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The Digital Use Divide

A student stands on one side of a river. On the other side are listed examples of active digital use, including Critical Thinking, Coding, Immersive Simulation, Media production, Interaction with Experts, Global Connections, Design, and Peer Collaboration
The Digital Use Divide stands between those students who are asked to use technology for creation, exploration, and critical analysis and those who are not.

As discussed in the 2017 National Educational Technology Plan, a divide exists between those students who regularly encounter opportunities to leverage technology in active, critical, and creative ways and those whose experiences with technology in their learning are limited to more passive expectations of use. Some students experience a school year full of critical media analysis, video and podcast creation, real-world data collection, connections with remote content area experts, and authentic opportunities to share their learning with global audiences.

Other students—often students from historically marginalized backgrounds—have very different experiences with technology.8 9 10 11 They are guided towards more limited engagements that frame them as passive technology users. They have school years of digital worksheets, point-and-click assessments, locked-down devices, and penalties for organic collaboration. In some cases, they may have access to more technology than their peers on the other side of the divide but seldom have opportunities to use that technology in formal education beyond digitized versions of practices of classrooms of a century ago.

Closing this digital use divide—ensuring all students have transformative, active, creative, critically thoughtful experiences supported by technology—is the focus of the following section. Beginning with a clear vision of what states and districts want for all graduates, it then offers guidance and recommendations for operationalizing, evaluating, and systematizing the experiences necessary for all students to fulfill that vision. 


  1. Develop a “Profile of a Learner/Graduate” outlining cognitive, personal, and interpersonal competencies students should have when transitioning between grade levels and graduation. (States, Districts) 
  2. Design and sustain systems, including needs assessments, technology plans, and evaluation processes supporting the development of competencies outlined in the “Profile of a Learner/Graduate” through the active use of technology to support learning. (States, Districts, Schools)
  3. Implement feedback mechanisms that empower students to become co-designers of learning experiences. (Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  4. Develop rubrics for digital resource and technology adoption to ensure that tools are accessible and integrated into the larger educational ecosystem, that they support Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, and that they can be customized in response to accommodation or modification needs of learners with disabilities. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  5. Review subject area curricula or program scopes and sequences to ensure that student learning experiences build age-appropriate digital literacy skills through active technology use for learning. (States, Districts)
  6. Build public-private partnerships with local businesses, higher education institutions, and nonprofit organizations to help students access edtech-enabled hands-on learning and work-based learning experiences. (States, Districts)
  7. Provide professional learning and technical assistance to district leaders, building-level administrators, and educators to support the use of evidence to inform edtech use. (States, Districts)
  8. Develop guidelines for emerging technologies which protect student data privacy and ensure alignment with shared educational vision and learning principles. (States, Districts)
On the left side of the image, a student stands on one side of a river. On the other side are listed examples of active digital use, including Critical Thinking, Coding, Immersive Simulation, Media production, Interaction with Experts, Global Connections, Design, and Peer Collaboration. On the right side, stepping stones have appeared and the student is crossing the river to go to the active use side.
Closing the Digital Use Divide

Re-Defining the Digital Use Divide

From the printing press to streaming video tutorials, the history of edtech is littered with claims of imminent, disruptive transformation. These prognostications often imply that the advent of technology is sufficient for realizing this transformational potential. However, technology alone has yet to prove adequate to improve education for all students. Marshaling technology in support of learning can be most effective when that technology is in the service of common visions of student learning. However, not all students can access the same high-quality learning experiences. Technology can be deployed in classrooms almost as an afterthought for many students, with little understanding of how best to use it. What is often identified as “professional learning” regarding technology for educators can often be little more than training on basic functions such as entering rosters, generating reports, or assigning prefabricated tasks. The human element, in these instances, is taken out of the loop.12

The 2017 NETP defined the digital use divide as the disparity between students who use technology to create, design, build, explore, and collaborate and those who are only invited to consume media passively.13

Two images, the first in black and white and the second in color, represent Passive Use and Active Use. In the black and white image representing  Passive Use, students sit in rows. In the color image representing Active Use, students use technology to think critically, build, produce, communicate, collaborate, and create digital content.
Passive vs. Active Technology Use

The plan noted, “Without thoughtful intervention and attention to the way technology is used for learning, the digital use divide could grow even as access to technology in schools increases.” While the field made strides toward more active use for all in subsequent years, 2020 halted many of these efforts. It also expedited the proliferation of technologies and connectivity on a scale and speed for which many districts and schools were unprepared. Although this switch to emergency remote learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency federal funding undoubtedly helped narrow the digital access divide, it did not close it.

In addition to hardware, recent years marked a swell of digital learning resources. During the 2019–2020 school year, a LearnPlatform survey found that school districts used an average of 895 digital tools,14 and a U.S. Department of Education survey found that 45 percent of schools reported having a computer for each student.15 By comparison, in 2023, a LearnPlatform survey found that school districts used an average of 2,591 edtech tools in the 2022–23 school year.16 Ninety percent of educators surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center responded that there was at least one device for every middle and high schooler by March 2021 (84 percent said the same about elementary school students).

Because school systems deployed so much technology on an emergency basis without the benefit of thoughtful planning, change management, or in the service of shared goals, many school systems are struggling to make the most of these new technologies.17 In a 2021–2022 Project Tomorrow Speak Up Survey of over 41,000 students nationwide, 84 percent of grade 6-12 students reported that the number one way they are using new technology in school is for taking online tests or quizzes.18 The subsequent most frequent uses of technology, as reported by students, were creating documents to share (63 percent), emailing teachers with questions (55 percent), and watching online videos (52 percent). While all those are valid uses of technology to support instruction, for the most part, they reflect technology as a passive substitution for traditional teaching practices. These examples are far from the vision of technology “as a tool to engage in creative, productive, lifelong learning.”

