Digital Learning: Data, Trends, and Strategies You Need to Know
Digital learning is a term that represents a broad range of technology-enhanced educational strategies. It includes blended learning, flipped learning, personalized learning, and other strategies that rely on digital tools to a small or large degree.
While people often think of digital learning as just the use of digital tools in the classroom, I’d argue that over simplifies it and fails to capture the purpose of the concept. Digital learning is meant to enhance learning, not simply continue it via a digital means.
In fact, the data suggests that merely providing students with access to devices doesn't lead to better outcomes. But the thoughtful integration of technology to enable students to actively engage with ideas and their peers does enhance the learning experience. It's a nuanced and strategic challenge that grapples with countless tangible and abstract variables—devices, software, classroom practices, professional development, and collaboration among the many stakeholders just to name a few.
In this post, you'll catch a glimpse of some of these variables in the form of data, trends, and strategies that education professionals throughout the world are practicing today.
What the Data Says About Digital Learning—A Study of 2,846 Education Professionals
If you haven’t heard yet, Schoology conducted a landmark K-12 study called The Global State of Digital Learning (get the ebook here). It’s a general study via survey that included 2,846 teachers and administrators from 89 different countries.
The survey covered the top challenges and priorities for both teachers and administrators. We explored the devices, digital content, and PD strategies being utilized. We even do some interesting cross analysis that reveals deeper insights into the current state of digital learning.
Aside from the ebook (it’s a beast at 46 pages but well worth your time), we hosted a webinar where two directors in education for Schoology and myself discussed some of the key findings of the study and put them into context.
Below is a snippet of that conversation about the #1 challenge for administrators—providing effective PD and the types of PD that are currently being offered. But if you have time, I’d recommend watching the entire hour-long presentation. It really puts the data into context.
As for what the data says about digital learning, well, in general, the respondents to our survey overwhelmingly agreed that it positively impacts students and teachers. But there’s a lot to unpack here, so let's just dive in.
Why is Digital Learning Important?
While many of you who frequent this blog may think the answer to this question is obvious, it might surprise you to know that this is one of the most frequently searched questions in regard to digital learning.
And those of you who are wondering why digital learning is important may be disappointed to know that the answer has too many variables to adequately cover in this post. In short, digital learning can enhance learning experiences, save teachers time, enable teachers to better tailor learning to student needs, aid in tracking student progress, provide transparency into the learning process for all stakeholders, and much more.
Among these many benefits of digital learning, an overwhelming majority of teachers and administrators who took our survey agree that digital learning positively impacts student growth and achievement.
Positive Impact of Digital Learning on Student Growth and Achievement
They also agree that it positively impacts faculty growth and effectiveness.
Positive Impact of Digital Learning on Faculty Growth and Effectiveness
5 Key Digital Learning Trends and Insights of 2016–2017
Diving a little deeper into the data, we’ve identified 10 key insights from our survey that provide some clarity into the current state of digital learning. Below are five of those (see our ebook for all 10).
#1 Time is the Top Obstacle to Effective Digital Learning
According to our respondents, lack of time, devices, and effective PD are the three top obstacles to integrating technology into teaching and learning.
#2 Dedicated Technology Coordinators Have a Big Impact
The respondents at institutions with dedicated instructional technology staff also cite the highest satisfaction with their LMSs. In addition, those respondents at institutions where faculty stand in part-time as instructional technologists are less satisfied with their LMSs than those with dedicated staff but more satisfied than those without anyone in that role. This may be due to the amount of support and coaching people in these roles provide.
Cross Analysis of Institutions with Technology Coordinators and LMS Satisfaction
#3 PD Isn’t Modeling the Best Practices of Digital Learning
The large majority of professional development (PD) being offered, according to our respondents, is via single-session and periodic events. Very few cite having asynchronous learning, blended courses, or on-demand PD options (more on this later).
Add to this the fact that 46% of respondents who have an LMS say they don’t use it for PD. This suggests the most effective teaching strategies in the classroom are not being carried over to PD, let alone modeled using the pinnacle tool teachers use in the classroom.
Is the LMS Used in the Classroom Also Used in PD?
#4 Static Instructional Resources are Still the Norm
By far, the most used instructional resources, according to our survey, are static or provide a non-interactive, one-way flow of information (PDFs, Word Docs, Videos, etc.). This may suggest that institutions are digitizing traditional learning rather than enhancing it.
It should be mentioned that there is a place for static resources in learning. But just making a textbook an ebook without serious thought as to how to make the material more interactive defeats the purpose of digital learning.
*Want to know how to make static resources more engaging? Check this article out
#5 Collaboration May Be Key to Solving PD Challenges
81% of our survey's respondents consider collaborating via professional learning communities (PLCs) and personal learning networks (PLNs) to be effective for PD. Interestingly, PD is the #1 challenge and faculty collaboration is the #1 priority of administrators by far.
Are PLCs and PLNs Effective for PD?
