Finding real value in edtech is something schools continue to struggle with when it comes to digital learning--here’s why.

The digital learning challenge that still vexes schools

Finding real value in edtech is something schools continue to struggle with--here’s why

The latest Speak Up survey findings from Project Tomorrow reveal how far schools have come in making digital learning available to every student — and how far they still have to go to realize the full value of their edtech investment.

Although the survey indicates that students in a majority of schools are now given a mobile device to use in class, there are mixed signals about the value this adds to their learning. For instance, when asked to identify the benefits of digital learning for students, 86 percent of teachers and 93 percent of principals cited greater engagement as the most significant outcome, instead of stronger indicators of success such as deeper learning or more sophisticated student work.

Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, believes schools aren’t seeing enough value from digital learning because there are too few transformational uses of technology happening in schools today.

“Too often, classroom technology implementations aim to mirror or replicate traditional learning modalities, such as using a mobile device to take notes or take a class poll,” Evans writes in a briefing paper about the survey results. “It’s difficult to demonstrate value or justify a return on investment with these substitution-type activities.”

Related Content:

eSchool News Digital & Mobile Learning Guide

The eSchool News Digital & Mobile Learning Guide is here! It features strategies to help you effectively use digital and mobile learning resources, along with tips to support digital and mobile learning initiatives. A new eSchool News Guide will launch each month–don’t miss a single one!

In schools where digital learning is most successful, she says, leaders have clearly articulated instructional goals and are focused on using digital devices to support personalized learning, student inquiry, creativity and collaboration, and other uses of technology that are more mature.

Related content: Digital teaching and learning in the smartphone era

Here’s a closer look at what the survey reveals about the state of digital learning in U.S. schools, where it falls short — and how one forward-thinking school system is achieving success.

What the survey shows

Nearly three-fifths of administrators who took part in last year’s Speak Up survey (57 percent) say their students are given a mobile device for learning in school, and 38 percent say students are allowed to take their device home with them. The type of device varies by grade level, the survey indicates, with the youngest students more likely to use a tablet and older students more likely to use a Chromebook.

In fact, the survey not only shows a sharp rise in mobile learning over the last five years; it also reveals how Chromebooks have replaced laptops as the main device of choice for middle and high schools.

In 2014, 50 percent of middle schoolers said their primary access to technology was in a computer lab. Now, just 25 percent of students in grades 6-8 say their edtech access depends on a visit to the library or computer lab. Sixty-four percent say they use a Chromebook in class — a 138-percent growth in student Chromebook use in just four years, Project Tomorrow says.

With classroom access to a mobile device becoming more prevalent, “we would expect to see frequent usage by students of various online resources,” Evans writes. “However, that’s not necessarily the case.”

While 83 percent of students in grades 6-12 say they use Google tools on a weekly basis and six in 10 report taking weekly online assessments, students use other types of digital resources less frequently. Only one in five middle school students uses digital primary-source documents, animations, simulations, or virtual labs as part of his or her regular schoolwork — and a majority of students (58 percent) say they rarely or never access these online tools.

“These types of digital content represent learning activities that cannot be easily replicated without the use of technology. For example, students can potentially learn about the Civil War’s impact on the families of both Union and Confederate soldiers by reading their textbook. But a more in-depth and relevant learning experience can be gained by accessing primary-source photographs and letters written by soldiers to their families through the National Archives website,” Evans observes.

“Similarly, it’s becoming increasingly challenging for schools to provide students with authentic science lab experiences. Virtual labs, animations, and simulations provide a unique opportunity for students to experience real-world experiments and bring meaning to abstract concepts that cannot be replicated in the natural world.”

Moving beyond engagement

When asked how technology benefits student learning, educators most often mention increased student engagement as the primary value. Although research links student engagement with improved outcomes, teachers and administrators should be focusing instead on how technology can lead to deeper learning, Evans says.

For instance, nearly seven in 10 district administrators cite changes in student engagement as the most effective metric for evaluating their edtech initiatives. Far fewer administrators identify better work (30 percent), depth of student collaboration (38 percent), or students’ skill development (38 percent) as the most meaningful measures of digital learning’s value.

“The effective integration of digital tools, content, and resources within instruction requires teachers to re-engineer existing lessons and rethink current instructional practices to take advantage of the unique functionalities afforded by technology,” Evans notes. “Quite candidly, this is challenging and time-consuming work.”

One district that has made strides in reinventing instruction is the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, Indiana. In rolling out a digital learning initiative for the district, Chief Technology Officer Pete Just began by involving all stakeholders in creating a vision for using technology to improve teaching and learning.

From this effort, a Digital Learning Blueprint emerged. The blueprint defines what effective teaching and learning with technology should look like in Wayne Township — and what specific outcomes the district is looking for.

“When you walk into classrooms, it’s normal to see kids using a blend of learning approaches,” Just says. “There is a lot less lecturing and more student creation and collaboration. Students are in charge of their own learning and are working on inquiry-driven tasks. We think the four Cs — communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking — are a good model for what we hope to see.”

Success in action

Audrey Taylor, a social studies teacher at Wayne Township’s Lynhurst 7th and 8th Grade Center, uses technology to share multiple perspectives with her students that they can’t get from a textbook alone.

“We are living in a time when everything you’d care to know is Googleable. I’ve shifted my focus to teaching my students to think critically about the information they have access to. We are more investigative,” she says.

“For a recent lesson on the Boston Tea Party, we looked at four representations of the event: a cartoon, a comic, a History Channel miniseries, and their text. Students had to analyze the similarities and differences, decide why those differences existed, and determine what information was correct. I am able to make their learning more meaningful as they become proficient at 21st-century skills.”

Lynhurst Principal Dan Wilson says multidisciplinary teams of teachers work together to plan inquiry-based projects for students to collaborate on. In one such project, students developed proposals for building something on campus that would enhance their learning. The winning proposal included a plan to renovate an old concession stand to turn it into an outdoor classroom, and the high school building trades class implemented the project. “It’s very powerful for students to see their ideas come to life,” Wilson says.

The key to realizing value in digital learning is to provide support structures that enable teachers and students to use technology in truly transformational ways. Wayne Township employs full-time instructional coaches and gives a stipend to exemplary teachers (dubbed the “iTeam”) who help their peers come up with innovative uses of technology to support student learning. Professional development focuses not just on how to use edtech tools but on developing teachers’ capacity to transform their practice.

At the school level, Wilson has fostered a culture of risk-taking among faculty and has changed his hiring practices to create a staff of edtech innovators. Above all, he gives teachers shared planning time to co-create lessons.

“The best thing administrators can do is give teachers the gift of time,” Taylor says. “When there is professional development that introduces technology, include time for teachers to work with those tools and to figure out how they could best integrate those tools into their lessons. Then, give them time to plan those lessons.”

“When I’m visiting classrooms, I’m looking to see: How has instruction actually changed as a result of giving students a mobile device?” Just says. “That’s the true test of whether we’re seeing a return on our edtech investment.”

Editor’s note: November is Digital & Mobile Learning month, and we’ve launched the eSchool News Digital & Mobile Learning Guide to connect you with all the resources you need to support these instructional strategies in classrooms throughout your district. We’re featuring targeted coverage throughout the month, so be sure to check back each day for new tips, resources, and insights.

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Dennis Pierce

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.