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Section 1: Engaging and Empowering Learning Through Technology

Goal: All learners will have engaging and empowering learning experiences in both formal and informal settings that prepare them to be active, creative, knowledgeable, and ethical participants in our globally connected society.

To be successful in our daily lives and in a global workforce, Americans need pathways to acquire expertise and form meaningful connections to peers and mentors. This journey begins with a base of knowledge and abilities that can be augmented and enhanced throughout our lives. Fortunately, advances in learning sciences have provided new insights into how people learn.1 Technology can be a powerful tool to reimagine learning experiences on the basis of those insights.

Historically, a learner’s educational opportunities have been limited by the resources found within the walls of a school. Technology-enabled learning allows learners to tap resources and expertise anywhere in the world, starting with their own communities. For example:

  • With high-speed Internet access, a student interested in learning computer science can take the course online in a school that lacks the budget or a faculty member with the appropriate skills to teach the course.
  • Learners struggling with planning for college and careers can access high-quality online mentoring and advising programs where resources or geography present challenges to obtaining sufficient face-to-face mentoring.
  • With mobile data collection tools and online collaboration platforms, students in a remote geographic area studying local phenomena can collaborate with peers doing similar work anywhere in the world.
  • A school with connectivity but without robust science facilities can offer its students virtual chemistry, biology, anatomy, and physics labs—offering students learning experiences that approach those of peers with better resources.
  • Students engaged in creative writing, music, or media production can publish their work to a broad global audience regardless of where they go to school.
  • Technology-enabled learning environments allow less experienced learners to access and participate in specialized communities of practice, graduating to more complex activities and deeper participation as they gain the experience needed to become expert members of the community.2

These opportunities expand growth possibilities for all students while affording historically disadvantaged students greater equity of access to high-quality learning materials, expertise, personalized learning, and tools for planning for future education.3, 4 Such opportunities also can support increased capacity for educators to create blended learning opportunities for their students, rethinking when, where, and how students complete different components of a learning experience.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.

Blended Learning

In a blended learning environment, learning occurs online and in person, augmenting and supporting teacher practice. This approach often allows students to have some control over time, place, path, or pace of learning. In many blended learning models, students spend some of their face-to-face time with the teacher in a large group, some face-to-face time with a teacher or tutor in a small group, and some time learning with and from peers. Blended learning often benefits from a reconfiguration of the physical learning space to facilitate learning activities, providing a variety of technology-enabled learning zones optimized for collaboration, informal learning, and individual-focused study.

Agency in Learning

Learners with agency can “intentionally make things happen by [their] actions,” and “agency enables people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal with changing times.”6 To build this capacity, learners should have the opportunity to make meaningful choices about their learning, and they need practice at doing so effectively. Learners who successfully develop this ability lay the foundation for lifelong, self-directed learning.

What People Need to Learn

To remain globally competitive and develop engaged citizens, our schools should weave 21st century competencies and expertise throughout the learning experience. These include the development of critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration, and adding multimedia communication into the teaching of traditional academic subjects.5 In addition, learners should have the opportunity to develop a sense of agency in their learning and the belief that they are capable of succeeding in school.

Beyond these essential core academic competencies, there is a growing body of research on the importance of non-cognitive competencies as they relate to academic success.7, 8, 9 Non-cognitive competencies include successful navigation through tasks such as forming relationships and solving everyday problems. They also include development of self-awareness, control of impulsivity, executive function, working cooperatively, and caring about oneself and others.

Building Non-Cognitive Competencies: Providing Opportunities for Practice

Interacting with peers, handling conflicts, resolving disputes, or persisting through a challenging problem are all experiences that are important to academic success.

Digital games can allow students to try out varied responses and roles and gauge the outcomes without fear of negative consequences.28 Accumulating evidence suggests that virtual environments and games can help increase empathy, self-awareness, emotional regulation, social awareness, cooperation, and problem solving while decreasing the number of behavior referrals and in-school suspensions.29

Games such as Ripple Effects and The Social Express use virtual environments, storytelling, and interactive experiences to assess a student’s social skill competencies and provide opportunities to practice. Other apps help bridge the gap between the virtual environment and the real world by providing just-in-time supports for emotional regulation and conflict resolution. A number of apps are available to help students name and identify how they are feeling, express their emotions, and receive targeted suggestions or strategies for self-regulation. Examples include Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame; Smiling Mind; Stop, Breathe & Think; Touch and Learn—Emotions; and Digital Problem Solver.

