How the remote shift has helped boost student-led learning

A new report on the use of technology and digital tools from Project Tomorrow and Blackboard shows the positive outcomes from giving students more ownership in projects and research.
By: | December 16, 2020
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Students are taking increased ownership of their learning while educators and parents are embracing technology tools and strategies that are helping to make that happen, according to the final report released in Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up Research Project.

The study “Sponsoring Student Ownership of Learning” done by Project Tomorrow and EdTech software and solutions company Blackboard of more than 137,000 K-12 students, parents and educators, shows the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had in shaping new education paths for students, particularly as they have been allowed to explore, research and utilize devices on their own.

“As the classroom shifted to the kitchen table, parents saw firsthand the power of digital and mobile tools in driving student-led learning,” said Dr. Julie Evans, chief researcher and CEO of Project Tomorrow. “This research illuminates why even as we return to a more traditional in-person classroom experience, technology will continue to underpin student-led learning.”

The sweeping changes that came to classrooms when the pandemic hit – from in-person to remote environments – forced educators to rethink instruction and opened the door for more student-led learning. In turn, researchers say, that has fueled more interest and more intent from students to ratchet up their desire to learn outside of school. They say students used digital tools more in the spring of 2020 than they had in the past six years.

“The path toward an educational experience highly directed by each student individually is beginning to take shape,” said Christina Fleming, