A Vision of Digital Learning in Michigan K-12 Schools

Published on September 30, 2021
Written By: 

Christopher Harrington, Ed.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

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Kristen DeBruler, Ph.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

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Tracy GiesekingMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

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Christa GreenMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

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Edward Timke, Ph.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Schools and districts throughout Michigan continue to adopt educational technologies for the purposes of increasing student engagement and performance. This MVLRI research study explores how Michigan schools and districts are leveraging digital resources to meet the academic needs of students and their families both now and beyond pandemic learning. Specifically, the study focused on the instructional strategies schools are moving toward, what digital resources are being used, and the myriad factors that are accelerating or hindering the use of digital resources.

Suggested Citation

Harrington, C., DeBruler, K., Gieseking, T., Green, C., & Timke, E. (2021). A vision of digital learning in Michigan K-12 schools. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/vision-digital-learning-michigan-schools/

Acknowledgements

The research team at Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) would like to thank the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators (MASA), led by executive director Dr. Tina Kerr, for their partnership and contributions. Their insight and support were an integral part of this study. 

Introduction

School leaders have pushed for many years to implement educational technology in ways that truly impact student learning. Those leaders recognized early on that the technology itself is but one of the many considerations needed to design and deliver a high quality digital learning program to all students. 

According to the Digital Learning Collaborative, there are common key indicators of high quality digital learning: 

  • Teachers have an active role whether they are teaching online, face-to-face in a hybrid school, or both; 
  • Professional development and ongoing teacher support are offered consistently throughout the year;
  • Within their courses, students interact not only with their teacher, but also with other students; 
  • Students are provided with extensive support, academically and otherwise; 
  • Communication with families is consistent;
  • Content is well-organized, flexible, accessible, and aligns with quality standards such as the National Standards for Quality Online Learning; and
  • There is a focus on equity and access for all students. 

In their School Leader Digital Learning Guide, the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Educational Technology emphasize that school leaders consider “how digital learning can strengthen students’ learning experiences, empower and engage students and teachers, and promote mastery and critical thinking and personalized learning.” Additionally, they suggest considering “the access from school and from home that teachers and students have for digital teaching, learning, and assessment.” 

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) works with school leaders in research and consulting capacities to better understand and guide both schools and districts to implement digital learning programs that are transformational and sustainable. MVLRI notes that as school districts design such digital learning programs, there are six core components of digital learning for school leaders to consider:

  1. Establishing the purpose, or the “why,” for a program;
  2. Understanding the interplay of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for a program;
  3. Examining technology as a foundation for implementation and long-term impact;
  4. Recognizing professional learning as a catalyst for change;
  5. Shifting school operations to support digital learning; and 
  6. Leading toward long-term success. 

As school leaders consider the core components mentioned above, they should also consider what changes need to be made or what actions need to be taken to enact their vision for digital learning. For example, in what areas should they emphasize spending additional funding they may have? According to a 2021 EdWeek Market Brief study, “K-12 curriculum software and subscription spending grew at a higher rate than any other technology budget area for school districts last year, as their IT budgets mostly increased from the previous year.” The study also revealed that many schools are increasing their budgets in the areas of computing devices, classroom peripheral and network technology, and cybersecurity solutions. Within the state of Michigan, specifically, school leaders are also ramping up efforts to acquire educational technology as a way to address both their current remote learning needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to position their schools and districts to further evolve their digital learning programs in the future.  

Study Overview

This study was designed to determine how Michigan schools are leveraging digital resources to meet the academic needs of students and their families both now and beyond pandemic learning. The MVLRI research team looked at the instructional strategies schools are moving toward, what digital resources are being used, and the myriad factors that are accelerating or hindering the use of digital resources. By understanding the different learning models, motivations, catalysts, and barriers for schools and districts in Michigan, the research team can provide insights and recommendations to all school leaders as a way to inform their strategies and actions moving forward.

Research Questions

In order to explore how Michigan school districts are currently leveraging digital resources and how they plan to do so moving forward, our research questions were as follows: 

  1. How are schools and districts throughout the state of Michigan leveraging digital resources to meet the academic needs of students and their families?
  2. What catalysts exist (systemic, budgetary, policy, etc) that encourage or enable schools and districts throughout Michigan to leverage digital resources to meet the academic needs of their students and their families?
  3. What are the barriers for schools and districts throughout the state of Michigan in leveraging digital resources to meet the academic needs of students and their families?
  4. What statewide supports are needed to help Michigan schools and districts implement digital learning models that meet the academic needs of students and their families? 

