Did Experience with Digital Instructional Materials Help Teachers Implement Remote Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

by Katie Tosh, Ashley Woo, Sy Doan

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Research Questions

  1. Did teachers' prepandemic instructional materials provide access to digital instructional materials?
  2. Did the digital materials used by teachers connect to the content, concepts, and learning activities of main curricula?
  3. Were teachers with experience with digital materials before the COVID-19 pandemic more likely to grade students' work during remote learning? Were they more likely to engage in synchronous or asynchronous communication with their students?
  4. Did teachers with experience with digital materials before the COVID-19 pandemic spend less time on instructional planning? Were there effects on student workload or the percentage of students completing assignments?

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic forced educators to rapidly adapt to remote learning during spring 2020, resulting in a scramble for teachers to ensure that students had remote access to instructional materials. Understanding how digital materials were used leading up to school closures can shed light on the extent to which teachers were prepared to pivot to full virtual learning and might help identify areas in which additional supports could be helpful in using digital materials for both virtual and in-person instruction.

This Data Note presents a small, focused set of key findings from teacher responses to the spring 2020 American Instructional Resources Survey, which was fielded in May and June 2020. Researchers examine teachers' use of digital and comprehensive curriculum materials during the 2019–2020 school year prior to COVID-19 disruptions and teachers' perceptions about the extent to which their digital materials connected to their main curricula. The authors also consider how teachers' use of digital materials prior to the pandemic was connected to teaching and learning during school closures in spring 2020.

Key Findings

  • Before the pandemic, the majority of teachers reported that their main instructional materials provided access to digital instructional materials for all students. We found that most teachers spent less instructional time using digital materials than they did using comprehensive curricula.
  • Teachers reported that the digital materials they used most commonly did not fully connect to the content, concepts, and learning activities of their main curricula.
  • Teachers whose main prepandemic materials provided digital instructional materials were more likely to grade student work during remote learning and were less likely than teachers whose main prepandemic materials did not provide digital instructional materials to engage in frequent asynchronous communication (e.g., emails, text messages, posts to a learning management system) with students during remote learning.
  • Whether teachers' main prepandemic materials provided digital instructional materials was not related to hours of instructional planning, hours of student learning, or the percentage of students completing assignments.


  • To provide students with a coherent learning experience, the digital materials that teachers use ideally should connect well with teachers' main curricula.
  • Teachers and students need resources and systems that address the full challenge of remote learning, beyond access to and support using digital instructional materials.
  • Curriculum developers should consider how to embed digital instruction into curricula.
  • Developers of supplemental digital instructional materials should pay particular attention to how their products align with the content and concepts of commonly used curricula.
  • Policymakers and districts can expand access to and promote selection of such materials and support teachers' and students' use of those materials so that students and teachers in remote learning environments are poised for greater success.

Research conducted by

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

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