Active use of technology utilizes technology to discover, analyze, and apply learning rather than passively receiving information.19 It can empower students to take ownership of their learning, collaborate with peers, and use their skills practically and meaningfully. It reveals voice and choice in the learning process while enhancing engagement, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving abilities, preparing students for success in a technology-driven world.20 21 22 23With active use, students frequently engage in self-directed, interest-driven learning using technology outside of school as well, and these learning experiences are representative of their preferences for how learning should be in the classroom.24

Passive technology use occurs when students consume digital content or interact with technology in a primarily observational or non-interactive manner. This technology use is less engaging and may not require active participation or student contribution. It may include activities like test prep applications focusing on rote memorization or completing digitized worksheets online without immediate feedback. During the pandemic, many students used technology for emergency remote learning in passive ways, which did not necessarily result in high-quality learning experiences.25 26 Because school systems deployed technology on an emergency basis, many teachers did not have the time or capacity to design effective online learning environments; in many cases, teachers transferred over traditional lesson plans and structures to a virtual environment, with varying degrees of success.27 Post-pandemic, teachers and students still use many new digital tools, but not necessarily in ways that foster active technology use.28 29

Decades of research from the learning sciences have shown the importance of considering individual learner variability and encouraging active learning experiences.30 Technology has the potential to support learner needs and create learning opportunities in ways that we could not have imagined 40 years ago, but only when paired with the understanding of how learning can and should look different in the present. Without thoughtful consideration of the learning goals to be supported by technology use and what that should look like, the digital use divide will continue to grow and exacerbate existing inequities already worsened by the pandemic.31 32 33

Sparking Interest in STEAM Education Through Student Choice and Project-Based Learning

Pendergast Elementary School District (PESD) in Glendale, AZ, has pursued the ambitious goal of developing a district-wide, student-centered, project-based learning culture. The district implemented the use of FUSE Studios, a research-based STEAM platform created by and housed within Northwestern University and funded by the Macarthur Foundation and National Science Foundation, among others, to support this goal. FUSE Studios puts student interest and agency at the center of its approach. Instead of moving all students through the same adult-selected tasks at the same time in the same sequence, students using FUSE Studios choose instead from among more than 30 leveled challenge sequences in areas such as 3D design and printing, digital animation, robotics, and making-with-electronics projects.

In-depth classroom research has shown that students develop essential 21st-century skills in FUSE; they learn to persist, teach and learn from their peers, and be adaptive problem-solvers.34 35 36 37 This research has also shown students genuinely enjoy their learning experiences in FUSE, which has implications for their choices about future STEM activities. 

Now in its 12th year, FUSE Studios has grown through word-of-mouth from a small demonstration project to a program implemented in more than 250 schools in the United States and abroad, and serving more than 50,000 young people during the 2022-23 school year. The majority of students using FUSE are from historically marginalized student populations.

Resetting Destination: Portrait of a Learner/Graduate

Amid this new connectivity, influx of devices, and swell of digital learning resources lies an opportunity to cast a clearer vision of what communities want for the learning of their young people. Before implementing edtech, states and school systems have the opportunity to set a clear vision of cognitive, personal, and interpersonal competencies students should have when they transition between grade levels and at graduation. BCSC’s vision was formed by its clear commitment to UDL as a pedagogical framework supported by the active use of technology for learning. In other states and districts, this vision is often called the Portrait of a Learner or Portrait of a Graduate, which serves as a guiding framework that influences curriculum, instruction, assessment, and overall educational design. The NETP will use the term “Portrait of a Learner/Graduate” to describe the entirety of the K-12 journey, a portrait that changes as students progress through grade levels.

Whether at the state or district level, developing a Portrait of a Learner/Graduate involves soliciting input from various stakeholders—educators, parents/guardians, local business owners, colleges and universities, workforce development organizations, and community members. This development process can foster a sense of shared responsibility and ownership and ensure that the final vision aligns with community needs.

Development of a Portrait of a Learner/Graduate pushes all involved to articulate the full range of outcomes they want for their graduates. Although the specific skills outlined in a Portrait of a Learner/Graduate can vary based on individual states’ or school systems’ values and goals, they often include “soft skills” such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, and digital literacy. These transferable skills are often highly valued by employers across industries and help prepare students for college or careers, and civic and community engagement.38 39 By explicitly defining the skills and attributes required for success in college, in the workforce, and in civic life, the Portrait of a Learner/Graduate helps prepare students for post-secondary opportunities and lifelong learning.

After articulating the full range of outcomes desired for their learners and graduates, educators and policymakers can work backward to build a school model and technology plan that maps directly to the identified outcomes. While developing a shared vision is an essential first step, execution may require redefining some critical assumptions regarding learning and how technology can and should support that vision. This process should include the thoughtful, intentional work of change management to help all education community members see what’s possible.40 41 Frameworks for managing this transition to innovative learning include the Innovative Learning Implementation Framework from The Learning Accelerator, Change Management from Digital Promise, and The 4 Shifts Protocol.

