Digital learning activity in traditional school districts

In my last post I discussed why we feel that the word “digital” is better than either “online” or “blended” alone to describe the education landscape as of late 2014. Much activity has moved from state virtual schools and statewide charter schools to traditional school districts, and in these districts digital learning has many different permutations. This shift is apparent in a number of ways, and from numerous sources. Providers of digital tools and content are selling mostly to districts. Funders are increasingly supporting and studying digital learning implementations in traditional public schools, and media reports reflect these changes. In addition, the large majority of students (about 84%) attend traditional public schools, as opposed to attending charter schools or private schools, or being home schooled. But researchers lack solid numbers to quantify what is occurring in digital learning in traditional schools. In only a handful of states (e.g. CA, FL, and MI) has there been an effort to track digital learning activity in schools across the state—and researchers in those states are forthcoming about issues with the data that call into question the level of accuracy of the current numbers. The last federal survey that provided useful information about digital learning across all states collected distance education data from school year 2009-10 and was published in 2011. (Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009–10; NCES 2012-008).

A further challenge in quantifying digital learning activity is that so many permutations of digital learning exist. The term “blended learning,” for example, often describes something very different in elementary schools compared to high schools. We see the differences in digital learning activity between high schools and elementary schools when we look in more detail at digital content, platforms, devices, and teaching.

High schools have the widest and deepest range of digital options, which may include any or all of the following:

  • Online courses that include an online teacher are most common at the high school level. These may be focused on one type of student (e.g. advanced courses or credit recovery) or may be wide ranging (e.g. core courses). These courses are often coordinated at the district level, provided by a district virtual school, and taken by students from multiple schools across the district. In some cases the district offers enough online courses to provide a student’s entire education online for hospitalized, homebound, pregnant, incarcerated, or other students in similar uncommon circumstances.
  • Credit recovery courses that may have an online teacher, or may have a site-based facilitator who serves as the teacher of record, are a common starting point for high schools offering online courses. The district may coordinate credit recovery options but have them available at multiple high schools so that students at each school can access the courses.
  • An alternative education or independent study program may exist for students who wish to pursue their education in a setting other than a traditional high school. These programs usually do not follow a regular daily schedule, but include an onsite component and an online component.
  • Digital content in addition to full courses, and digital platforms such as learning management systems, are often used in classrooms to augment courses that are offered on a traditional daily and semester schedule. Content may be acquired from an outside provider, or developed by teachers for their own courses.

In elementary schools the use of digital tools and content is usually classroom-based, and typically used in math (mostly) and ELA. Other than in charter schools, most elementary schools deploy these tools and content within traditional classrooms and daily class schedules. They often seek digital content that is adaptive and can identify students’ learning challenges, and report them to the teacher. These schools are finding that in many cases the capabilities of data creation and presentation exceed the ability of teachers—many of whom became teachers in a pre-digital era—to use the data effectively. (Of course one might also say that teachers find that the data are not well presented. In any case, the capabilities of data creation and presentation systems often exceed their usage.) Because the focus is often on content that is adaptive, few instances exist of teachers creating their own online content at the elementary school level.

Middle school digital instruction contains some elements of both elementary schools and high schools, partly because of the transitional ages of their students. Sixth grade students, if they are using digital learning, are most likely to be using skill-based software; 8th grade students may be taking high school courses online in order to advance their learning trajectory, particularly in math.

In Keeping Pace 2014 we summarized these findings in the table below (click on the image to increase size).

digital options

In our next post we will look at how digital learning activity varies by the size of districts.