Voices in Education

Engaging Students in Digital Learning
With the almost universal transition to digital and remote learning in response to COVID-19, parents, caregivers, and teachers are all asking the same question: “How can I engage my students in learning on virtual platforms?” As decades of research into the digital divide have illustrated, and COVID-19 has laid bare, there are very real structural barriers affecting how students engage in digital learning. Schools, districts, and states should marshal intensive efforts to bring about equitable access to the tools for digital learning—devices, high speed internet, and programs—and for high-quality digital instruction.

Digital learning frequently is promoted for its potential to increase both student engagement in learning and their academic success. With high-quality instructional and technical supports, digital tools can provide students with the opportunity to get into the “driver’s seat” and steer their use of digital programming according to their own educational interests and needs. Our research shows that student engagement is both predictive of academic outcomes and embodies socioemotional dimensions, with active engagement more likely (than passive) to inspire a passion for learning and sense of belonging in the learning environment. Indeed, student engagement is a key factor in supporting holistic goals such as the development of lifelong learners and healthy, happy, thriving youth.

We have seen the full spectrum of student engagement in both classroom and home environments where technology is used to deliver instruction. Even if the digital platform can fully drive instruction, we observe higher levels of student engagement when there is a live teacher, tutor, or caregiver offering one-to-one interactions to support and encourage their learning. It is also important for teachers and caregivers to remember that ed tech vendors typically create standardized digital content with an “average” student profile in mind. To realize higher levels of student engagement, teachers and caregivers may need to supplement digital content with educational resources that resonate with students’ own cultures, lived realities, interests, and learning needs. For instance, simply asking students what they think of the digital content is one way to encourage reflection and critical analysis of the content and its relevance to their lives, as well as to promote understanding of how the content interacts with cultural identities and contexts.

While for some, the digital learning space may feel like an entirely new educational experience, it may be helpful to know that many of the same principles known to guide student learning in traditional, face-to-face classrooms also apply in the digital setting. To engage students effectively, teachers and caregivers should strive to fulfill children’s need for competence, belonging, and authenticity. The best place to start when developing strategies to do this virtually is with the face-to-face techniques that work in the traditional classrooms. For example, creating opportunities for “hands-on” learning, collaborative work, and meaningful discussions are known to increase student engagement in both classroom and digital settings.

The largest transformation when learning digitally is the reimagining of what a community of learners—and what interactions in that community—looks like. It takes more of a concerted effort to connect via technology, especially initially, but our research highlights several strategies that can be used:
  • Leave time for and encourage activities that foster community virtually. Class time spent learning the names and backgrounds of peers or sharing enjoyable experiences together may seem to some as secondary, but it instead develops community that keeps students wanting to come back day after day. Virtual field trips or movie nights where students can share the experience via video or text chat can stand in for more traditional afterschool socialization.
  • Sharing video when participating synchronously helps put a face to the person talking, builds relationships faster, and decreases the exhaustion associated with talking to a blank screen without facial feedback. But also understand there may be important reasons students don’t want to share video on a given day, so leave space for them to engage in many different ways.
  • Find a technology-based way to split students into 1:1 and small groups for assignments. It is easier to interact in these smaller groups, which builds community faster. There is also more incentive to participate.
  • Create a learning community with caregivers or parents, siblings, and others in the home. Time and resources may be limited, but regular, face-to-face interactions can keep students energized and reinforce the importance of education. You might also consider (health restrictions permitting) co-learning with a friend, switching locations (and oversight responsibility) to share the burden.
  • Encourage students to provide feedback, make suggestions, and ask for help. Use technology to reduce the burden and overcome concerns students may have asking for help. When possible, caregivers can check in to help the teacher gauge engagement and guide their children in how to advocate for their learning needs and preferences.
Strategies specific to the technology side of the digital context include setting aside time before any synchronous learning to check logistics related to connectivity and access. Ideally, students should be near an outlet in a quiet location and connected to the internet before class to minimize lost instructional time. We saw in our research that academic progress and achievement of students declined as time lost to technological difficulties increased.

As parents and youth bring their own unique expertise and experiences in engaging with digital platforms for learning, it is important to create space for families to advocate for students’ needs. Educators should make connections with families to provide structure but also flexibility that recognizes the barriers to digital access right now. Families should also be reassured that if something worked in a face-to-face environment, it is likely something drawing on similar principles can be facilitated —and will be successful—virtually.

For additional guidance, strategies, and tips for leveraging digital tools for student success in learning—and for ensuring equity and quality in digital learning opportunities at all levels of K–12 education—we invite you to take a look at our new book, Equity and Quality in Digital Learning: Realizing the Promise in K–12 Education.

About the Author: Carolyn J. Heinrich is the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy and Education, chair of the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, and an affiliated professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University. Jennifer Darling-Aduana is an assistant professor of learning technologies in the Department of Learning Sciences, College of Education and Human Development, at Georgia State University. Annalee G. Good is a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), co-director of the Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative, and director of the WCER Clinical Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are the authors of Equity and Quality in Digital Learning: Realizing the Promise in K–12 Education (Harvard Education Press, 2020).