Painting a Statewide Portrait of a Graduate in Nevada

Seldom is there the opportunity to read the story of the creation of a portrait. The Nevada Department of Education (NDE) has provided one by making the process by which the state is crafting its “Portrait of a Nevada Learner” public and transparent. Begun in October 2022 and drawing on work in Virginia, South Carolina, Utah, and New Mexico, Nevada’s process serves as an example of ensuring input from as diverse and representative a sample of constituents as possible. Released in May 2023, the final portrait represents the input of thousands of Nevadans, including educators, students, and business leaders. The NDE undertook the effort in partnership with the Future of Learning Network. They began by asking a collection of 200 Nevadans to “envision the future of learning and identify portrait mindsets and skills.” From there, the state sought feedback through surveys, pilot cohorts, and a youth fellowship program to iterate the idea and allow for shared state-wide ownership. The state took the process one step further. It published documentation of the history and development of the portrait to inform Nevadans not involved in the process and as a potential template for states and districts looking to undertake similar projects.

The result of this multi-pronged, multi-sector, and multi-generational approach is a vision of the attributes Nevada learners “must possess to succeed both academically and in life, now and into a rapidly evolving future.” 

Rural District Leverages their Portrait of a Learner Through Competency-Based Education

Northern Cass School District 97, which serves 690 PK-12 students from six rural communities north of Fargo, North Dakota, is implementing competency-based education founded on its Portrait of a Learner. In 2017, the district embarked on a transformational journey driven in part by a specific challenge faced by many school systems: the problem of time. What started as a pilot program catalyzed a complete district redesign.

An essential element of Northern Cass’s learning redesign is self-directed, flexible pacing. Within guidelines appropriate to their developmental level, learners can take the time needed to achieve proficiency on priority standards and provide three pieces of evidence to demonstrate that learning. The district learning management system allows educators to collect proof of proficiency and track learner progress toward meeting standards.

After embracing flexible pacing, the district changed its approach to grading, moving to a standards-based grading system that reflects a growth mindset.42 43 Standards-based grading considers evidence of learning and the data it produces differently from traditional grading scales. It measures students against specific skills and standards rather than on conventional measures, such as a percentage of coursework completed, making it clearer where students are thriving and where they need help. With standards-based grading, failure and making mistakes are part of the learning journey. Students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery and have input as to how they show what they’ve learned.44 Score levels of 1-4 (1: Emerging, 2: Foundational, 3: Proficient, 4: Extending) have replaced traditional letter grades and indicate progress toward achieving proficiency on priority standards. In this model, a score of 1 or 2 conveys not failure or deficiency but that the learner is still working toward mastery.

Cass’s Portrait of a Learner emphasizes skills students need to succeed throughout life, regardless of their post-secondary path. The focus has shifted to “choice-ready” instead of “college-ready.” Even the youngest learners start developing these skills in age-appropriate ways. 

Before graduation, students complete a capstone presentation documenting how they built the skills outlined in the district’s Portrait. Students have two options for showcasing evidence: they can focus on one competency from the Portrait and highlight multiple activities through which they demonstrated it, or choose to focus on one learning experience, such as an internship or a powerful school-based project and explore all the Portrait of a Learner skills they developed and demonstrated in its completion.

Although the transition to competency-based learning has taken several years, it empowers students with voice and choice in their education and provides them with the skills needed for post-graduation success.

Leveraging Technology to Support the Portrait of a Graduate in North Carolina

In October 2022, North Carolina Superintendent of Education, Catherine Truitt, announced the release of the North Carolina Portrait of a Graduate, developed in collaboration with close to 1,200 K-12 educators, administrators, families, employers, communities, and higher education institutions. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), in collaboration with educators and technologists from across the state, has also developed a comprehensible Digital Learning Plan aligned to the Portrait of a Graduate.

The Digital Learning Plan includes goals and rubrics for the state, Public School Units (PSUs), and schools that allow organizations to evaluate their progress and track their growth. The NCDPI has developed a robust professional learning infrastructure to help educators and administrators leverage technology to develop the Portrait of a Graduate competencies. The state has adopted ISTE standards for students, teachers, administrators, and coaches, providing every educator with an ISTE membership. In addition, they sponsor educator cohorts to pursue ISTE educator certification. The state also pays for CoSN memberships for all PSUs and encourages PSU edtech leaders to pursue CoSN’s Certified Education Technology Leader (CETL) certification. The NCDPI pays for interested edtech leaders to take the CoSN CETL course, and the annual NCTIES conference offers the CETL certification exam.

Using Digital Learning Initiative funds, the NCDPI launched a series of summer mini-conferences for educators called NCBOLD. The state provides teachers exemplifying best practices in digital teaching and learning with a stipend and travel funds to visit all eight state regions over two weeks to present free mini edtech conferences for educators. Attendees get CEU credit towards their teacher licensure renewal. 

By aligning the Digital Learning Plan to the State Portrait of a Graduate and focusing on capacity building at the classroom, building, and PSU levels, the NCDPI is supporting a shared vision of student learning to help North Carolina students be truly prepared for civic life, careers, or college after graduation.

Universal Design for Learning: Framing Active Use for All Learners

Effective and active use of technology incorporates the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a research-driven framework,45 46 47 to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.48 UDL aims to make learning accessible and effective for all students by reducing barriers in instruction and addressing individual differences, learning preferences, abilities, and backgrounds. Developed to address the diversity of students’ needs and to provide equal opportunities for learning and success, UDL emphasizes the need to design instructional materials, evidence-based learning activities, and assessments to maximize inclusivity and accommodate a wide range of learners. As such, the UDL framework supports an inclusive and equitable education environment for all learners by providing multiple flexibilities. UDL practice includes flexible presentations of content, flexible response options for students to demonstrate their learning, and flexible options for student engagement. UDL also incorporates appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are English language learners.