Fostering Growth Mindset: Technology-Based Program to Fuel Student Achievement


A key part of non-cognitive development is fostering a growth mindset about learning. Growth mindset is the understanding that abilities can be developed through effort and practice and leads to increased motivation and achievement. The U.S. Department of Education has funded several growth mindset–related projects, including a grant to develop and evaluate SchoolKit, a suite of resources developed to teach growth mindset quickly and efficiently in schools.

Jill Balzer, a middle school principal in Killeen, Texas, has seen success from using SchoolKit in her school. Balzer spoke with an eighth grader who achieved academic distinction for the first time in five years after using the using the program. “When I asked him what the difference was,” recalled Balzer, “he said that now he understood that even though learning was not always going to come easy to him it didn’t mean he was stupid, it just meant he needed to work harder on that subject.”30

District of Columbia Public Schools also have made the SchoolKit available to all middle schools. Principal Dawn Clemens of Stuart-Hobson Middle School saw increases in reading scores for their seventh-grade students after using the program. “With middle-schoolers, there are always excuses,” Clemens said. “But this shifts the language to be about payoff from effort, rather than ‘the test was too hard’ or ‘the teacher doesn’t like me.'”31

Increased connectivity also increases the importance of teaching learners how to become responsible digital citizens. We need to guide the development of competencies to use technology in ways that are meaningful, productive, respectful, and safe. For example, helping students learn to use proper online etiquette, recognize how their personal information may be collected and used online, and leverage access to a global community to improve the world around them can help prepare them for successfully navigating life in a connected world. Mastering these skills requires a basic understanding of the technology tools and the ability to make increasingly sound judgments about the use of them in learning and daily life. For the development of digital citizenship, educators can turn to resources such as Common Sense Education’s digital citizenship curriculum or the student technology standards from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

Technology-Enabled Learning in Action

Learning principles transcend specific technologies. However, when carefully designed and thoughtfully applied, technology has the potential to accelerate, amplify, and expand the impact of powerful principles of learning. Because the process of learning is not directly observable, the study of learning often produces models and conclusions that evolve across time. The recommendations in this plan are based on current assumptions and theories of how people learn even while education researchers, learning scientists, and educators continue to work toward a deeper understanding.

The NETP focuses on how technology can help learners unlock the power of some of the most potent learning principles discovered to date. For example, we know that technology can help learners think about an idea in more than one way and in more than one context, reflect on what is learned, and adjust understanding accordingly.10, 11 Technology also can help capture learners’ attention by tapping into their interests and passions.13 It can help us align how we learn with what we learn.

Following are five ways technology can improve and enhance learning, both in formal learning and in informal settings. Each is accompanied by examples of transformational learning in action.

1. Technology can enable personalized learning or experiences that are more engaging and relevant. Mindful of the learning objectives, educators might design learning experiences that allow students in a class to choose from a menu of learning experiences—writing essays, producing media, building websites, collaborating with experts across the globe in data collection—assessed via a common rubric to demonstrate their learning. Such technology-enabled learning experiences can be more engaging and relevant to learners.

Scaling Up Personalized Learning: Massachusetts’ Innovation Schools Create Multiple Pathways to Learning

As part of Massachusetts’ Achievement Gap Act of 2010, funding was set aside to give schools the opportunity to implement innovative strategies to improve learning. Through this legislation, educators can create Innovation Schools that can operate with increased flexibility in key areas such as schedule, curriculum, instruction, and professional development.32

As of 2015, there were 54 approved Innovation Schools and Academies in 26 school districts across Massachusetts. Some schools implemented a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or STEM-plus-arts model, and others implemented a combination of one or more of the following educational models: multiple pathways, early college, dual-language immersion, or expanded learning time.

Students in a Safety and Public Service Academy combine rigorous college-style coursework available in a variety of formats (in class, online, blended learning, off-site for internships and job shadows) in areas such as forensics, computer science, criminal law, crisis management, psychology, and video production. Students at the Arts Academy may combine their coursework with off-site learning opportunities at local universities, combining high-tech design skills and knowledge of the creative arts to prepare them for post-secondary education and a career in the arts.