Methodology

This quantitative research study utilized an online survey to collect data. The online survey, which was distributed to K-12 school leaders across Michigan, generated 85 recorded responses which provide insight as to where Michigan schools have invested in technology and how technology was being used to support the teaching and learning process. The data collected also provide a glimpse into how schools and districts intend to move forward with digital learning. 

Discussion of the Findings

Trajectory of instructional strategies

In a blog entitled School Leader Insights: The Interplay Between Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, the relationship between curriculum, instruction, and assessment in designing digital learning experiences that align with a digital program’s purpose is explored. Many digital learning options exist, yet not all digital learning modalities and technologies are well-suited to helping a school or district reach its instructional goals. Understanding the various possibilities and working with key stakeholders to make crucial decisions will heavily influence the trajectory to success.

When looking towards the future, school leaders who participated in this research study anticipated using many of the same instructional strategies they were already using, only more so. The vast majority of leaders reported currently using formative assessments to a “moderate” or “great” extent. When looking to the future, nearly 100% of the participating school leaders anticipated using formative assessments to a “moderate” or “great” extent. Similar growth is represented to a slightly smaller degree with student voice and choice and standards-based assessments. Each was well-utilized currently, with moderate gains expected by school leaders in years to come. See Figure 1 for a detailed breakdown of the reported instructional strategies.

Figure 1

Current Use of Instructional Strategies

As reported by the participating school leaders, project-based learning was not currently being well-utilized; however, that instructional strategy is expected to increase in use and become one of the most utilized in years to come. Inquiry-based learning and competency-based education were expected to undergo similar, albeit smaller, increases (see Figure 2). 

Not all instructional strategies were expected to increase in use in future years. Despite being integral to emergency remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, fully online learning showed a slight overall decrease in use to a “moderate” and “great” extent. Similarly, place-based learning showed little expected growth in future years. 

Figure 2

Future Use of Instructional Strategies

Use of digital resources

A digital learning initiative should align with the needs of the instructional program. Choosing and implementing technology as part of a digital learning program should center on the needs of students and teachers and should also consider the needs of the surrounding school community. Technology should align with and enable the established instructional vision that is driving the digital learning initiative, while also accounting for the existing curriculum, instruction, and assessment focus. Primary goals should be useability and support. Some critical questions to be discussed with all relevant stakeholders include: 

  • Where does technology fit into meeting the objectives and student learning goals of the district?
  • What existing technology tools do we already have to help us meet these objectives both in the short and long term?
  • What new technology tools do we need to meet these objectives both in the short and long term?
  • What skills do students, teachers, and families need to use the technologies to meet the district’s objectives? 

As noted in the blog School Leader Insights: Technology as a Foundation, enthusiasm and success come when people feel confident and supported in using the technology they need to meet the goals of a digital learning initiative (Harrington & Timke, 2021). 

In many ways, school leaders’ use of digital resources mirrored their reported instructional strategy use in that they expect to continue to use well-used resources. Leaders reported using at least one computing device per student (1:1) and a district-wide learning management system (LMS) to a “great” extent, more so than any other digital resources. Leaders reported using other digital resources to a “moderate” extent, including digital textbooks, digital assessments, and data dashboards. It was clear that these resources were not as widely used or as heavily relied upon as computing devices or an LMS. Figure 3 details the participating schools’ reported use of digital resources.

Figure 3

Current Use of Digital Resources

While computing devices for each student and the districtwide LMS were still expected to be the most used digital instruction resources in the future, other resources are also projected to be used considerably more in the next few years. School leaders expect to use more digital content developed by their own teachers/staff and use fewer resources purchased from a commercial content provider. Additionally, leaders expect to use student data dashboards to a much greater degree than they do currently (see Figure 4). 

Regardless of the degree of increased use of technology in the future, it is important to note that school leaders expect to rely heavily on digital resources for instruction. As is clear in Figure 4, most resources are expected to be used to a “moderate” or “great” extent.

Figure 4

Anticipated Future Use of Digital Resources

School leaders were also asked to identify the extent to which teachers, students, and/or parents have realized particular benefits as a result of the digital resources used in their schools or districts. By far, the greatest benefit realized was the ability for students to learn anywhere, anytime. The combination of digital resources such as computing devices for each student, a district-wide LMS, and digital content (either created by their own staff or purchased from a third-party provider) has enabled students to engage with content and receive instruction even when physically separated from the teacher and school. 

Leaders also reported that increased communication between schools and families has increased to a “moderate” or “great” extent as a result of digital resources. To a lesser extent, leaders reported that additional benefits of digital resources were realized, including teachers being able to work more effectively with small groups of students, learning becoming more personalized, and increased access to student performance data. 

