Digital Learning in the Classroom: A Survey

Project Tomorrow, an education nonprofit organization, recently released the results of its annual Speak UP survey on digital learning, “From Print to Pixel: The role[…]Continue Reading

Project Tomorrow, an education nonprofit organization, recently released the results of its annual Speak UP survey on digital learning, “From Print to Pixel: The role of videos, games, animations and simulation within K-12 education.” For the last 13 years, Project Tomorrow’s Speak UP survey has examined how students are using and would like to see digital tools used for learning.

Additional data is gathered from teachers, librarians, administrators, parents and community members. This sometimes provides interesting contrasts to student views as well as the various groups of adult survey respondents.

2015 Focus: Digital Learning

For its 2015 research cycle, Speak Up focused on digital tools, specifically, videos, games, animations and simulations. The 2015 finding are based on responses from more than 415,000 students, nearly 39,000 teachers and librarians, 4,500 administrators, 40,000 parents and 6,600 community members representing over 7,600 schools and 2,600 districts in the United States and around the world.

Speak Up has documented the gradual implementation of digital learning and resources in American schools. Today, eight out of ten district administrators say their districts use a variety of digital content and online resources in their classrooms. Half report that the implementation of digital content resources such as videos, simulations and animations was already generating positive student outcome results. Forty percent of administrators say their classrooms now include digital games as learning tools, outpacing even the adoption of 1:1 tablet programs in classrooms (33%).

What Principals Said

Principals seem impatient with the pace of digital adoption, with 54% reporting that their biggest challenge with digital learning is motivating teachers to change their instructional practice to make better use of available digital resources. More than half (57%) say that the lack of teacher training on how to integrate digital content within instruction is the top barrier holding back further expansion of their digital learning visions.

What Teachers Said


However, teachers are reporting higher usage of digital content in their classroom this year compared to earlier years. In 2012, 47% of all teachers said that they were using online videos. Today, across all assignments or content areas, 68% of teachers report using videos that they find online within lessons or classroom activities.

Almost half of all teachers (48%) also say that their classrooms included game-based environments for students. Elementary teachers (K-5) are most likely to use game-based learning environments in their classrooms. One-third of all teachers report using online textbooks (36%) and online curriculum (30%).

Teachers use videos and animations within their lessons and class activities in a variety of ways. The most popular is to introduce a lesson or unit Teachers also use videos and animations to activate students’ prior knowledge, to facilitate a classroom discussion and to illustrate a difficult concept. Teachers identify a number of benefits of using videos and animations including:

  • Increased student engagement in the material (65%)
  • Addressed different learning styles (48%)
  • Provided a different teaching approach than my own (46%)
  • More relevant lesson (59%)
  • Enhanced student vocabulary (48%)
  • More efficient learning process by shrinking time students need to digest information (23%)

Teachers who actually embrace digital learning in their classrooms value them more highly. Only 23% of all teachers identified “More efficient learning process by shrinking time students need to digest information” as a benefit of visually-based content tools, compared to 35% of teachers who are creating their own videos and 38% of teachers who are using animations.

What Students Said

From the student perspective, when asked to identify the reasons they believed that watching online videos is a good way for them to learn, students in grades 6-12 ranked the following benefits as most important:

  1. I can watch it as many times as I need to (61%)
  2. Makes it easier to understand difficult concepts (55%)
  3. Connects what I am learning to the real world (54%)
  4. Fits my learning style (53%)
  5. Easy to find videos to help with schoolwork and easy to access on mobile devices (53%)
  6. More engaging and keeps my attention (48%)
  7. Reduces the time I need to digest information (45%)
  8. Learn more from watching a video than reading a book (44%)


So, what are we to make of this fairly rapid expansion of classroom use of visually-based resources? For one thing videos are everywhere and for the most part they’re free – YouTube, Kahn Academy, the archives of organizations like NASA and the Library of Congress.

Tools for searching video archives have improved a lot; many have been tagged for alignment to the curriculum and they can be served up in short chunks that make it fairly easy to slip them into lessons and activities.

That takes us to the second point. The use of videos and animations that Speak UP reports on is almost all supplemental. Kids aren’t spending the entire science class watching a video that delivers all the content the teacher wants them to master. Teachers have cued up a short video to introduce a unit or a clip that illustrates a difficult concept.

Classroom activity is enriched by digital learning, but I’d bet that for the most part the overall teaching approach has not changed that much. In other words, classroom video use is not very disruptive.

It’s less clear how games are being incorporated into classrooms. The same is true for simulations. To be really effective, in my opinion, these tools call for some (or a lot) of classroom restructuring.

Since Speak UP reports that elementary teachers are the heaviest users of games, I am assuming that once again the usage is not very disruptive. Games as rewards or as a more engaging way to practice skills have been around a long time. That’s not to say that a number of teachers are experimenting with gaming environment for deeper learning. But I doubt that it’s the norm right now.

Of course, Speak UP is a survey. There’s only so much you can gather and probing for details is hard. It seems clear that as teachers move more deeply into implementing (and mastering) visually-based resources, they are much more positive about the benefits. Teachers who make their own videos are more positive than teachers who only use videos. Teachers who use (and possibly make) animations are the most positive of all. I imagine there are changes in classroom practice associated with these various degrees of video usage.

Students report being asked to search out videos on their own to support a position they are taking or to illustrate a presentation. They also report being asked to make their own videos. That move from consumer to creator is very important. Anecdotally, we know that a lot of this work is collaborative, so not only has the locus of control shifted to the student, but deeper skills are called into play.

As much as I wish it was not so, transformation takes time. That’s not to say we need to just sit around and wait. Providing better tools for teachers and students, showcasing teachers and classrooms at all stages of the digital transformation, building bridges from familiar practice to the more challenging – all this and more can move things along much more quickly.