center. Learning is an activity. That develops both concepts and practices. It’s what we will do throughout life. We develop a concept which generates an action. Feedback on that action then modifies the concept. To generate a better action. It then gets better feedback. And so concept and practice each assist the other to develop over time. But that fundamental process of developing and integrating concepts and practices is what we try to use for learning in formal education. So here the learner can get help from the teacher on the one hand and from other learners on the other hand. At the upper level of the framework, teacher and learner communicate about concepts.
And learners do the same with each other. And every interaction is an opportunity for concepts to develop. At the lower level teachers and students model and share their practice through actions and feedback in a special learning environment. And again all those interactions are an opportunity for practices to develop. If the learning environment is quite challenging then to get the best feedback the learner has to integrate concepts and practices. And that’s when the learning process really begins to benefit the learner for the long term. And with that framework in mind we can identify some recognizable learning activities which together cover all of it.
If the learner is listening to the teacher or watching a video or demo or reading a book or a website that’s learning through acquisition. It’s very common in education. It creates the opportunity for the learner to develop concepts but it doesn’t require them to do anything. All the other types of learning activity do. If the learner is going to the teacher or the library or the internet to find out something that’s learning through inquiry. It’s a different way of reading a book - more under the control of the learner and they have to come up with a question, evaluate what comes back, search again. It’s a more active learning process, enabling that conceptual process to keep developing.
If the learner is asking questions of other learners or answering their questions exchanging ideas challenging each other’s arguments that’s learning through discussion. Listening and responding , articulating and arguing - they’re all opportunities for the concept to develop. And if the teacher sets up a learning environment with a task goal the learner then has to generate an action , interpret the feedback and maybe think about relevant concept and try again to get nearer the goal. This is learning through practice. And suppose you’ve got the students working together on a project , where they have to produce a shared output maybe a diagram or a definition or design report. This is learning through collaboration. It’s different from discussion.
Having to produce a shared output means they have to negotiate their ideas and practice until they agree. So in the process they’re challenging each other and providing peer feedback to develop the best output they can. Even more opportunities for integrating and developing concepts in practice. And finally when students are producing something for the teacher to evaluate, that’s learning through production. Again it may be a plan or a website or a performance theory and analysis but having to produce a public presentation of what they’ve learned is as important as getting feedback from the teacher. Many opportunities for integrating and developing concepts and practice.
Together all six types of learning activity cover most of what you’re ever likely to ask of students and together they cover the whole Conversational Framework. So to summarize, the best possible learning experience comes from using all those types of interaction. A rich mix of learning activities is likely to be the most effective.

This video presents a framework to show what it takes to learn in formal education. It is called The Conversational Framework, and it is based on a synthesis of different theories of learning.

It shows how all our conventional teaching and learning methods can be related to one or more of six types of learning:

  • Acquisition;
  • Inquiry;
  • Discussion;
  • Practice;
  • Collaboration;
  • Production.

There are implications here for how we teach. The best possible learning environment will use all six learning types – if you are using them in your teaching, then you know you have covered the Conversational Framework. That is, you have created the conditions necessary for learning to take place.

That’s about as much as we can do as teachers. And thinking about teaching this way takes the emphasis off what the teacher does in the classroom and instead focuses on what the teacher puts in place for learners to experience.

It also helps us think about how to use digital methods. We need to find digital tools that enhance each of the learning types.

The most important reason for using digital methods is to improve the learning experience. So it’s essential to begin by thinking about the most serious problems or challenges we have as teachers and then ask how technology might help.

We can begin with the learning need, and then find out which technology can help. Can we use technology to enable learners to find their own voice, to feel self-confident, to be able to think critically, to be creative, to be able to learn from and with their peers?

For example, independent learning is so important at all ages because the teacher cannot be with their learners all the time. So if this is the experience we want to design for our learners then we need to look for technologies that can serve this goal.


On this Learning Types and Learning Technologies Padlet, you will find 6 columns for each of the 6 learning types. Add a post underneath each learning type with your suggestion for a digital tool that could support that type of learning – you might need to scroll across to find all 6 types!

If you are mentioning specific tools, why not add a link to them too, so other people can investigate? On Padlet, you can create a thumbnail image of a website by clicking on the link icon at the bottom of your post and pasting the url into the box that appears. Then explain why the tool is good for that type of learning.

If you are already using a tool someone else has suggested, rate your experience of the tool by clicking on the stars (1 star = poor, 5 stars = very good) and reply to the post and tell us a bit about your experience with it.

If you can’t think of a digital support, add a conventional technology – this helps us see some of the parallels between old and new technologies for education.

Over to you

Look at others’ suggestions on Padlet.

  • Did you see any suggestions you think you could use? You might want to expand on your own use of these tools, and share any tips for using them.

  • Are there other digital tools you know of that you cannot fit to a learning type? You can also make these suggestions here.

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