Instructional Technology and Digital Learning

Over the years, policymakers and researchers have suggested that modern technology may have the potential to transform education (Duffey and Fox 2012; Johnson et al. 2014; U.S. Department of Education 2016a). Recognizing the potential value of technology, the U.S. federal government has launched a series of initiatives in recent years urging school leaders and educators across the nation to adopt a 21st-century model of education that encompasses technology. In 2013, then-President Obama announced the ConnectED initiative, pledging to connect 99% of American students to next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in their schools and libraries by 2018. The country has made significant progress in reaching this goal, with the percentage of school districts with high-speed broadband increasing from 30% in 2013 to 88% in 2016 (Education Superhighway 2017). Many states have also joined the federal efforts, taking an active role in building a technology-rich learning environment in their states (Education Superhighway 2017; Watson et al. 2014).

Technology integration in schools not only provides access to the Internet but also encompasses the use of technological tools and practices, including online courses, use of various devices and hardware in classrooms, computer-based assessment, and adaptive software for students with special needs. Collectively referred to as instructional technology, this wide range of tools and practices involves using and creating appropriate technological processes and resources to facilitate teaching, engage students, and improve learning outcomes (Alliance for Excellent Education 2011; Richey 2008).

Data and research about instructional technology are presented in two sections. The first section focuses on the availability or use of various technological devices in classrooms and other topics such as Internet access. The second section focuses on online learning, providing data about its prevalence and the different types of online learning available to students. Each section concludes with a review of the research on the effectiveness of the technology discussed and its impact on student learning outcomes.

Technology as a K–12 Instructional Tool

The use of instructional technology—computers, the Internet, mobile devices, interactive whiteboards, and other emerging technologies—in K−12 classrooms has been growing rapidly. However, national data available to address the quality and effectiveness of the technologies remain limited, and research has generally shown only modest positive effects of technology on learning (Snyder and Dillow 2013; U.S. Department of Education 2016a).

Computers and Other Technology Devices

Computers are universally available in U.S. elementary and secondary schools (NSB 2014); however, as discussed later in this section, some K–12 teachers do not consider the current availability of instructional technology to be adequate, particularly in science classes. As of 2008, all U.S. public K–12 schools had one or more computers for instructional purposes on campus (Gray, Thomas, and Lewis 2010a). Computers are also commonly available in classrooms. In 2009, for example, 97% of K–12 public school teachers reported that they had one or more computers in their classroom, and 69% said that they or their students often or sometimes used computers during class time (Gray, Thomas, and Lewis 2010b). In addition to computers, the majority of teachers reported having the following technology devices available as needed or in the classroom every day: liquid crystal display or digital light processing projectors (84%), digital cameras (78%), and interactive whiteboards (51%). Furthermore, increasing numbers of schools and districts have initiated one-to-one computing programs, giving each student a laptop, tablet computer, or other mobile computing device to connect to the Internet, access digital course materials and textbooks, and complete school assignments (Gemin et al. 2015).

Despite the availability of computers and other devices in classrooms, many teachers still believe they lack technology resources. According to a 2012 national survey conducted by Project Tomorrow, 55% of K–12 teachers reported that there were not enough computers for student use in their classes, highlighting this deficiency as one of the major obstacles in their use of technology for teaching (Project Tomorrow 2013).

The lack of technology resources in classrooms may be more common in science classes than in mathematics classes. The 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education sponsored by the National Science Foundation found that, although 69% of elementary, middle, and high school mathematics teachers indicated that their instructional technology resources were adequate, just 34% to 48% of elementary, middle, and high school science teachers indicated so (Banilower et al. 2013).

Internet Access

Access to the Internet is universal in public K–12 schools in the United States. As of 2008, all public schools had instructional computers with an Internet connection (Gray, Thomas, and Lewis 2010a). Although Internet access at schools is universal, access with adequate bandwidth and connection speeds remains an area of concern. However, substantial progress is being made (Consortium for School Networking [CoSN] 2016; Education Superhighway 2017). In a 2016 national survey of school district technology administrators, more than two-thirds (68%) indicated that all the schools in their system fully met the Federal Communication Commission’s short-term minimum Internet bandwidth recommendations for public schools, up from 19% in 4 years (CoSN 2016). Affordability, network speed, capacity, reliability, and competition continue to affect Internet connectivity. Survey results suggest that increased bandwidth continues to be needed because schools expect dramatic increases in the number of students using multiple devices for classwork while at school. In 2016, 21% of schools reported that their students were using two or more devices per day; 65% of respondents expect use of two or more devices per student per day within the next 3 years (CoSN 2016).