Pentucket Regional School District’s program has scaled their innovation approach to every elementary school in the district. Their approach is centered on student choice and the use of opportunities for learning that extend beyond the classroom walls. Through the redesign of the school day and year, students engage in hands-on experiential learning with in-class lessons; online and blended coursework; and off-campus academic opportunities, internships, and apprenticeships.

2. Technology can help organize learning around real-world challenges and project-based learning—using a wide variety of digital learning devices and resources to show competency with complex concepts and content. Rather than writing a research report to be read only by her biology teacher and a small group of classmates, a student might publish her findings online where she receives feedback from researchers and other members of communities of practice around the country. In an attempt to understand the construction of persuasive arguments, another student might draft, produce, and share a public service announcement via online video streaming sites, asking his audience for constructive feedback every step of the way.

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning takes place in the context of authentic problems, continues across time, and brings in knowledge from many subjects. Project-based learning, if properly implemented and supported, helps students develop 21st century skills, including creativity, collaboration, and leadership, and engages them in complex, real-world challenges that help them meet expectations for critical thinking.13


Engaged Creation: Exploratorium Creates a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for Exploring Circuits and Electricity

In the summer of 2015, the Exploratorium in San Francisco launched its first MOOC, working with Coursera, called Tinkering Fundamentals to inspire STEM-rich tinkering; introduce a set of high-quality activities that could be replicated easily in the classroom; and foster robust discussions of the learning.

The six-week course included a blend of hands-on activities, short videos of five to eight minutes each, an active discussion forum, live Web chats, social media, and other resources. Each week the videos highlighted an introduction to a new tinkering activity, the learning goals, and tips for facilitation; step-by-step instructions for how to build and support others to build the tinkering contraption; classroom video and interviews with teachers about classroom implementation and student learning; profiles of artists; and comments by learning experts. Reflective prompts generated extensive conversation in the discussion forums.

To facilitate these online activities, the Exploratorium integrated multiple platforms, including Coursera and live video streaming tools. Instructors used these online platforms and spaces to reflect on the week’s activities and forum posts and to provide real-time feedback to participants. In videoconferences, the instructors positioned themselves as questioners rather than as experts, enhancing a strong sense of camaraderie and collaborative exploration.

The Exploratorium used a social media aggregator to showcase photos and videos of participants’ tinkering creations, underscoring the hands-on and material nature of the work of the MOOC. The course attracted more than 7,000 participants from 150 countries, of whom approximately 4,400 were active participants, resulting in more than 66,000 video views and 6,700 forum posts. For more information, visit the Exploratorium and Coursera on the Web.

Building Projects for Real Audiences: National Parks Service Deepens Engagement Through Technology

Journey Through Hallowed Ground is a partnership project of the National Park Service that encourages students to create rich connections to history through project-based learning, specifically making videos about their visits to historical sites. The students take the roles of writers, actors, directors, producers, costume designers, music directors, editors, and filmmakers with the support of professional video editors. The videos allow the students to speak about history in their own words as well as share their knowledge with their peers. In addition to learning about history, participating in the projects also teaches students to refine their skills of leadership and teamwork. All videos become official material of the National Park Service and are licensed openly for use by other students and teachers around the world.

3. Technology can help learning move beyond the classroom and take advantage of learning opportunities available in museums, libraries, and other out-of-school settings. Coordinated events such as the Global Read Aloud allow classrooms from all over the world to come together through literacy. One book is chosen, and participating classrooms have six weeks in which teachers read the book aloud to students and then connect their classrooms to other participants across the world. Although the book is the same for each student, the interpretation, thoughts, and connections are different. This setting helps support learners through the shared experience of reading and builds a perception of learners as existing within a world of readers. The shared experience of connecting globally to read can lead to deeper understanding of not only the literature but also of their peers with whom students are learning.

Upskilling Adult Learners: At Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), Everyone Is a Teacher and a Learner

P2PU and the Chicago Public Library (CPL) have partnered to pilot Learning Circles—lightly facilitated study groups for adult learners taking online courses together at their local library. In spring 2015, the partnership ran a pilot program in two CPL branches, facilitating in-person study groups around a number of free, online courses. The pilot program has expanded to 10 CPL branches in fall 2015, with the ultimate goal of developing an open-source, off-the-shelf solution that can be deployed by other public libraries, allowing all libraries and their communities to harness the potential of blended learning for little to no expertise or cost.

