Digital learning snapshots showcase examples of innovation

As part of Keeping Pace research during summer 2014 looking into school districts’ digital learning efforts, we examined the digital learning initiatives of seven public school districts. Since then, we have been reviewing many more districts for several projects, including the blended learning proof points project we are developing with the Christensen Institute. Over the next couple of months we are going to run blog posts on these districts, under the series heading “Digital learning snapshots.” The districts reviewed in Keeping Pace 2014 were Clark County, NV; Horry County, SC; Minnetonka, MN; New Albany, OH; New Orleans, LA; Oakland, CA; and Washington, DC. We chose these based on several factors, including the following:

  • They cover a range of sizes that are representative of school districts nationally. Clark County is among the largest districts in the country, with more than 300,000 students. The smallest two in our sample have about 4,500 and 10,000 students, and the other three are between about 30,000 and 45,000 students.
  • They are diverse in several ways. Collectively the districts represent most major regions of the country, include a mix of urban and suburban districts, have high school graduation rates ranging from 63% to 99%, and report rates at which students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch from 6% to 91%.
  • Most have received some attention from media, advocacy organizations, or foundations, for their digital learning initiatives. Several have received grants supporting digital learning from one or more foundations, their states, and/or Next Generation Learning Challenges. We chose New Orleans because, as a district in which almost all students are attending charter schools, it is demonstrating a different approach, but one that may be copied in smaller scale by districts taking advantage of the flexibility of innovation zones.

We do not believe that the districts that we will be highlighting in this blog series are representative of district digital learning activity in general. We believe that the profiled districts are engaged in more digital learning activity than average. This view is partly based on our research into district activity, and also due to the fact that these districts have received competitive grant funding to implement digital learning.

The snapshots in the annual report, and upcoming blog posts, detail the ways in which digital learning is being implemented, and use existing data to explore how many students are being reached by these initiatives, and in what ways.

Key findings across the profiles include the following:

  • Most of these districts have multiple digital learning initiatives, which typically include some that are fully online (e.g., district-run virtual schools) and others that are based on existing classrooms and school schedules. In some cases districts are redesigning entire schools, although in some cases whole school redesigns begin with one grade level.
  • The impetus for key digital learning initiatives differs among districts, but in several districts the move to online national assessments (Smarter Balanced and PARCC) caused the districts to acquire computers. Educators realized they had a large number of computers whose only required use was for the national or state assessments, and sought ways to use the computers for instruction.
  • Variations exist among the districts—and sometimes among initiatives within districts—regarding the extent to which content and teaching is obtained from outside providers, versus being developed or provided by the districts themselves. Math and ELA skills software that is often used in elementary grades is always acquired from providers, but content used in learning management systems, and even fully online courses, may be purchased or developed in house.
  • Most districts required infrastructure upgrades to handle the level of online content delivery and communications required by digital learning.

Perhaps the most important overarching finding is that among these districts, several of whom are considered among the leading examples of digital learning implementations, in most cases the percentage of overall instructional time that is based on digital content and tools is low. Although many of these districts have been implementing digital instruction for several years or more, typically they are still in relatively early stages of rolling out initiatives to schools and students across the district and will continue for several years to come.

In upcoming blog posts, initially we will review (and in some cases update) the seven districts that we researched for Keeping Pace 2014. Then we will move on to highlight districts that we have been looking into more recently. We will intersperse other topics into the blog during this time as well.