Digital learning varies by district size

A previous post discussed digital learning within traditional public schools, and explored differences in digital learning in high schools compared to elementary schools. Our research suggests that digital learning also varies by district size. About 14,000 school districts exist across the country, but the distribution of district size is characterized by a long tail of very small districts.

  • Nearly half of all districts (47%) have fewer than 1,000 students, and these collectively account for only 5.5% of all students. Many of these districts serve rural communities.
  • The largest 2% of districts (those that serve more than 25,000 students) educate 35% of all students.
  • The remaining districts (51%), ranging in size between 1,000 and 25,000 students, educate 60% of all students.

Small districts are typically less significant users of digital content and tools than larger districts. The smallest districts are often in remote areas, and may have little or no digital learning due to Internet bandwidth constraints. Remote districts that are in states that invested in video conferencing often use it instead of online content. In small districts with good Internet access, online courses are often an important method by which the district augments the limited number of courses offered by the district’s own schools. Small districts are unlikely to develop their own content or have their own teachers instructing online courses, and therefore tend to use online courses and teaching that is offered by private providers or state virtual schools. These districts are also less likely than larger districts to be using skills software for math and ELA courses in elementary and middle schools. Because the smallest districts have few full-time district level administrators, it is rare for them to have someone who is dedicated to managing digital learning across the district, and the provision of devices and infrastructure (if being done) often falls to someone with less experience and expertise than a person in a similar position in a larger district.

Most mid-size districts have a wider variety of digital content and tools available to students, but often still do not have the full range of digital instruction found in larger districts. They may offer one type of digital content to elementary students, and have some online courses available for middle and high school students, particularly for credit recovery. Districts in this category that have multiple middle schools and multiple high schools may be moving low-enrollment courses online because they have enough students in the district, but not enough students in each school, to fill a course. Mid-size and larger districts often have district-level administrators and staff focused on curriculum and instruction, technology, and other areas that are elements of digital learning. Districts of this size that adopt digital learning as a key strategy are able to dedicate a person—or more—to the effort; this person may coordinate the acquisition of content, devices, professional development, and the other building blocks of digital instruction. These districts would also be more apt to have their own teachers developing digital content and courses, and teaching online courses, although they are likely using some vendor-provided online courses and teaching as well.

The great majority of large districts—those that are roughly 25,000 students and higher—are using some digital content and tools. Because districts of this size have multiple schools that tend to have some autonomy in their content and technology selections, district administrators may not readily know the extent of usage of digital content and tools across the entire district. The district may have a coordinated digital learning strategy that includes, for example, a virtual high school and a digitally-focused middle school, and also have many other digital content providers and devices being used in individual schools with little district-level coordination. In addition, these districts may have an alternative education school or program that is using some online courses for students who are not attending a traditional school during the full extent of regular school days and hours. Large districts almost certainly have district-wide instructional and student information platforms, and will have some teachers developing course content within the system.

Although district size and level of digital learning activity are somewhat correlated, we find digitally advanced districts of all sizes. These forward-thinking districts have multiple digital options that often include the creation of and/or provision of supplemental online courses for credit recovery and original credit, a virtual school for students who wish to take all of their courses online, digital content for students in classrooms in middle schools and elementary schools, a way to provide devices (tablets or computers) to all students, extensive professional development for teachers, and support mechanisms in place to assist teachers and instructional leaders with the shift to integrating digital content and tools into classrooms.

Although many districts have been using digital content and tools for years, most are still in the early stages of creating or scaling dedicated online or blended programs. They are also just beginning to implement major changes in their instructional models to incorporate a significant portion of digital learning in their core instructional programs.