Digital educational tools are touted for their promise in increasing equitable access to enhanced learning opportunities and improving educational outcomes for K-12 students. Yet there is a growing consensus that the thorniest challenges schools and educators face in integrating educational technology are around how digital learning interacts with the systemic social, economic, racial, and historical patterns of inequity in education.
In our study of the implementation of digital learning over nearly a decade in two diverse, low-resource urban school districts—Dallas Independent School District and Milwaukee Public Schools, where 80-90% of students are economically disadvantaged and the vast majority of students are students of color—we saw that there is no one “best” tool or single approach for success in digital learning. Indeed, across these two research sites and various digital learning initiatives, we observed the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of educational technology integration. We saw impact most often when there was a close fit between a digital tool and context, needs and capacities, and implementation.
Drawing on our evidence and stories from the front lines of digital learning, we highlight “leverage points” for increasing equitable student learning, including through:
- Policies, contracts, and budgets structured to provide transparency and resources for implementation and that emphasize equity in resource allocations;
- Capacity of educators strengthened in targeted and continuous professional development to support implementation;
- Student-centered and responsive content and instruction designed to facilitate authentic student work;
- Capacity of organizations cultivated to support research and evaluation.
In fact, this is an excellent time for school districts to review their contracts with vendors of digital tools and negotiate additional supports for training hours or sessions with district staff and instructors. Strengthening the capacity of adults—instructors, as well as parents—to effectively use digital tools requires ongoing access to professional training for implementing digital and blended learning. It is also critical to allow time for practicing with the tools and communicating with others about effective strategies for their use.
State and local educational agencies can also look to federal funding opportunities to increase support for digital learning. Examples include the Federal Communications Commission e-Rate program; Titles I, III and IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); the Small, Rural School Achievement Program (SRSA); and the Rural and Low-income School Program (RLIS).
Digital learning initiatives take planning, monitoring and assessment, and revamping and refinement over time to understand and cultivate conditions under which ed-tech is effective. To support and advance the learning of all students through these initiatives, implementers at all levels—from planning and purchase by state and local educational leaders down to the classroom and student level where digital tools are deployed—need to attend to and assess the equity implications for every decision made or practice instituted. At district and school levels, instructional staff should carefully deliberate and routinely reassess which students are assigned to different types of digital learning opportunities to ensure alignment between program features and students’ educational needs.
Equity can also be advanced by engaging a range of stakeholders (e.g., teachers, students, family, community-based partners) and encouraging the representation of diverse voices and perspectives when evaluating needs, choosing digital tools, and addressing barriers and facilitators to their effective implementation. A central element of being student-centered is not only ensuring teaching approaches are responsive to the learning needs of students, but also to their cultural identities and contexts. To foster the capacity of teachers to develop and deliver culturally responsive teaching, teachers need to have training specific to working with digital tools in culturally responsive ways and for mitigating content when it is culturally inappropriate, biased and/or discriminatory.
More generally, we found that efforts to increase the capacity and self-efficacy of teachers in integrating and blending digital tools into their daily lessons led to higher quality instructional experiences (more engaging, authentic and responsive), more intensive device use, and greater student learning gains.
What about digital learning in COVID-19?
The public health crisis prompted by COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges to families and K-12 schools. It lays bare and amplifies the structural inequalities in our society and education systems. We draw on a decade of research on equity in digital learning initiatives to suggest the following considerations in supporting students and families during this pandemic:
- Triage resources to prioritize student support systems. Students and families have basic needs (e.g., food, housing, physical and mental health) that must be met before academic learning will succeed. Adequate access to digital devices and internet are precursors to digital learning, but may have only limited effect in the absence of basic student supports.
- Equitable access to learning requires multiple entry points. This might include via phone calls, texts, broadcast television and radio, paper packets, asynchronous and synchronous interaction with teachers, or software-driven coursework.
- Resources for aligning virtual learning to best practices will be highly constrained during a pandemic. Creating capacity for the type of high-quality implementation we describe in our research may be out of reach for some districts, making it important to look to the places in your district where good, virtual learning was happening before COVID-19. Make sure those people are engaged in decision making. They will understand the specifics of implementation and the contexts of your schools better because they have been “in the weeds” already.
- Capture the local, promising practices happening now in your schools. We are publicly sharing the tools we developed and applied in our research-practice partnerships for evaluating the integration of digital tools in classrooms and other educational settings. In undertaking a quick data collection and evaluation of needs, consider who can you reach out to in other districts, universities and colleges, or community-based organizations to help you assess what is going well.
We have made available other research briefs that spotlight our findings on specific digital initiatives, including telepresence technology for course delivery and credit recovery programs. For more details on this research and other guidance for the implementation of digital learning, please see our study website and book, Equity and Quality in Digital Learning: Realizing the Promise in K-12 Education.