Despite the progress that has been made in connectivity, access to high-speed Internet connections continue to vary by student demographics. One study reported that students in high-minority schools were half as likely to have high-speed Internet as students in low-minority schools, and students in low-income schools or remote rural areas were twice as likely as students in affluent schools or their urban and suburban peers to have slow Internet access at their schools (Horrigan 2014).

Mobile Devices

In addition to computers, mobile devices such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets are enhancing students’ access to the Internet. Even though these Internet-connected devices have become one of the primary means with which youth interact and learn from each other, few national data are available to describe how and with what frequency these devices are used in day-to-day learning in and out of school. One extensive, although not nationally representative survey conducted by Project Tomorrow (2015), found that 47% of K–12 teachers reported that their students had regular access to mobile devices in their classrooms. In terms of which types of devices students used for schoolwork during the school day, the survey found that 58% of students used their own device, followed by school laptops (32%), school Chromebooks (16%), and school tablets (14%) (Project Tomorrow 2015). Overall, 13% of high school and 21% of middle school students reported no access to computers or mobile devices at school (Project Tomorrow 2015).

Digital Conversion

With the advent of Internet-connected mobile devices, schools and districts are also initiating what is called a digital conversion within their classrooms, replacing traditional hard-copy textbooks with interactive, multimedia digital textbooks or e-textbooks that are accessible to students through the Internet. Forty-six percent of students in grades 9–12 who responded to Project Tomorrow’s 2015 survey reported that they were using online textbooks, compared with 30% in 2005 (Project Tomorrow 2016). Educators are also supplementing traditional resources with videos, games, simulations, and other Internet-based resources. The use of academic-content videos from such services as YouTube, Khan Academy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, among others, is growing as well. In the Project Tomorrow 2015 survey, 68% of teachers (up from 47% in 2012) reported that they regularly use videos from the Internet to augment their class lessons and stimulate class discussion (Project Tomorrow 2016). Students also report accessing Internet videos for support with homework, research projects, and other learning, with science (66%) and mathematics (59%) topping the list of content accessed. The use of computer games to supplement classroom learning is also on the rise, with 48% of teachers in 2015 reporting that they used them in their classrooms, up from 30% in 2012.

Research on Effectiveness of K–12 Instructional Technology

Effects of Instructional Technology

Existing research studies about the effects of instructional technology on student learning are not comprehensive enough to address the general question of whether technology improves student outcomes (Tamim et al. 2011). Few national studies are available; many of the existing studies are of brief duration or are based on specific products with small and geographically narrow samples or weak research designs. Nevertheless, some meta-analyses—studies that seek to combine data from nonrepresentative studies into a rigorous statistical design to provide limited but more rigorous findings—have yielded findings that suggest modest positive effects of technology on student learning.

One recent meta-analysis explored the effect of one-to-one laptop computing programs on elementary and secondary student achievement (Zheng et al. 2016). Drawing on articles published between 2001 and 2015, this study reviewed 96 articles but only found 10 suitable for inclusion in the statistical analysis, suggesting that rigorous research about the effects of one-to-one computing remains limited. The study found that one-to-one laptop programs had a modest effect on students’ overall academic achievement in mathematics and science (Zheng et al. 2016). These findings are aligned with the findings from an earlier large-scale meta-analysis of all types of computer use in classrooms, which summarized 1,055 primary studies from 1967 to 2008 and concluded that the use of computer technologies in classrooms had modest effects on student achievement (Tamim et al. 2011).