Factors that encourage the use of digital resources

As discussed above, school leaders reported robust use of digital technology resources overall, with some being used to a greater extent than others. When asked about factors that encourage the use of these digital resources, school leaders were quite clear in their collective response. According to these leaders, the greatest catalyst, by far, was the mindset of administrators. This response is intuitive, as school and district administrators “set the tone” for their respective buildings and staff and make most of the high-level decisions about school operations and future directions. 

Following administrator mindset as the most important catalyst for digital instructional resource use was teacher mindset, followed by state funding, and then educational research—all of which were tightly grouped. Again, these responses are largely intuitive. Teachers are responsible for carrying out administrator directives and visions, which in turn are largely dependent on state funding and informed by educational research. 

Participating school leaders also reported that community mindset played an important role in encouraging the use of digital resources, although it was not one of the most significant roles. Clearly, it is important for a community to “buy into” a school’s or district’s vision; however, they are not the single determining factor or influencer. 

School leaders were asked what other catalysts would help them move forward with their vision for utilizing digital instruction in the future. The two most important catalysts were state-level funding and relaxed state-level policies. This suggests that while leaders may have a grand vision for their schools, they are limited in many ways by perceived state bureaucracy. 

Other important, but not critical, catalysts to realizing leaders’ visions for digital resource adoption were “innovation zones,” educational research, and partnerships with third-party organizations. These all ranked as moderately important and would serve to support the vision but not necessarily restrict or fully realize it in the same way as state-level funding or policy.

Barriers that hinder the use of digital resources

Overall, study participants seemed optimistic about the future use of digital resources in their schools and districts, with most noting barriers only hindered digital resource adoption to a “slight extent” or “not at all.” That is not to say that some barriers were not hindering use to a “great extent,” however. Approximately one third of participating school leaders reported that broadband connectivity issues hindered their ability to leverage digital resources to a “great” extent.” Additionally, slightly more than one fourth of the study’s school leaders reported that resistance from teachers hindered their ability to leverage digital resources to a “moderate” extent. 

Based on responses from school leaders, the main challenge to leveraging digital resources is not in providing the technology itself, but rather in internet connectivity and policies surrounding digital technology utilization in schools. 

Figure 5

Barriers to Digital Resource Utilization 

The topics of internet connectivity and policies surrounding digital technology utilization were also reflected in survey open-ended responses when school leaders were asked what aspects of existing state-level policies hinder their ability to leverage digital resources effectively to meet the academic needs of students and families. The most frequently cited barrier was outdated state-level policies regarding student attendance requirements and pupil accounting. Lack of universal broadband access for students was also reported to be a significant barrier. 

Alternatively, when school leaders were asked “What statewide supports do you believe are needed to help Michigan schools and districts implement digital learning models that meet the academic needs of students and their families,” broadband access was again frequently noted. Other themes that emerged were funding for replacement technology, changes to pupil accounting, and flexibility around state assessment and content standards. 

Implications

Throughout the past two decades, we have seen significant increases in educational technology adoption in schools across the nation. More recently, school closures and ongoing concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated that adoption and use. The data collected in this study further support the belief that digital resource adoption and use in schools will continue to increase well into the future.

Michigan perspectives on using digital resources share similarities with those of teachers and school leaders across the nation. An Education Week Special Report on how COVID-19 is shaping technology use revealed that, “In nationally representative surveys of teachers and district leaders, the EdWeek Research Center found that teachers reported their ability to use technology was rising during the school closures, online instruction was taking hold in some form in most places, and one-to-one computing opportunities were expanding gradually.”  The report cited the differing opinions about technology between school leaders and teachers and aligns with Michigan perspectives in that leaders express greater optimism than teachers. In addition, shared concerns exist regarding policy and funding implications.   

There is a convergence on the horizon. We continue to see significantly elevated levels of technology adoption, skill development, and use of technology throughout Michigan schools and districts. At the same time, school leaders within the state are striving to meet the needs of individual students through the design and implementation of student-centered learning models. Prior research conducted by the MVLRI research team illustrated that the adoption of digital resources can serve as an accelerant for schools’ and districts’ future implementation of student-centered learning.

At the heart of student-centered learning is providing students with more “voice” in determining their educational pathways, more “choice” in how they learn and demonstrate that learning, academic advancement based on the mastery of content and skills, and the use of data to inform instructional practice and direction. The instructional strategies that are predicted to be utilized more frequently in Michigan K-12 schools in the future, as reported by school leaders participating in this study, include the use of more formative assessments and the providing students with more voice and choice in their education.