Digital Learning Tools and Solutions
When considering the state of digital learning, the technologies being used is often top of mind. After all, the tools an institution chooses can have ripple effects throughout the organization.
Below is a glimpse into the hardware being used by the faculty and administrators who took our survey.
What Devices are Used? (Multiple Answers Allowed)
And here's how all that hardware is structured.
Device Infrastructure and Strategy
How the LMS Fits into Digital Learning
Invariably, we had to inquire about whether or not respondents had a learning management system (LMS) and what effect it might be having. The reason being the LMS is not just another tool; it often represents a cultural shift. The LMS can be the hub of all educational activity—the place where all the learning, communication, collaboration, and analysis actually happens.
So of the 2,846 education professionals who took the survey 46% of them said they have an LMS, 20% said they don't, and around 33% were unsure (the ambiguity may be due to the wide range of non-instructional roles represented in this survey). Cross analysis shows the respondents who said they have an LMS also cite higher levels of student engagement.
But maybe more interesting is the breakdown of student engagement relative to the frequency of LMS use.
Student Engagement Relative to Frequency of LMS Use
As you can see, the survey respondents who use their LMS the most also cite the highest levels of student engagement. Both the levels and quality of engagement seem to fall the less the LMS is used.
Mobile Device Use is Becoming More Prevalent
While the debate about the role of mobile devices in the classroom rages on, a winner seems to be emerging. It may not surprise you that mobile devices are being incorporated into digital learning more frequently than ever.
Nearly 50% of survey respondents say these devices are used daily, while only 22% say mobile devices are not allowed.
Frequency of Mobile Device Use
Digital Learning in the Classroom
When diving into the state of digital learning in the classroom, there are a few key insights I wanted to highlight (for the rest, see our ebook).
The Obstacles to Effective Digital Learning
While the lack of time, devices, and effective PD are cited as the top obstacles to integrating technology into teaching and learning, there are many other concerns as well. These include inadequate hardware, lack of access at home, and difficulty creating lesson plans.
Top Obstacles to Effective Technology Integration (Multiple Answers Allowed)
An interesting note is that while "access at home" is still a main challenge, it used to be higher on the list. But as Kellie Ady, the Director of Instructional Strategy for Schoology, mentions in the webinar, the prevalence of mobile devices at home may be helping to remedy that challenge.
The Most Common Instructional Strategies and Practices
Digital learning takes many forms—from barely blended learning to gamified, mastery learning. But some instructional strategies are practiced more than others. Below is the pedagogical landscape according to our survey results.
What Instructional Strategies are Practiced Most? (Multiple Answers Allowed)
But which instructional strategy is considered most effective? Blended learning was considered the most effective, followed by differentiated learning, and then personalized learning.
Digital Learning in Schools and Districts (Beyond the Classroom)
While it's easy to focus solely on the classroom when analyzing digital learning, there are many important factors at the school and district level that affect outcomes. Administrators, and other education professionals who primarily work outside of the classroom, have their own set of challenges.
Top Challenges for Administrators
As you can see, their #1 challenge is providing relevant and effective PD. This plays right into the next data point, which highlights which PD strategies are employed most in the institutions represented by our survey.
What PD Strategies are Practiced Most?
When we asked the attendees of our webinar which PD strategy was the most effective, the overwhelming majority said "ongoing coaching." And while there's plenty of research to back this up, only 23% of our survey respondents mentioned that ongoing coaching was being practiced in their institutions.
Types of PD Being Practiced (Multiple Answers Allowed)
I mentioned it before (and I'll mention it again) nearly half of all respondents said the LMS used in the classroom is not used in their PD. In other words, best practices are not being directly modeled, and 46% of teachers represented here are having to fill in the gaps on their own.
Collaboration Mostly Stops at the Department Level
When asked the broadest level of collaboration being practiced in their schools and districts, nearly 66% of respondents say they are not collaborating beyond their department. And just over 3% said they are collaborating globally (something that, I want to point out, is commonplace among the 20 million+ members of the Schoology Community).
Broadest Level of Collaboration Practiced by Faculty and Administrators
Final Thoughts About Digital Learning
If you've made it this far (#longestblogpostever), then I hope you've found this glimpse into the state of digital learning useful. Better yet, I hope your interest is piqued and you dive in deeper by downloading our 46 page Global State of Digital Learning in K-12 ebook.
While you'll find much of the data is promising—i.e., the impact of digital learning on students and teachers—much of it points to serious issues with the strategies and priorities of educational institutions around the world. The data that comes to mind is the fact the majority of PD isn't modeling instructional best practices.
Under another light, however, that data also points to something quite amazing when you look at what's actually happening in classrooms around the world. Teachers are, in large part, writing the book on digital learning from the ground up, and they are doing some incredible work.
Thanks to everyone who participated in this study, and thanks to everyone who is doing the good work in education. We sincerely hope this data benefits you on your journey.