Three meta-analyses that specifically focused on mathematics learning compared the mathematics achievement of students taught in elementary and secondary classes using technology-assisted mathematics programs with that of students in control classes using alternative programs or standard methods (Cheung and Slavin 2011; Li and Ma 2010; Rakes et al. 2010). All three studies found small, positive effects on student achievement when technology was incorporated into mathematics classes. A randomized impact evaluation found that a computer-aided application improved elementary students’ mathematics test scores (Carrillo, Onofa, and Ponce 2010). A more recent randomized field trial of seventh grade mathematics students also found that an online mathematics homework tool combined with teacher training led to higher mathematics achievement scores for participating students compared with those of a control group that did not have access to the program (Roschelle et al. 2016).

Some studies also suggest that technology’s potential to improve student achievement may depend on how it is incorporated into instruction (Cennamo, Ross, and Ertmer 2013; Ross, Morrison, and Lowther 2010; Tamim et al. 2011). One study found that, when computing devices were used as tools to supplement the traditional curriculum, no increase in achievement was observed; when computing devices were used as the main teaching tools in class, however, student achievement increased (Norris, Hossain, and Soloway 2012).

K–12 Online Learning

In addition to its potential for enhancing learning in the classroom, technology can also enable students to access instruction remotely via the Internet. Online learning at the K–12 level ranges from programs that are fully online with all instruction occurring via the Internet to hybrid or blended learning programs that combine face-to-face teacher instruction with online components (Gemin et al. 2015; Watson et al. 2014). Online learning discussed in this section focuses on fully online schools and stand-alone online courses that do not incorporate face-to-face instruction.

In the 2014–15 school year, 24 states operated virtual schools that offered supplemental online courses for students. These schools served more than 462,000 students, who took a total of 815,000 online semester-long courses (Gemin et al. 2015). Although still a small fraction of the approximately 50 million students enrolled in K–12 public schools, this was a significant increase since 2012–13, when 721,149 semester course enrollments were recorded. High school students took most of these courses (85%). Math courses made up nearly 23% of the courses taken, and science courses made up 14% (Gemin et al. 2015). Full-time virtual charter schools are another online option for students; these schools served about 275,000 students during the 2014–15 school year (Gemin et al. 2015).

A nationally representative survey of public school districts conducted by NCES in 2009 found that the top reasons for offering online learning opportunities were to provide courses not otherwise available at their schools (64%) and to give students opportunities to recover course credits from classes missed or failed (57%) (Queen and Lewis 2011). The survey also found that credit recovery was especially important in urban areas, where 81% of school districts indicated that this was a very important reason for making online learning opportunities available. Other reasons school districts gave for providing online learning options included offering AP or college-level courses (40%), reducing scheduling conflicts for students (30%), and providing opportunities for homebound students and those with special needs (25%).

Research on Effectiveness of Online Learning

Effects of Online Learning

Policymakers and researchers cite many potential benefits of online learning, which include increasing access to resources, personalizing learning, and assisting struggling students (Bakia et al. 2012; Watson et al. 2013). Despite these potential benefits, few rigorous national studies have addressed the effectiveness of online learning compared with that of traditional teaching models at the K–12 level. One rigorous, large-scale national study of virtual charter schools was conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), housed at Stanford University (CREDO 2015). Researchers contrasted the annual academic growth of students attending full-time online charter schools with that of a comparison group of students from traditional schools who were similar in terms of grade level, sex, race or ethnicity, poverty, prior test scores, and other attributes. The study found that students attending the online schools in the 2012–13 school year had significantly weaker academic growth when compared with their counterparts at traditional schools (CREDO 2015). These results, however, were specific to online charter schools and do not apply to full-time online schools operated by states and districts or to individual online course enrollments or blended learning school models.

A common use of online learning courses is to allow students to recover credits from courses they have failed. One large study comparing achievement outcomes for students taking an algebra credit recovery course online with students taking a face-to-face course found weaker achievement outcomes for students taking the online course (Heppen et al. 2017). Other recent studies have observed some positive effects for online learning, but researchers stress that teacher training and the way in which online components are integrated into the curriculum are important variables that could affect outcomes and that need to be the subject of more rigorous research (Barbour 2015). Although the latest research suggests that online schools may be meeting the needs of students who do not have access to adequate physical school and course options, research on the effectiveness of online learning is still in a nascent state (Watson et al. 2014).