Formative assessments are a linchpin tool in student-centered learning environments. In order to understand where students are academically at any given time, teachers must collect student performance data frequently and regularly through such assessments. Ideally, students are provided a variety of options (i.e., “choice”) in how they demonstrate their learning—how they are formatively assessed. These assessment data are then used to help design or shape the forward direction of a given student’s learning. In order to accomplish this, schools and districts are turning to technology-based solutions such as assessment platforms or adaptive learning software to collect these data as they can help streamline teachers’ workflows and increase their efficiency, thus making teachers available to dedicate more time working individually with students.

In addition, teachers in a truly student-centered learning environment work collaboratively with students to help them understand what their performance data mean and how to use those data to determine the next steps for them to move forward. This collaboration helps students develop agency or ownership of their learning (i.e., “voice”)—another tenet of student-centered learning.

At a macro level, student-centered schools and districts use student data to help determine when students can advance or progress to the next grade level or grade band. Districtwide student performance data systems that integrate with an LMS and/or a student information system are critical to this process. The school leaders participating in this study reported that providing at least one computing device for each student, the use of digital content and a districtwide LMS, and student data dashboards were technology resources that will be used more in the future. When these digital resources are integrated and used together as an integral part of the teaching and learning process, schools are then poised to be able to personalize education for students.

Moving forward, school leaders would be wise to leverage educational research and to develop the mindsets of teachers, administrators, and community members in order to continue their efforts toward designing and implementing effective and sustainable digital learning programs that are student-centered. MVLRI provides many research reports and research-based resources to help school leaders accomplish this. These resources are freely available and can be found on the MVLRI website.

Conclusion

Throughout Michigan, we continue to see increased adoption and use of educational technology in K-12 schools and districts. While the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated this process, school leaders were already motivated to leverage technology in ways that provide student-centered or personalized learning experiences for their students. Unfortunately, there are still some significant barriers to implementing student-centered learning that exist, including a lack of internet connectivity for many students, a lack of funding for digital resources (e.g., computing devices, LMSs, students’ home internet access, etc.), and outdated state-level policies regarding student attendance requirements and pupil accounting.

Despite these barriers, school leaders continue to push forward to design and implement learning models aimed at providing an equitable education for their students—models that meet the needs of all students. These leaders will continue to rely upon digital resources to evolve their learning models to better serve their students. In addition, collaborative ideation and problem-solving among school leaders, Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan state legislature, and other educational organizations such as Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators and the Future of Learning Council could also yield significant progress with breaking down existing barriers.

References

Bradley, B. (2021, July 29). Spending on tech-based curriculum jumps during the pandemic, new survey of IT leaders finds. Education Week. https://marketbrief.edweek.org/marketplace-k-12/spending-tech-based-curriculum-jumps-pandemic-new-survey-leaders-finds/?cmp=eml-enl-mb+20210809&id=3163605&mkt_tok=MjgzLVJVQS01NTUAAAF-yVluHE_-SaLOcLXstXE6A09ScKFWkpo5jA3T8dZ9zTLn5S-5iSMWplOiNiFHof381r6Fo_TTz_BrttdCWPX_edA_tL2OQyUsdQLxnMiHuLU 

Bushweller, K. (2020, June 2). How COVID-19 is shaping tech use. What that means when schools reopen. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/technology/how-covid-19-is-shaping-tech-use-what-that-means-when-schools-reopen/2020/06 

Green, C. & Harrington, C. (2021). Student-centered learning in Michigan K-12 schools: Factors that impact successful implementation. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/student-centered-learning-in-michigan-k-12-schools-factors-that-impact-successful-implementation/ 

Harrington, C. & Timke, E. (2021, September 9). School leader insights: The interplay between curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/blog/school-leader-insights-interplay-curriculum-instruction-assessment/ 

Harrington, C. & Timke, E. (2021, September 14). School leader insights: Technology as a foundation. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/blog/school-leader-insights-technology-as-foundation/ 

Harrington, C., Timke, E., & Gieseking, T. (2021, September 7). School leader insights: Institutionalizing a vision for digital learning. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/blog/school-leader-insights-vision-for-digital-learning/ 

Office of Educational Technology. (n.d.) School leader digital learning guide. United States Department of Education. https://tech.ed.gov/files/2021/01/School-Leader-Digital-Learning-Guide.pdf 

Watson, J. (2021, August 4). The indicators of high quality digital learning. Digital Learning Collaborative. https://www.digitallearningcollab.com/blog/2021/8/3/the-indicators-of-high-quality-digital-learning 

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