Meeting once a week in two-hour sessions, a non-content expert librarian helps facilitate a peer-learning environment, with the goal that after six weeks the Learning Circles become self-sustainable. P2PU has designed a number of software tools and guidelines to help onboard learners and facilitators, easing administrative burdens and integrating deeper learning principles into existing online learning content. Initial results suggest that students in Learning Circles have far higher retention than do students in most online courses, participants acquire non-cognitive skills often absent from pure online learning environments, and a diverse audience is participating. By working with libraries and building in additional learning support, P2PU also is able to reach first-time online learners, many of whom do not have a post-secondary degree.

P2PU measures success in terms of both the progress of individual learners and the viability of the model. In addition to the number of branches involved, cost per user, and number of learners, attributes such as retention, returning to additional Learning Circles, advancing from the role of learner to that of facilitator, and transitioning from Learning Circles into other fields (formal education, new job) are all other factors that contribute to success. Furthermore, P2PU designs for and measures academic mindsets (community, self-efficacy, growth mindsets, relevance) as a proxy for learner success.

Helping Parents Navigate a Technological World: A Resource for Making Informed Technology Decisions

Family Time With Apps: A Guide to Using Apps With Your Kids is an interactive resource for parents seeking to select and use apps in the most effective ways with their children.33 The guide informs parents of the variety of ways that apps can support children’s healthy development and family learning, communication, and connection with eight strategies. These strategies are playing games together, reading together every day, creating media projects, preparing for new experiences, connecting with distant family, exploring the outside world, making travel more fun, and creating a predictable routine. Tips on how to find the best apps to meet a child’s particular needs and an explanation of how and why to use apps together also are included.

The guide references specific apps, which connect parents with the resources to select appropriate apps for their children. This online community is connected with various app stores and gives parents a menu for app selection on the basis of learning topic, age, connectivity, and device capability. Information also is included that describes exactly what other elements are attached to each app—for example, privacy settings, information collection, advertisements allowed, related apps, and so on.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop also recommends the Parents’ Choice Award Winners as a tool for selecting child-appropriate apps. These apps, reviewed by the Parents’ Choice Awards Committee within the Parents’ Choice Foundation, have gone through a rigorous, multi-tiered evaluation process. The committee looks for apps that help children grow socially, intellectually, emotionally, and ethically while inspiring creativity and imagination and connecting parents and children.

4. Technology can help learners pursue passions and personal interests. A student who learns Spanish to read the works of Gabriel García Márquez in the original language and a student who collects data and creates visualizations of wind patterns in the San Francisco Bay in anticipation of a sailing trip are learning skills that are of unique interest to them. This ability to learn topics of personal interest teaches students to practice exploration and research that can help instill a mindset of lifelong learning.

Leveraging the Power of Networks: Cultivating Connections Between Schools and Community Institutions

Cities of LRNG helps close the opportunity gap by connecting young people with a wide range of learning opportunities throughout their cities. The program makes learning activities from hundreds of community organizations easily discoverable to youth and their families on a single online platform.

Each LRNG city has a website where partner organizations can make their offerings visible. Young people receive recommended activities on the basis of their personal passions. For example, in Chicago through the local Chicago Cities of Learning initiative, more than 120 organizations have provided a collective 4,500 engaging learning opportunities for tens of thousands of young people in all areas of the city through the platform.

As students participate in learning activities, they earn digital badges that showcase their skills and achievements. These digital badges signify mastery of a skill—for example, coding, games, design, or fashion—giving out-of-school learning greater currency by documenting and archiving learning wherever it occurs. Each time a young person earns a badge, he or she is recommended additional learning experiences and invited to broaden or deepen skills to propel him or her along academic, civic, or career trajectories. Because digital badges contain in-depth information about each individual’s learning experiences, schools and potential employers can gain a comprehensive view of each person’s interests and competencies.

