Cover: Digital Instructional Materials

Digital Instructional Materials

What Are Teachers Using and What Barriers Exist?

Published Apr 16, 2020

by Katie Tosh, Sy Doan, Ashley Woo, Daniella Henry

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Research Questions

  1. Which digital materials do teachers regularly use to plan lessons and in the classroom? Which digital materials do teachers use the most?
  2. How does teachers' use of digital materials compare with use of comprehensive curriculum materials?
  3. What are the barriers to digital material use?
  4. What factors influence teachers' use of digital materials?

This Data Note adds new insights from English language arts (ELA), math, and science teachers on their use of digital materials. Drawing on data from the spring 2019 American Instructional Resources Survey, researchers share the digital materials that ELA, math, and science teachers across the United States reported using regularly for instruction during the 2018–2019 school year. In addition to identifying the most commonly used digital instructional materials, researchers examine how teachers' use of these materials compares with their use of comprehensive curriculum materials, as well as teacher-reported barriers to digital material use. Finally, researchers explore several hypotheses regarding factors that might influence digital material use.

Key Findings

Teachers use digital materials, although barriers still exist

  • Most teachers use digital materials both for planning and classroom instruction. However, the majority of teachers use these materials to supplement other comprehensive curriculum materials rather than as main instructional materials.
  • For all subjects, the top digital materials used during instructional time include a mix of general resources, such as YouTube, and content-specific resources, such as ReadWorks and Khan Academy.
  • When digital materials are used as main instructional materials, content-specific or standards-aligned digital materials, such as those from iReady, Newsela, and Khan Academy, tended to feature more prominently than materials from general digital sources, such as YouTube.
  • Teachers who used standards-aligned comprehensive curricula, who had more low-income students, or who attended district or charter management organization--run teacher preparation programs were more likely to use digital materials.
  • The expenses of using digital materials, both for schools and students at home, were the most commonly cited barriers to digital material use, with these barriers being particularly prevalent among teachers with more low-income students.


  • Additional research could explore more-nuanced definitions and scenarios of digital material use to deepen understanding of how teachers are using main comprehensive curriculum materials and digital materials and how and why teachers supplement their main materials.
  • Districts and policymakers should assess the technology assets in schools and how they are used to better understand how existing resources are provisioned and where additional resources could remove barriers to use of digital materials.
  • Efforts to rate the quality of comprehensive curricula should also extend to digital instructional materials, providing parents and practitioners with information on their quality, alignment with state standards, and appropriateness for different types of students.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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