New Teacher Survey Shows That Digital Materials Were Not Optimal Before the Pandemic. Now That They Are Front and Center, How Should They Be Used?


May 4, 2020

Boston Public School teacher Princess Bryant teaches her kindergarten class via videoconference from her apartment in Boston, Massachusetts, April 28, 2020, photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

Boston Public School teacher Princess Bryant teaches her kindergarten class via video conference from her apartment in Massachusetts, April 28, 2020

Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

By now, most states have closed schools for the rest of the month, and some for the rest of the school year. School leaders and teachers are in the unprecedented situation of trying to figure out how to educate the nation's 50+ million children at home. No doubt they have quickly found out—if they didn't already know—that there is no short supply of digital learning resources, from thousands of online learning games to countless educational websites.

Before the crisis, digital instructional resources typically played only a supplementary role in students' education, as evidenced by our new analysis of teacher surveys collected by the RAND American Educator Panels. As of spring 2019, nearly 90 percent of English language arts, math, and science teachers reported using digital materials for their instruction. But most teachers also reported using those materials for much less of their classroom time compared to their main curriculum.

Now teachers likely find themselves having to flip that formula. For many, digital materials have or will become the main materials for their lessons. This is problematic for several reasons:

  • Most digital materials are not curricula. They typically do not include lessons that build upon one another over time and are not necessarily clearly tied to academic content standards for particular grades and subject areas.
  • Many digital materials were designed to provide practice. Most materials provide for students at home to master strategies and skills they've already learned in school, but they may not be useful for teaching new skills and concepts. Moreover, students at home may lack the same kinds of academic and social and emotional learning supports they had at school to help them navigate new materials.
  • Access to digital materials is a problem. Our survey shows that many educators confronted significant barriers to accessing digital materials long before the current crisis. This is likely exacerbated by school closures. The top three barriers to using digital materials cited by our national sample of teachers illustrate the scale of these challenges:
    • A full two-thirds of teachers noted that their students lacked access to devices or reliable internet at home.
    • Two-thirds of teachers also cited the expense of digital materials.
    • 42 percent of teachers indicated that their school doesn't have sufficient numbers of computers, tablets or other electronic devices.

For many teachers, digital materials have or will become the main materials for their lessons.

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All these barriers to access were cited more frequently by teachers in high-poverty schools. As school closures continue, the lack of access to high-speed internet for more than 30 million Americans will magnify the disadvantages students are already experiencing, including the inability to see their teachers face to face, communicate regularly with their teachers and other students, and receive engaging instruction that goes beyond pages of worksheets and books they may have been given by their schools. Everyone—not just schools but federal and state governments, philanthropists, and anyone who is able—could join in helping students and their families get online and connected with educators.

What Can We Do? Here Are Three Possible Ideas for the Short Term

Help Students and Families Get Online

Funders and others looking to support students' distance educational experiences now and in future could consider sustainable ways of providing students and teachers with the technology and supports they need to connect via the internet. Not only does this include devices, but also broadband or wireless access, as well as intensive training for educators and families to use technology productively.

Use Curricula as the Backbone for Instruction and Integrate Digital Materials for Practice

Instead of cobbling together many distinct interesting digital activities, we suggest educators start with the content and skills within curricula that students were using before schools closed and branch out to considering how digital materials might provide opportunities to practice those skills.

Create Instructional Material Guidance for Educators and Families

Now, more than ever, educators and families need access to high-quality instructional materials, including curricula, and guidance for how to use those materials thoughtfully. RAND research in Louisiana noted that states work to provide online reviews of curricula to show what was and what was not aligned with state standards, and RAND researchers also observed high uptake of high-quality curricula in Louisiana after these reviews were released. There are also open educational resources (OER) available that constitute thoughtful, standards-aligned curricula, including curricula from places like Open Up Resources and EngageNY. States and school systems could support educators by creating road maps for instruction that include curricula, as well as links to specific activities within digital resources that could provide much-needed practice on curriculum content and skills. Networks for states and school systems could potentially support such work.

Obviously, there are countless inequities that schools and educators are being called upon to address right now, including more basic needs than education, like food services, special education needs, and students' social and emotional well-being. This comes on top of the economic, health, and mental health impacts students and their families are facing during the pandemic. At the same time, though, low-quality and inequitable learning experiences will have a major and lasting impact on student outcomes. Schools and teachers can support student learning right now by considering how to keep curricula front and center alongside a set of targeted digital materials that connect with curricula and can keep students learning, engaged, and connected to their school support systems.

Katie Tosh is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, with expertise in the design, implementation, and evaluation of education programs and policies. Julia Kaufman is a senior policy researcher at RAND, with expertise in education policy, program evaluation, education reform, curriculum design, and teaching.

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