Hive Learning Networks, a project of the Mozilla Foundation, organize and support city-based, peer-to-peer professional development networks and champion connected learning, digital skills, and Web literacy in youth-serving organizations in urban centers around the world. Using a laboratory approach and catalytic funding model, Hive re-imagines learning as interest based and empowers learners through collaboration with peer educators, youth, technology experts, and entrepreneurs.

Similar to Cities of LRNG, Hive networks are made up of community-based organizations, including libraries; museums; schools; after-school programs; and individuals, such as educators, designers, and artists. Hive participants work together to create learning opportunities for youth within and beyond the confines of traditional classroom experiences, design innovative practices and tools that leverage digital literacy skills for greater impact, and advance their own professional development.

The Hive model supports three levels of engagement:

  1. Events. Organizations with shared learning goals unite to provide fun, engaging events, such as maker parties, as a first step toward exploring longer term collaborations.
  2. Learning Communities. Community organizers with an interest in Hive’s core principles come together in regular meet-ups and events to explore how to apply connected learning tools and practices. Learning communities are in seven cities in the United States, Canada, and India.
  3. Learning Networks. With an operational budget and staff, Hive Learning Networks commit to promoting innovative, open-source learning models in partnership with a community’s civic and cultural organizations, businesses, entrepreneurs, educators, and learners. Learning Networks are in New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.

For more information about Hive Learning Networks, visit Hive on the Web.

5. Technology access when equitable can help close the digital divide and make transformative learning opportunities available to all learners. An adult learner with limited physical access to continuing education can upskill by taking advantage of online programs to earn new certifications and can accomplish these goals regardless of location.

Building Equal Experiences: Black Girls Code (BGC) Informs and Inspires

Introducing girls of color to technology at an early age is one key to unlocking opportunities that mostly have eluded this underserved group. BGC, founded in 2001 by Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer, aims to “increase the number of women of color in the digital space by empowering girls of color to become innovators in STEM subjects, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology.”34

Through a combination of workshops and field trips, BGC gives girls of color a chance to learn computer programming and connects them to role models in the technology space. BGC also hosts events and workshops across the country designed to help girls develop a wide range of other skills such as ideation, teamwork, and presenting while exploring social justice issues and engaging in creating solutions to those issues through technology.35 One example of such an event occurred at DeVry University where 100 girls between the ages of 7 and 17 learned how to build a webpage in a day. Tech industry volunteers led sessions in how to code using HTML, change the look and formatting of webpages using CCS, and design a basic Web structure. The girls developed webpages that integrated text, images, videos, and music, according to their interests and creativity. Toward the end of the day, participants presented their websites to cheering parents, volunteers, and other attendees. Between 10 and 12 similar events by BGC are held in Oakland each year.36

BGC is headquartered in San Francisco, and BGC chapters are located in Chicago; Detroit; Memphis; New York; Oakland; Raleigh; and Washington, D.C., with more in development.

Creating for Accessibility: Hello Navi for the Visually Impaired

When Maggie Bolado, a teacher at Resaca Middle School in Los Fresnos, Texas, was approached about the unique challenge of helping a visually impaired student navigate the school’s campus, she had not imagined the innovation that was about to happen. Bolado helped guide a group of seventh- and eighth-grade students to develop an app to navigate the school grounds called Hello Navi. Working mostly during extracurricular time, the students learned bracket coding via online tutorials that enabled them to develop the app. As they learned to program, they also were developing problem-solving skills and becoming more detail oriented.

When the app was made available for download, requests came in to tailor the app to the needs of other particular users, including one parent who wanted to know how to make it work for her two-year-old child. The students participated in a developers’ forum to go through requests and questions on the app and problem-solve challenges and issues together. The students also interpreted various data sets, tracking the number of times the app was downloaded and monitoring the number of total potential users, making possible an improved next iteration of the app.

The Future of Learning Technologies

Although these examples help provide understanding of the current state of educational technologies, it is also important to note the research being done on early stage educational technology and how this research might be applied more widely in the future to learning.