Three different images of students in classroom environments demonstrate the importance of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Teaching everything the same way supports unintentional barriers to learning. UDL considers the design of learning materials, activities and assessments to support a wide range of learners. UDL starts with accessibility and considers multiple options for supporting engagement, understanding, and demonstration of learning.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) aims to make learning accessible and effective for all students by reducing barriers and supporting learner variability.

While the following section will include a more detailed examination of how UDL can aid in the use of technology to support learning, the three main principles of UDL are outlined below.

Principles of UDL
Multiple Means of Representation Digital tools can allow educators to present information in multiple ways. Examples can include videos, interactive simulations, infographics, and audio recordings. These tools allow students to access content in formats that suit their preferences. Accessibility features, such as closed captions, screen readers, text-to-speech, and adjustable font sizes, also support diverse learners.
Multiple Means of Expression Digital tools can provide different ways for students to demonstrate their understanding of learning concepts. Examples include written assignments; audio or video presentations such as podcasts, screencasts, or movies; e-books; mind maps; and digital drawing tools. In addition, because technology allows students to learn outside of the traditional classroom setting, it can provide increased flexibility for students in alternative learning environments.
Multiple Means of Engagement Digital tools can provide interactive learning experiences and multiple ways of engaging with learning material. Learners can be engaged or motivated to learn in a variety of ways. Factors influencing these individual variations include neurology, culture, personal relevance, subjectivity, and background knowledge, along with a variety of other factors.49 Different types of multimedia content (audio, video, infographics, etc.) and the presentation of different content options can help students actively engage in the learning process. Technology can also facilitate collaborative learning experiences through discussion boards, virtual classrooms, and group projects, allowing students to work together and learn from one another.
Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

With the increasing number of digital learning tools and devices available to teachers post-pandemic, educators have even more options to support their use of UDL. Digital tools can offer more flexibility and learning support than traditional educational material formats. They empower educators to personalize and customize learning experiences to align with individual student needs while recognizing learner agency in charting the learning path that best meets these needs.

Educators can implement UDL without modern digital technology;50 however, edtech is uniquely suited to support it. Including no-tech and tech-enabled choices for learners may be the best way to meet student needs. This flexibility extends to providing students with the option to use a variety of different digital and analog tools to demonstrate their learning. Rather than teachers feeling like they need to be experts on a specific digital tool before including it in the classroom, they can instead allow students to use the tool or tools of their choice to demonstrate mastery of educational content if the final product demonstrates their understanding of the learning goal.

Example Lesson Utilizing UDL and Technology: A Goal-Driven Unit

As an example of UDL, consider a fictional elementary school lesson created by Ms. Ramirez, who used UDL to develop a unit titled “EcoExplorers.”51 She started by identifying the unit’s goal and considered the barriers that might emerge in the learning process. Ms. Ramirez considered how multiple means of representation, engagement, action, and expression might overcome these barriers. 

The unit aimed to support all students in understanding ecological concepts associated with diversity and sustainability. To achieve this goal, Ms. Ramirez introduced the unit’s goals and central question: “How can we protect and sustain our planet’s diverse ecosystems?” She then reviewed the various tools and pathways students had to explore the topic.

In representing information, Ms. Ramirez leveraged technology to ensure all her students could access and understand the content. Some students chose to engage in an immersive 360-degree virtual tour of rainforests, while others, including a blind student, listened to narrated podcasts about aquatic ecosystems. Finally, some learners, including two students with learning differences, used interactive simulations that allowed them to manipulate ecosystem variables. The variety of provided resources ensured all students overcame the barriers to learning the essential content.

To actively engage students in their learning, Ms. Ramirez related the unit to previous units and encouraged students to take on the role of “EcoExplorers.” She then reminded the students how to use the online collaboration tools for group projects, and students then chose different roles within the unit. Some students took on the role of scientist, some took on the role of engineer, while others took on the role of reporter. Across the different roles, students needed to gather information and develop solutions around critical challenges. The students gathered and organized their information through an online information organizing tool. Some designed infographics using graphic design software, while others created videos using tablets. By offering choice in technology tools, students contributed in ways that aligned with their strengths.

Thinking about how all students could act and express their understanding, Ms. Ramirez embraced diverse assessment methods. She tied all assessment methods back to assessment rubrics aligned to each engagement role and the unit’s goal of understanding ecological concepts associated with diversity and sustainability. She walked the students through various options for demonstrating their understanding, including developing multimedia presentations, podcasts, written reports, or clay models. A couple of students then asked if they could develop a digital book with text, video, and visuals. Ms. Ramirez told students they could use any number of ways to demonstrate their understanding, including digital books. She then reminded the students to submit a self-completed rubric on their chosen expression of understanding. Encouraging students to reflect on their work helped students develop their executive functioning skills.52 53

Using the UDL framework to design the unit, Ms. Ramirez supported all students in learning the content while helping them develop digital literacy and citizenship skills.

UDL Considerations for Educators

UDL principles, especially when combined with active technology use, can help educators better meet student learning needs. However, many policymakers, administrators, and educators do not understand the UDL framework and learner variability. Furthermore, few districts and schools provide educators the time to build their capacity to design educational experiences with that variability in mind. As a result, teachers’ experience and training in classrooms may circumscribe student learning opportunities, even within the same school buildings. This difference in student learning opportunities is at the heart of the digital design divide.

