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Impact case study

The Impact of Digital Technologies on Learning and Behaviour

Unit(s) of assessment: Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

School: School of Social Sciences


Professor Jean Underwood is an established expert on the impact of digital technologies on behaviour in schools generally and on learning in particular. Professor Underwood and her team's research has impacted on policy and practice by:

  • investigating the impact of digital technologies on user behaviours (with a focus on learners) to provide policymakers with robust evidence of the effective use of technology
  • acting as a change agent within a key government-funded organisation, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta)
  • developing tools to capture the complexity of organisations at various stages of technology innovation
  • contributing to the development of a self-assessment tool to improve professional training and practice
  • contributing to national guidelines on the use and abuse of technology.

Research background

Professor Underwood has increased our understanding of technology acceptance, how technology enhances cognition and language, group communication and interaction, and how it facilitates misdemeanours.

Capturing the impact of technology

Becta commissioned Underwood to provide robust evidence of how technology can be used to improve outcomes for learners and the educational system as a whole.

Underwood developed and tested maturity models to capture the impact of structural and individual learner factors on performance as measured by national standard scores.

A unique longitudinal study of 24 institutions, 700 staff and 6,000 students provided a holistic understanding of the impact of technology-rich environments on learner outcomes. From this work, Underwood developed the concepts of eMaturity and institutional maturity. These concepts, alongside learner investment in the learning process, produced a simple but powerful predictive model: opportunity (eMaturity, institutional maturity) + learner investment = effective learning.

The maturity model provided the first direct and quantifiable evidence of the technology dip, the initial decline in performance experienced when technological innovation is introduced into a work setting. Schools self-assessed this dip and identified what they needed to do to ameliorate the problem. As a result, schools selected from poorly performing areas were performing above the national average only four years later.

The model was adopted by Becta and developed into the Self-Review Framework for schools to self-assess their progress and effectiveness.

Academic dishonesty

It has been argued that the use of digital technology makes academic dishonesty easier. Underwood’s initial research in this area examined how groups work. She established factors that facilitate or impede effective group work with technology and showed how technology changed behaviours, supporting collaborative problem solving but also academic malpractice. Underwood then examined the prevalence, risk factors and characteristics of malpractice.

As a result of this work, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority commissioned Underwood to write a report on the extent, causes and potential solutions to academic dishonesty.


Public policy and services

The impact of digital technology evidence

  • A testimonial letter corroborating impact from Head of Technology Policy Unit, Department of Education.

Maturity modelling


  • Underwood, J.D.M., Underwood, G., and Wood, D., 2000. When does gender matter? Interactions during computer based problem solving. Learning and Instruction, 10, 447-462.
  • Calcatterri, A., Antoinetti, A. and Underwood, J., 2004. Stylistic differences in surfing a history hypermedia. Computers & Education, 44(4), 441-458.
  • Underwood, J. D.M. & Dillon, G., 2004. Maturity Modelling: A framework for capturing the effects of technology. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 13 (2), 213-224.
  • Underwood, J. & Dillon, G., 2011. Chasing dreams and recognising realities: Teachers' responses to ICT. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 20(3), 343–356.
  • Underwood, J.D.M., 2003. Student attitudes towards socially acceptable and unacceptable group working practices. British Journal of Psychology, 94, 319-337.
  • Underwood, J.D.M. & Szabo, A., 2004. Academic offences and e-learning: Individual propensities in cheating. British Journal of Educational Technology, 34 (4), 467-478.

Related projects

(Underwood Principal Investigator unless otherwise stated)

  • 1998-2000: Funder ESRC: Designated Research Centre for Development, Instruction and Training (c. £2,000,000) PI Professor David Wood, University of Nottingham (PI), Underwood designated holder of sub-contracted grant includes 2.6 years funding after moving to NTU (£45,000 per annum).
  • 1998-2001: Funder EU, MEDIAKIDS: an investigation of children's use of multimedia tools PI Professor Antonio Bartolome, University of Barcelona PI (428,820 Euros).
  • 2003-06: Funder: DES / Becta Test Bed project: a longitudinal study of the impact of technology on school and student performance, Professor Somekh, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Underwood joint PI (£900,000).
  • 2006 Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. tDigital Technologies and Dishonesty in Examinations and Tests (£6,500).
  • 2006-07: Funder: Becta Impact 2007: Personalising Learning with Technology (£200,000).
  • 2007-08: Funder: Becta Impact 2008 (£185,000).
  • 2008-08 Funder Becta: Narrowing the Gap: an investigation into under achievement and school failure (£147,000).