How to follow the path to digital learning success

Two African American female elementary school students using digital tablets

Getting technology right in education can be a long road, and sometimes it’s tough to know which route to take. One path leads to the same old approaches to teaching and expensive equipment that hardly gets used. The other leads to teachers and students who are inspired and empowered by the possibilities of digital learning. Like any journey, the best approach is to ask for directions from people who have been there before.

We have identified 10 signals to digital learning success; here is a detailed look at two of them, drawing on the experiences of schools that have passed them.

Provide 1:1 take-home, production-capable devices for all grade 5-12 students

Digital technology can make learning more personalized than ever before, allowing students to progress at their own pace and ensuring that they’re challenged just the right amount in every class.

But in order to do this, every student needs their own device to ensure they aren’t waiting around for shared computers. This allows them to maintain an interactive style of learning for homework, too. Using cheaper, less capable devices might seem like a good compromise, but they may not be conducive to effective learning; students need powerful devices where they can create media that expresses their learning and ideas, not just media tablets where they consume other people’s work.

At Hannah Martin Elementary School in Illinois, students were given personal tablet computers in order to offer individualized instruction for higher achievement and greater engagement. Students were inspired to be more collaborative and creative, using their tablets to carry out their own research. And because the devices were powerful enough to produce their own media, they could report their findings in blogs or create infographics.

“We’re no longer interested in them just giving information back to us anymore,” says Principal Matt Webster. “We want them discovering that information on their own. We want it to be meaningful and memorable.”

In just two years, the school has seen the numbers of students hitting reading proficiency and growth targets rise by 24%. It’s also seen behavioral problems decrease, as students respond to the creativity of the work and reap the benefits of a personalized curriculum.

Third grade teacher Katrina McLaughlin says having students work on tablets freed her up to be able to focus on those that needed help: “I always had trouble conferencing with all my students, but once I started using Google Docs, I was able to conference virtually with those higher-level kids through comments,” she says. “That opened up a whole lot of time for me that I could really focus on the kids who most needed that one-to-one face-to-face time.”

It’s had an impact on staff as well, who have found themselves collaborating more because the technology allows them to easily share resources.

Create cohesion between face-to-face and online, and use data to drive coherent learner experiences

When people think about online learning, they often worry that it means replacing teachers with electronic instruction. But the opposite is true: it gives teachers the time to make more of an impact than ever. Online learning doesn’t replace traditional skills of instruction. Used correctly it can support it, providing detailed data on individual students’ progress to guide teachers’ interventions.

Boone Elementary School was a school in crisis. In 2008 it faced sanctions from the state of Missouri because of its persistent low test scores.

“I had to prepare the staff that we weren’t going to last much longer unless we made real changes — fast,” says Principal Sheryl Cochran.

She decided that she wanted individualized instruction to help turn around the school’s performance. Her solution brought together digital learning and face-to-face teaching. An online, interactive curriculum helped benchmark the students’ performance and keep track of their progress. With that in place, teachers could focus their attention on small breakout groups, which could be tailor-made to solve students’ specific barriers to learning.

Students were also in control of their own learning, with individual SuccessTracker accounts which provided a motivating way to keep track of their progress, goals, and resources.

It all worked: in the first year, test scores rose by 15%, and in the second by 25%. The achievement gap between students of different ethnicities was almost completely eradicated. Within four years of its crisis point, Boone Elementary was recognised as one of the best urban schools in the country. And it had shown the power of combining digital learning with smart, individualized, face-to-face instruction.

As Dr Cochran says, “We weren’t happy with being just good enough, we wanted to be great. I knew we could do it.”

To learn about the other signals to digital success, check out our 10 signals you’re on the path to digital learning success infographic.