The adults associated with an education system—whether educators, administrators, classified staff, policymakers, or parents/caregivers—tend to view education through their own experiences as students. Despite advances in learning science and the advent of technologies that empower educators to design learning experiences to meet the needs of diverse student populations, this information often does not make its way into schools. Instead, teachers often teach based on their own learning experiences.54 Whether or not their educational experiences met their learning needs, changing practices without explicit training in new instructional models can be difficult. In addition, teachers need to experience these new instructional models as learners through ongoing professional training and teacher preparation programs. Unfortunately, many professional learning opportunities and teacher preparation programs are not designed using UDL principles nor provide teachers with opportunities to experience these new instructional models.

An additional challenge educators and administrators face in many school systems is that teachers are overwhelmed with responsibilities. Teachers may have only one 45-minute planning block per day—barely enough time to complete administrative tasks and answer emails, let alone design lessons that meet the needs of all learners. “Here’s just one more thing” is a common refrain among educators with overflowing plates who are asked to take on additional tasks. Initiative fatigue often occurs when teachers, administrators, and educational institutions are subject to frequent changes in curriculum, teaching methods, assessment systems, and more, resulting in exhaustion and decreased effectiveness.55

Just as students need time and space to learn, grow, and reflect on their learning, so do educators. In short, school systems need to engage in what Justin Reich calls “the power of doing less”—taking the time to step back, eliminate non-essential activities, and provide teachers with the time to reflect on their professional practice.56 In the words of author John Maxwell, “Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.”

State and district policymakers and leaders can consider the following steps to develop systems that provide educators with the time, space, and capacity teachers need to become learning designers:

  • Gain a working understanding of UDL and how to leverage it in the workplace and classroom. 
  • Plan for and intentionally model UDL in adult interactions and meetings and provide the necessary time for authentic learning/discussions.
  • Engage and advocate for adequate connectivity and device access for educators and students at home and school to support learning and instruction.
  • Partner and collaborate across agencies and departments to support UDL implementation.
  • Support active technology use as a foundational UDL strategy.
  • Advocate for equity of access to professional learning that is focused on UDL through sustained funding and policy priorities.
  • Encourage teacher preparation and residency programs to implement UDL principles and support teachers as learning designers versus practitioners.
  • Build on existing partnerships and relationships to develop and deliver professional learning opportunities leveraging UDL and technology.

Partnering Students with Industry Mentors to Solve Real-World Problems

Spark! Technology Solutions is one of seven experiential learning strands available to high school students in the Parkway School District in Chesterfield, MO—a suburban district outside St. Louis. This program allows students to solve problems using digital technologies and connects them with industry mentors who provide guidance, connections, technical expertise, and support throughout the course. Each mentor works for a local business or company that partners with the school district to create authentic, real-world experiences, providing students with the skills and dispositions to lead them in future work. Through these community mentors, students can connect to industry professionals, gain experience in professional settings, and find solutions to real-world problems by harnessing the power of modern technologies while recognizing their role as creators and collaborators in bringing digital solutions to their community.

Unlike a typical class, students determine what skills they want to focus on and design their learning to develop a deep understanding of a specific field of interest. Over the year, students can explore and find their passions in topics like video production, app development, graphic design, cybersecurity, web development, game design, and many more while completing real-world projects and learning the soft skills highly valued by employers. While technology is critical to the program’s success, students say the partnerships and connections make for unique experiences that shape their trajectories in life and future work.

Starting Small to Make a Difference in Mississippi

Engaging students in active use doesn’t require an elaborate technological ecosystem. Pascagoula High School (PHS) is a suburban, Title 1 school on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi with a student population of around 1,120, about 70 percent Black or Hispanic. Educator Jami Sheets teaches a leadership class at PHS, which allows students to learn different leadership skills and put those skills into action on campus and in the community. The class’s mission is to ensure all PHS students feel seen and heard. Sheets and her students identified the need to keep all PHS students “in the know” about school activities. During the 2022-23 school year Sheets’ leadership class launched the Pascagoula News Network (PNN), a student-led weekly newscast, using only a tablet computer, a free graphic design platform, and a freely available streaming platform. Students were responsible for the newscast, which included developing a weekly content outline and writing, recording, and editing each segment under the guidance of Sheets.

The goal of the PNN is to highlight the entire student body, and it has quickly grown in popularity, with additional students inquiring as to how they can be involved in the project. As a result of this unintentional pilot of active technology use, Pascagoula included a broadcast journalism class during the district’s first week-long intersession of the 2023-24 school year.

The experience demonstrates that educators can start with a small pilot, use existing technology tools, and build upon its success. After a successful start, Sheets, in collaboration with the library staff, applied for and received an Ingalls Shipbuilding STEM grant to get additional technology tools to support the broadcast.

Rural Kentucky District Empowers Teachers and Students to Be Active Learners

Shifting to active student use can also mean ensuring active teacher learning. Logan County Schools, a rural, high-poverty school system in Russellville, Kentucky, launched a digital transformation initiative in response to industry and community leaders who indicated that the local workforce needed graduates who were better innovators, communicators, and problem-solvers. The school system, a Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools member, wanted to ensure that teachers, principals, and administrators understood authentic student engagement and the importance of student choice and voice. The district hired digital learning coaches to make sure teachers, principals, and administrators received the resources and training to use technology in ways that supported these learning goals. At the same time, the teacher-leadership team (the LC Innovators) worked with the Learner-Centered Collaborative on embedding high-impact educator professional learning.

