Digital media and educational software programs have become integral to the school day for the majority of students in public schools and are ubiquitous in higher education institutions across the United States. About one-quarter of instructional materials in schools are now digital, not paper-based, according to 60 percent of technology leaders who participated in 2015 in the nationwide annual Speak Up survey by the non-profit group Project Tomorrow. Students in elementary schools are increasingly using tablets and e-readers for reading and math activities. Students in middle and high schools, are often logging into classroom management systems (CMS) to find out the week’s schedule, using collaborative online writing spaces to complete team-based assignments, uploading book reports and slide decks, watching videos on-demand for particular classes, and searching the Internet for background research. A growing number of college students are using digital textbooks, participating in “blended” classes that are part face-to-face and part online, or are taking fully online courses. In a 2015 survey by the Babson Research Survey Group, 28 percent of enrolled students said they had taken at least one online course.
The fast-growing presence of digital media in education begs questions of exactly how this material affects student learning. Are today’s students learning more or less as a result of all of these new tools and media? And which students benefit the most? Research in the cognitive and learning sciences has been probing this question with increasing intensity, though there are still huge holes to fill and studies rarely keep up with the pace of technological change. In higher education, massively open online courses (MOOCs) have stimulated debates over the fate of the traditional university (see Kevin Carey’s book The End of College); in the PreK-12 space, controversies have erupted over school districts’ deals with computer companies and interest is growing in new models for teaching and delivering information that might lead to what is often called “personalized learning.”
Among the many Issues that revolve around student learning, here are those that New America has been tracking: how screen-based technology affects literacy and the acquisition of knowledge; the need for media literacy and digital literacy; the integration of media into family routines and adult-child interactions; the availability of digital resources at libraries and schools; how and if educators are trained to integrate digital tools into their teaching; and how to expand children and families’ access to media mentors (such as tech-savvy children’s librarians) who can help them select appropriate materials and tools that match their learning needs.