As part of their work in cyberlearning, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is researching opportunities offered by integrating emerging technologies with advances in the learning sciences. Following are examples of the projects being funded by the NSF as part of this effort:

Increased use of games and simulations to give students the experience of working together on a project without leaving their classrooms. Students are involved actively in a situation that feels urgent and must decide what to measure and how to analyze data in order to solve a challenging problem. Examples include RoomQuake, in which an entire classroom becomes a scaled-down simulation of an earthquake. As speakers play the sounds of an earthquake, the students can take readings on simulated seismographs at different locations in the room, inspect an emerging fault line, and stretch twine to identify the epicenter. Another example is Robot-Assisted Language Learning in Education (RALL-E), in which students learning Mandarin converse with a robot that exhibits a range of facial expressions and gestures, coupled with language dialogue software. Such robots will allow students to engage in a social role-playing experience with a new language without the usual anxieties of speaking a new language. The RALL-E also encourages cultural awareness while encouraging good use of language skills and building student confidence through practice.

New ways to connect physical and virtual interaction with learning technologies that bridge the tangible and the abstract. For example, the In Touch With Molecules project has students manipulate a physical ball-and-stick model of a molecule such as hemoglobin, while a camera senses the model and visualizes it with related scientific phenomena, such as the energy field around the molecule. Students’ tangible engagement with a physical model is connected to more abstract, conceptual models, supporting students’ growth of understanding. Toward a similar goal, elementary school students sketch pictures of mathematical situations by using a pen on a tablet surface with representational tools and freehand sketching, much as they would on paper. Unlike with paper, they easily copy, move, group, and transform their pictures and representations in ways that help them to express what they are learning about mathematics. These can be shared with the teacher, and, via artificial intelligence, the computer can help the teacher see patterns in the sketches and support the teacher’s using student expression as a powerful instructional resource.

Interactive three-dimensional imaging software, such as zSpace, is creating potentially transformational learning experiences. With three-dimensional glasses and a stylus, students are able to work with a wide range of images from the layers of the earth to the human heart. The zSpace program’s noble failure feature allows students constructing a motor or building a battery to make mistakes and retry, learning throughout the process. Although the content and curriculum are supplied, teachers can customize and tailor lesson plans to fit the needs of their classes. This type of versatile technology allows students to work with objects schools typically would not be able to afford, providing a richer, more engaging learning experience.

Augmented reality (AR) as a new way of investigating our context and history In the Cyberlearning: Transforming Education EXP project, researchers are addressing how and for what purposes AR technologies can be used to support the learning of critical inquiry strategies and processes. The question is being explored in the context of history education and the Summarizing, Contextualizing, Inferring, Monitoring, and Corroborating (SCIM-C) framework developed for historical inquiry education. A combined hardware and software platform is being built to support SCIM-C pedagogy. Students use a mobile device with AR to augment their “field” experience at a local historical site. In addition to experiencing the site as it exists, AR technology allows students to view and experience the site from several social perspectives and to view its structure and uses across several time periods. Research focuses on the potential of AR technology in inquiry-based fieldwork for disciplines in which analysis of change across time is important to promote understanding of how very small changes across long periods of time may add up to very large changes.

E-rate: Source of Funding for Connectivity

The Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Program, commonly known as E-rate, is a source of federal funding for Internet connectivity for U.S. schools and libraries. Created by Congress in 1996, E-rate provides schools and libraries with discounted Internet service based on need. The program was modernized in 2014 to allow schools to prioritize funding high-speed wireless connectivity in schools. For more information about E-rate, visit the website of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Across these examples, we see that learning is not contained within screens or classrooms and that technology can enrich how students engage in the world around them.

To see additional examples of cyberlearning, visit The Center for Innovative Research in CyberLearning.14

Bringing Equity to Learning Through Technology

Closing the Digital Use Divide

Traditionally, the digital divide in education referred to schools and communities in which access to devices and Internet connectivity were either unavailable or unaffordable.15 Although there is still much work to be done, great progress has been made providing connectivity and device access. The modernization of the federal E-rate program has made billions of dollars available to provide high-speed wireless access in schools across the country.


However, we have to be cognizant of a new digital divide—the disparity between students who use technology to create, design, build, explore, and collaborate and those who simply use technology to consume media passively.16, 17, 18, 19

On its own, access to connectivity and devices does not guarantee access to engaging educational experiences or a quality education.20 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.21, 22, 23, 24

Providing Technology Accessibility for All Learners

Learning experiences enabled by technology should be accessible for all learners, including those with special needs. Supports to make learning accessible should be built into learning software and hardware by default. The approach of including accessibility features from the beginning of the development process, also known as universal design, is a concept well established in the field of architecture. Modern public buildings include features such as ramps, automatic doors, or braille on signs to make them accessible by everyone. In the same way, features such as text-to-speech, speech-to-text, enlarged font sizes, color contrast, dictionaries, and glossaries should be built into educational hardware and software to make learning accessible to everyone.