This initial investment in educator learning has shifted student experiences and expectations. Today, students in grades 5, 8, and 12 give a Defense of Learning Presentation at the end of the school year to reflect on their learning, share evidence and artifacts, and set new goals. Artifacts don’t have to be from the classroom; they can be photos of a student leading an after-school club, captaining a sports team, or using math on the farm. The district also started an accountability system, sharing student growth, readiness, well-being, and performance data every quarter with the community.

Additional Technology Standards and Frameworks

States and districts have used several different technology standards and frameworks in conjunction with UDL to guide technology use in instruction. Examples include the SAMR Model,57 58 59 the TPACK Framework,60 61 62 the PICRAT Model63 and the ISTE Standards64 (available for students, educators, education leaders, technology coaches, and computational thinking competencies). Standards and frameworks such as these can serve as examples for states and districts developing technology plans to align with their Portrait of a Learner/Graduate, Portrait of an Educator (described in the digital design divide section of this document), and Portrait of a Learning Environment (described in the digital access divide section).

Atlanta Elementary School Designs Problem-Based Learning for Students

Spaces like STEAM labs, maker spaces, and innovation creation labs allow students authentic learning experiences that expose them to career paths, as well as to settings where they can acquire essential skills such as collaboration and problem-solving. These spaces allow students to learn through thought and action when exposed to authentic contexts.65 66 This thinking drove the transformation of Atlanta Public Schools’ M. Agnes Jones Elementary School (M.A. Jones), a Title 1 school serving a majority Black student population. The school was committed to having students develop solutions to local problems. Starting in kindergarten, students learn the Stanford Design School’s engineering design process and practice it in science, English language arts, and math.

Students also put the process into practice. When 5th-grade students discovered insects were destroying a community garden near the school, they used the design process to tackle the issue. Through research, they learned bats eat thousands of flying insects every hour. The students also used AR/VR technology and TinkerCAD in the school’s Innovation Creation Lab to design and build bat houses to bring more bats to the area. Along the way, students learned relevant and applicable facts about gardening, composting, nutrition, wellness, and sustainability.

At M.A. Jones, teachers, coaches, and even custodians participate in professional learning because school leaders recognize that building capacity is the only way to make this type of learning sustainable. By leveraging the active use of technology for solving real-world problems, M.A. Jones educators are helping close the digital use divide.

A Rural District Finds Ways to Make Computational Thinking Accessible to Everyone

It took three years for Talladega County Schools, a rural Alabama district with a student population of 7,000 that is roughly 67 percent White and 28 percent Black, to develop computing pathways for its 7,500 students. Talladega applied to participate in the National Science Foundation-funded Developing Inclusive K-12 Computing Pathways project to offer computer science and computational thinking (CT) opportunities to all students, particularly female students and students from low socioeconomic households. The district clarified the K-12 computing pathway and identified existing resources and gaps. Next, they defined new learning opportunities across grade levels, courses, and schools and developed a competency map linking CT-specific activities and resources.

To focus on classroom-level change, leaders first gathered teacher, administrative, student, and community feedback. They created professional development resources and determined how to measure pathway implementation progress. They also built a website that defined CT for parents and families. The district plans to revise its Inclusive CT Pathways document and website continually, and students will continue using “exit tickets” to help the district gain a better sense of student learning gains.67

Building Pathways to Computer Science Success in Early County, Georgia

Before 2021, the Early County School District in Georgia had no Computer Science program for its students. Three years later, the district’s high school will have four students complete its new computer science pathway. Through a partnership with the Kapor Center, the 52 percent Black school district has established a complete 6th through 12th-grade computer science pathway for students in Early County. They leveraged the Kapor Center’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Computer (CRSC) Framework, developed in partnership with a national collective of education advocates to create more pathways for Black, Latinx, Native American, and other marginalized students to computer science education, tech careers, and STEM-related fields. The rural district faced challenges found in many similar districts across the country—lack of devices, the need for teachers with computer science certification, and a curriculum that helped students achieve industry-standard skills while considering culturally responsive practices. The goal of the partnership is to ensure that the students of Early County fulfill the Kapor Foundation’s mission, “To create a more equitable technology ecosystem that addresses longstanding racial inequality, creates economic opportunity, tackles critical societal issues, and reflects the power and perspectives of communities of color.”68 69

Considerations for Emerging Technologies

Educators who remember the advent of laser disk players or interactive whiteboards know that the adage of change as the only constant is true in edtech. Whatever the most cutting-edge technology in classrooms is today, tomorrow promises more improvements and innovations. These emerging technologies often promise increased engagement, transformation of the field, and increased learning outcomes. This can be alluring, but school systems should measure the potential benefits against potential student health, safety, and privacy risks. An important first step for districts is to set clear thresholds and expectations for including emerging technologies in learning spaces. They should also ensure all educators understand these guidelines and can measure their practices against them.

