Student Learning in the Digital Age: Matching Our Pedagogy to Learners Brains


By Lynne Schrum, PhD, Barbara B. Levin, PhD

During a recent school visit, we observed 7th grade science students studying biomes. Each student had selected a biome for further study; they began by reading up about their topic, of course. Then they had to investigate three locations that exemplified their biome around the globe using Google Earth, but they did not stop there. They identified human factors affecting their biome, described the flora, fauna, and other facts, and then created a narration for a tour of their three locations that included a detailed account of what they had learned, which they then shared with their class. You might think this is a typical assignment, and surely this is not the only class to have done something like this; however, it was clear from talking with many of the students that they understood the complexity of their biome, developed a deep understanding of ways human and other systems interact, and many were able to talk about additional topics they were investigating on their own after the assignment was complete.

Students today want to be connected throughout their day; they expect relevance, authenticity and connections in their educational experiences too. Technology, when appropriately designed and integrated, offers opportunities to engage students. It also helps them ask important questions, develop self-efficacy and create pathways to their future.

Framing The Discussion

We know that technology has the potential to create educational environments that can support deep learning and the creation of knowledge. How People Learn (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 1999) suggests technology’s affordances and characteristics that provide unique opportunities for authentic learning are:

  • exciting curricula based on real-world problems
  • providing scaffolds and tools to enhance learning
  • giving students and teachers opportunities for feedback, reflection and revision
  • building local and global communities
  • expanding opportunities for teacher learning.

Additionally, we have evidence that multimedia (graphics, text, sound and video) used for instruction can aid student understanding, promote knowledge building and secure the type of deep learning we all strive for (Marzano, Pickering & Pollock, 2001). Cohen (1994) found that carefully planned group work leads to learning gains and higher student achievement, and video interaction and games also promote learning outcomes in multiple ways (Gee, 2003).

Our Journey

We investigated exemplary secondary schools throughout the US in an effort to understand how leaders promote student achievement by leveraging many things, including technology and a focus on 21st century skills. Our work took us to small and large districts and schools; all face typical challenges (limited resources, highly diverse population, state and federal mandates). We found leaders, teachers, and others working diligently to prepare learners for their future, engaging them despite competing demands on their attention, and continuing to function effectively within the stress of the complex system that is education today. While our goal was not to limit ourselves to schools invested in 1:1 devices, we found most schools either fully committed to that model, or creating pilot projects in which students each had some type of device (netbooks or laptops were most common).

Learning With Technology

We saw and heard in these technology-rich schools that students were more engaged, and that attendance was up and behavior was improved. We do not suggest that one can draw a bright line between the introduction of technology and these changes, but we do believe that changes in curriculum and teaching practices facilitated by available technology did make a difference in these places. Students were reported to be “more independent and taking responsibility for their learning”. In one school district, which was 100th in spending per pupil/per year out of 115 districts, they saw a rise in graduation rates (to the 2nd highest in the state) and test scores (3rd in the state). They do credit the technology but also a dramatic change to their curriculu and a focus on teachers digging into student achievement data, plus intentional efforts to differentiate and remediate routinely in a targeted fashion. Equally important, the schools we saw use multiple metrics to evaluate ‘success’ among the students. They certainly look at scores on high-stakes testing, but they also consider improvements in behaviur, attitude, spirit, attendance, collaboration with adults and peers, writing and oral communication skills, and student self-efficacy.

We observed engaging electives and new content: Robots and Rollercoasters, Digital Media, virtual field trips, and Lead the Way (a pre-engineering project); one school installed a virtual learning environment in which students used multiple content areas to solve complex problems. For example, in a realistic simulation, students had to plan ways to rescue survivors of a volcanic eruption by applying skills from their Geometry, English, Social Studies, and Science classes. One school had students observe the anniversary of September 11, 2001 by interviewing a survivor of the World Trade Center through Skype, and another took a virtual fieldtrip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in conjunction with a novel they were reading. One high school history teacher creates podcasts to introduce each unit by creating stories about the events and individuals involved; she reports students now approach the units with enthusiasm and questions rather than with indifference. Other high schools are experimenting with flipping their curriculum by having students view or listen to pre-recorded lectures and doing problem sets at home so that class time is reserved for discussions, group work, individual help, and consultation with teachers about projects.

Many schools were using project based learning (PBL) to design complex and interdisciplinary activities. Others had adopted a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum and focus. In all places, teachers were sharing ideas with each other, taking risks by attempting new ways to develop understanding of content and simultaneously encouraging students to ask good questions and think independently.

Lessons Learned

Schools took different approaches to updating their curriculum and deploying the technology, but one thing was for sure: school leadership teams are essential in taking advantage of the affordances that technology-enhanced learning offers. School leaders with their leadership teams had to pay attention to multiple aspects of school improvement before seeing any change. They developed partnerships with families, the wider community and local businesses and universities. They created opportunities and expectations that data would be used in thoughtful ways to improve learning; in many places students began to track their own data, which led them to take more responsibility for their learning. Leaders modelled appropriate use of technology but also committed time and resources to providing continuous professional development. They reorganised time schedules to support planning and professional learning communities (PLC) so that grade or content groups could work together. And they recognised the value and necessity of having both technical and instructional support for the new technology. Of course, creating ways to continue funding new technology was critical, as was attending to creating a positive school culture. And, none of this happened immediately; it takes time for technology to make a difference and attention to many other factors before school improvement can be achieved.


Technology offers an opportunity to improve students’ learning within a context of authentic, challenging, and complex tasks. Schools throughout the world are making strides in accomplishing this common goal. However, it is important to recognise that it takes more than dedicated teachers to really implement change in any educational environment – it takes everyone working to achieve the same vision – technology-enhanced teaching and learning to prepare students for work and life in the 21st century.

Author Information:

Lynne Schrum, PhD
West Virginia University
Morgantown, WV 26506

Barbara B. Levin, PhD
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Greensboro, NC

A list of references are available upon request.

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