Three main principles drive application of universal design for learning (UDL): 25, 26, 27

  1. Provide multiple means of representation so that students can approach information in more than one way. Examples include digital books, specialized software and websites, and screen readers that include features such as text-to-speech, changeable color contrast, alterable text size, or selection of different reading levels.
  2. Provide multiple means of expression so that all students can demonstrate and express what they know. Examples include providing options in how they express their learning, where appropriate, which can include options such as writing, online concept mapping, or speech-to-text programs.
  3. Provide multiple means of engagement to stimulate interest in and motivation for learning. Examples include providing options among several different learning activities or content for a particular competency or skill and providing opportunities for increased collaboration or scaffolding.

Digital learning tools can offer more flexibility and learning supports than can traditional formats. Using mobile devices, laptops, and networked systems, educators are better able to personalize and customize learning experiences to align with the needs of each student. They also can expand communication with mentors, peers, and colleagues through social media tools. Digital tools also can make it possible to modify content, such as raising or lowering the complexity level of a text or changing the presentation rate.

At a higher level of engagement, digital tools such as games, websites, and digital books can be designed to meet the needs of a range of learners, from novices to experts. Learners with little understanding might approach the experience first as a novice and then move up to an intermediate level as they gain more knowledge and skills. One example is McGill University’s The Brain from Top to Bottom. The site includes options to engage with the content as a beginner, intermediate, or advanced learner and adjusts the learning activities accordingly.

To help in the selection of appropriate universally designed products and tools, the National Center on Universal Design for Learning has developed a resource linking each guideline to information about digital supports that can help a teacher put UDL into practice.

Reaching All Learners: Tools for UDL

Developed with support from the U.S. Department of Education, the tools listed here were designed to help educators implement UDL principles into classroom practice and make learning activities more accessible:

  • Nimble Assessment Systems developed Nimble Tools, to deliver standard versions of assessment instruments that are tailored with embedded accommodation tools to meet the specific needs of students with disabilities. Some examples of the accommodation tools include a keyboard with custom keyboard overlays, the capacity of the system to read text aloud for students, an on-screen avatar presenting questions in American Sign Language (ASL) or Signed English, and the magnification of text and images for students with visual impairments.
  • The Information Research Corporation developed eTouchSciences, an integrated software and hardware assistive technology platform to support STEM learning among middle school students with (or without) visual impairments. The product includes a haptic sensing controller device to provide real-time tactile, visual, and audio feedback. See video.
  • Filament Games developed the Game-enhanced Interactive Life Science suite of learning games to introduce middle school students to key scientific concepts and practices in the life sciences. These games, aligned to UDL, provide students with multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement and provide assistive features such as in-game glossaries and optional voice-over for all in-game text. See video.
  • Institute for Disabilities Research and Training developed the myASL Quizmaker to provide Web-based assessments for deaf or hard of hearing students who use ASL. This product provides automatic ASL graphic and video translations for students; enables teachers to create customized tests, exams, and quizzes that are scored automatically; and provides teacher reports with grades and corrected quizzes. See video.

Design in Practice: Indiana School District Adopts UDL for All Instruction for All Students

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation is a public school district in Columbus, Indiana, serving approximately 12,000 students. The student population consists of 13 percent in special education, 50 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, and more than 54 languages are spoken. UDL has been helpful as a decision-making tool in the deployment of technologies such as computers and other networked devices. The UDL guidelines help educators determine what strategies, accessible technologies, and teaching methods will enable all students to achieve lesson goals.

In one instance, a social studies teacher held an online discussion during a presidential debate. Realizing that some students were not taking part in class discussions, the teacher used technology to provide multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. Some students who were reluctant to speak up in a face-to-face setting felt safe to do so online, becoming engaged participants in the class discussion.

Since they adopted a universal design approach, graduation rates increased by 8 percent for general education students and 22 percent for special education students. Also, the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement tests has increased.