After addressing privacy and other concerns, one must consider the sometimes-brief lifespan of emerging technologies. Developers can move on from projects, or successful tools can be purchased by other companies and locked behind paywalls. A technology freely available to educators one day can be inaccessible the next. Districts like St. Vrain Valley Schools in Longmont, Colorado, developed a tiered approach to emerging technologies, such as the district’s Innovative Tech Framework for evaluating emerging technologies. Such frameworks can help evaluate new technologies while helping educators understand which tools they can expect to be supported. While there is no “one size fits all” solution to address emerging technologies, there are some general principles that education leaders should keep in mind when considering new technologies. The following recommendations have been adapted from the Office of Educational Technology publication, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning:

  1. Emphasize Humans in the Loop. Regardless of technologists’ claims, no emerging technology will in and of itself solve the long-standing challenges faced by educational systems.70 As new technologies emerge, educators must be involved in designing and developing digital tools for classroom use. Evaluating these technologies for potential classroom use at the state, school system, or school level should be iterative and include educator and student input. Evaluators should ensure tools are accessible and meet the needs of all students including students with disabilities. These evaluations should also consider how best to educate teachers, students, and families about these new technologies’ potential benefits and risks. Educators should also keep in mind that technologies come and go – companies go bankrupt, get acquired by larger ones, or change their business focus or priorities, which is especially true of emerging technologies. By keeping this fact in mind, school systems can help prevent teachers from relying on tools that disappear.
  2. Align the Use of Emerging Technologies to Your Shared Vision for Education (State and District). Every conversation about emerging technologies should start first and foremost with the educational needs and priorities of students, including discussions about educational equity. How might an emerging technology support the development of the skills outlined in your state’s or district’s Portrait of a Learner/Graduate? It is important not to let the excitement surrounding emerging technologies distract from the north star defined by your state or school system. When deploying emerging technologies in classrooms, evaluate their effectiveness against these priorities.
  3. Learning Principles Should Drive the Use of Emerging Technologies. Consider how modern learning principles such as UDL can leverage emerging technologies. Pay particular attention to the needs of students from historically marginalized populations, including students who are English learners (ELs) and those with disabilities. Before deploying emerging technologies, consider learner variability and the diversity of settings in which teachers and students will use digital tools. New technologies developed and deployed without such considerations risk exacerbating the digital use divide instead of narrowing it.
  4. Develop Education-Specific Guidelines and Guardrails. New data privacy and security risks can accompany the practical and powerful functionality of emerging technologies.71 As with any edtech tool, evaluate emerging technologies to ensure they allow school systems to meet their federal and state legal obligations for protecting student data privacy and security. In addition, evaluate these tools to guard against the potential for bias, and to make sure they support cultural responsiveness, and educational equity. Creating an incubation framework for new and emergent technologies can help ensure alignment with these considerations.

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning

The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology’s May 2023 policy report, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations, addresses the clear need for sharing knowledge, engaging educators, and refining technology plans and policies for artificial intelligence (AI) use in education. The report describes AI as a rapidly advancing set of technologies for recognizing patterns in data and automating actions, and guides educators in understanding what these emerging technologies can do to advance educational goals—while evaluating and limiting key risks. We envision a technology-enhanced future that looks more like electric bikes and less like robot vacuums. On an electric bike, humans are fully aware and fully in control, but their burden is less, and their effort is multiplied by a complementary technological enhancement. For more on AI and the future of teaching and learning, visit

Montana Offers Artificial Intelligence Course for High School Students

To ensure all students in the state have an opportunity to face the future of work, the Montana Digital Academy (MTDA), a 14-year-old online school that offers more than 100 courses taught by Montana public school educators to students across the state, began offering Artificial Intelligence in the World in Fall 2023. A semester-long introductory survey of AI concepts, tools, and building blocks, the course will give high school students a broad overview of how people use AI to make decisions and solve problems. Students will study AI’s ethical impacts, participate in hands-on AI-focused activities, and develop a grounding foundation for watching the technology as it evolves. The course will also focus on the history and future of AI and explore career fields, helping students understand how to embrace and use AI ethically to improve society. By making this course available to public school students across the state, the MTDA is helping ensure students in rural communities have opportunities to better understand the implications of emerging technologies and how to use them to support learning.

Ethical AI Research: Automated Scoring Data Challenges for Open-Ended NAEP Items

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), through its National Center for Education Statistics, administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest national representative that offers continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do. NAEP uses open-ended prompts to measure student understanding more broadly than is possible in fixed-choice questions. However, these responses are time-consuming and expensive to score. 

Automated Scoring uses natural language processing to “predict” human scores assigned to student responses. If sufficiently accurate, it can improve reporting timeliness, consistency control, and cost reduction. IES conducted two automated scoring challenges for reading and mathematics prompts. These challenges were open to any research team that met data security requirements; winning teams came from assessment service providers and research institutions.

While this challenge achieved the technical goal of accurate scoring, the organizational and ethical requirements of the challenge were just as important. All challengers submitted a technical report that described algorithmic choices used, in order to ensure that solutions were clear and built trust in their validity. Further, a fairness/bias analysis was required to demonstrate that models were usable. For more information about the challenges, see the Challenge websites.

Improving Practice, Progress, and Proficiency

Once education leaders and policymakers have defined their vision for learners and implemented a framework to shift teacher practice (to be discussed further in the next section), building evidence about their efforts’ success is important. With the more open-ended practices associated with active technology use, both qualitative measures (such as teacher narratives of adoption barriers) and quantitative measures (such as the frequency with which tools are used and student performance) can help education leaders describe implementation, monitor its progress, and adapt practices to better meet their implementation goals. 

These self-evaluation questions are adapted from The Learning Accelerator’s Digital Equity Guide Self-Assessment Tool: 

  1. Are students engaging with materials that are targeted and relevant? Can they access differentiated content from several different cultural perspectives, using a variety of modalities, such as audio and video, in an accessible way? Can they choose to access content that they find motivating and relevant and do they have strategies to support how they interact with different forms of media?
  2. Are students actively engaged with the available technology, tools, and digital materials? Can students use various technologies, allowing them to choose the modality that best motivates them, meets their learning needs, and fits the circumstance? Is technology used not only for content acquisition, assignments, and instruction but also to connect to students’ personal and professional interests?
  3. Do students have opportunities to engage in peer learning, relationship-building, and connection with the broader community? Do students learn across multiple contexts and modalities? Are they comfortable using a variety of channels to communicate and collaborate, and do they possess the digital and media literacy skills and competencies to engage in socially connected learning?
  4. Can students use platforms, tools, and software that adapt to meet their needs, help them reflect and monitor progress, and support their acquisition of new knowledge and skills? Do students experience authentic and inclusive opportunities for learning, reflection, feedback, and assessment? Do they have choice and agency in engaging with differentiated, standards-aligned materials, tracking their progress toward learning goals, reflecting on their learning, engaging in individual practice, and demonstrating proficiency or mastery? Do they possess the digital literacy skills and competencies to determine how to leverage different tools or platforms to best meet their unique learning needs?

Some potential strategies include:

  1. Cognitive walkthroughs are an approach to assessing usability in which one or more evaluators work through a series of tasks and ask a set of questions from the perspective of the user.72 In education, cognitive walkthroughs systematically analyze the usability of educational materials, environments, and experiences from the learner’s perspective. Cognitive walkthroughs can help educators identify obstacles students might encounter in the learning environment, including anything from accessibility challenges to a lack of culturally responsive learning materials. Considering education materials and environments from multiple learner perspectives can help ensure they work for more students.
  2. Journey mapping refers to creating a detailed visual breakdown of the smaller events that make up a larger experience.73 This process includes depicting learners’ various touchpoints, interactions, and experiences during the learning process. Journey mapping focuses on understanding the learners’ perspectives, emotions, and interactions throughout their educational journey.
  3. Educator, student, and parent surveys can provide valuable insight into the perceived benefits associated with technology implementations.

The digital use divide stands between students who have opportunities to engage actively with technology as part of their educational experiences and those who don’t. All learners deserve an education designed around the active use of technology rather than the passive technology uses they report being offered most frequently in school. 

In this section, we have discussed the updated definition of the digital use divide; discussed the importance of active technology use for learning; introduced UDL as a component of active technology use; explained how developing a Portrait of a Learner/Graduate can serve as a “north star” for edtech use; and discussed how to evaluate the usability, feasibility, and implementation of technology used in developing these competencies. The next section will discuss the digital design divide, focusing on educators and the larger education systems that impact their instructional effectiveness.

In the next section, we’ll discuss the four Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tiers of evidence and the role of research studies in the evaluation process.

Ten Examples of Active Use in Practice

  • Students at Harrison Middle School in Arkansas created a video about Granny Henderson, one of the last residents of the Buffalo National River area, to learn the history of the region and make cultural connections. The Buffalo National River was the first waterway designated a national river.
  • Chemistry students at William C. Overfelt High School (East Side Union High School District in San Jose, California) used tech to learn how chemicals affect their lives. Students used a visible light spectrophotometer to investigate how fluorescent red-light exposure affects yeast acceleration, how fast yeast grows in cold water, and how fructose corn syrup impacts yeast growth. They worked in groups to conduct preliminary research and then measured how an independent variable of their choosing affected yeast growth.
  • Students at Highland Academy Charter School (6-12) in Anchorage, Alaska, conducted student-led conferences in the fall and spring at which they presented and shared electronic portfolios of all of their exemplary classwork, goals, and reflections.
  • Visually impaired and blind students at Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary in Louisville, Kentucky, are learning to code using CodeJumper, a coding language developed by Microsoft in collaboration with American Printing House for the Blind.
  • The National Technical Institute for the Deaf Regional Stem Center (NRSC) has partnered with VEX Robotics and the REC Foundation to provide schools with training and resources that empower deaf students to learn STEM concepts through robotics and participate in robotics competitions.
  • Teachers at Del Lago Academy in Escondido, California, a high school focused on Applied Sciences, created a digital badging system for students to show evidence of their learning on the school’s website. Students in the Principles of Design course created the graphics for the badges.
  • Verona Area School District in Wisconsin uses Virtual Field Trips for cross-curricular, cross-grade-level experience. Recently, students from different high school athletic and academic programs designed hands-on learning activities for elementary students using the NFL Play 60 Virtual Field Trip.
  • Second-graders at Central Dauphin School District in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, used Minecraft to animate their water cycles into cartoons. Their teacher said that after the activity ended, the students continued to create animations in other lessons and ended up animating a story that they read in a separate lesson.
  • In their music class at Gorham Middle School in Gorham, Maine, students use Soundtrap to create podcasts and songs. They create compositions in music class to learn about form and genre, and use the program’s text chat so their teacher can see their planning process.
  • Fifth-grade students at Escondido Union School District in Escondido, California, videoconferenced with rangers in four different parks along the state’s coast (via the California State Parks PORTS Program) to learn how to become advocates for Marine Protected Areas. Later, the students created public service announcements to encourage people to save Marine Protected Areas.
  • Grapevine-Colleyville ISD students in Texas program robots to automate tasks, such as cutting the grass and cleaning the floors in schools.


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