Physical Spaces and Technology-Enabled Learning

Blended learning and other models of learning enabled by technology require educators to rethink how they organize physical spaces to facilitate best collaborative learning using digital tools. Considerations include the following:

  • Are the design and layout of the physical space dynamic and flexible enough to facilitate the technology-enabled learning models and practices selected? Can a space in which an educator delivers whole-class instruction also be shifted to facilitate individual online practice and research?
  • Do the physical spaces align in their ability to facilitate individual and collaborative work? When practices such as project-based learning require students to be working together with multiple devices for research and presentation building, is the space as useful as when individual learners need time and space to connect with information and experts online for personalized learning?
  • Can the physical spaces and tools be shaped to provide multiple contexts and learning experiences such as Wi-Fi access for outdoor classrooms? Are library spaces able to become laboratories? Can a space used as a history lecture hall for one class become a maker space for engineering the next period?

For more information and tools for aligning physical spaces, visit the Centre for Effective Learning Environments and the Clayton Christensen Institute’s Blended Learning Universe.

Innovation From the Ground Up: Denver School for Science and Technology (DSST) Uses Space to Promote Student Achievement

The DSST is an innovative high school located in Stapleton, Colorado, a redeveloped neighborhood near downtown Denver. Behind the bright colors and unique geometry of spaces at DSST lies a relationship to the way academic subjects are taught and community is formed at the high school. The school is designed to be flexible and aims to support student achievement through the design of its physical spaces.

The school features a series of gathering spaces that can be used for various academic and social purposes throughout the day. The largest of the gathering areas, near the school’s entrance, is where the school’s daily morning meeting for both students and faculty is held. Student and faculty announcements, skits, and other community functions are all encouraged in this communal setting.

Each of the three academic pods also includes informal spaces for gathering, studying, and socializing. These academic clusters are linked by a galleria, or large open hallway, that is lined with skylights and also serves as a gathering place for students and faculty members.

DSST has demonstrated results in the academic achievement of its students and in its attendance record. In 2005, the school’s founding Grade 9 class was the highest scoring Grade 9 class in Denver in mathematics and the second highest scoring class in reading and writing. DSST was also the only Denver high school to earn a significant growth rating on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test scores from one year to the next. Student attendance at the school is typically about 96 percent.


States, districts, and post-secondary institutions should develop and implement learning resources that embody the flexibility and power of technology to create equitable and accessible learning ecosystems that make learning possible everywhere and all the time for all students.
Whether creating learning resources internally, drawing on collaborative networks, or using traditional
procurement procedures, institutions should insist on the use of resources and the design of learning experiences that use UD practices to ensure accessibility and increased equity of learning opportunities.

States, districts, and post-secondary institutions should develop and implement learning
resources that use technology to embody design principles from the learning sciences.

Educational systems have access to cutting-edge learning sciences research. To make better use of the existing body of research literature, however, educators and researchers will need to work together to determine the most useful dissemination methods for easy incorporation and synthesis of research findings into teachers’ instructional practices.

States, districts, and post-secondary institutions should take inventory of and align all learning technology resources to intended educational outcomes. Using this inventory, they should
document all possible learner pathways to expertise, such as combinations of formal and informal learning, blended learning, and distance learning.

Without thoughtful accounting of the available tools and resources within formal and informal learning spaces within a community, matching learners to high-quality pathways to expertise is left to chance. Such an undertaking will require increased capacity within organizations that have never considered such a mapping of educational pathways. To aid in these efforts, networks such as LRNG, the Hive Learning Networks, and education innovation clusters can serve as models for cross-stakeholder collaboration in the interest of best using existing resources to present learners with pathways to learning and expertise.

Education stakeholders should develop a born accessible standard of learning resource design to help educators select and evaluate learning resources for accessibility and equity of learning experience.
Born accessible is a play on the term born digital and is used to convey the idea that materials that are born digital also can and should be born accessible. If producers adopt current industry standards for producing educational materials, materials will be accessible out of the box. Using the principles and research-base of UD and UDL, this standard would serve as a commonly accepted framework and language around design for accessibility and offer guidance to vendors and third-party technology developers in interactions with states, districts, and institutions of higher education.

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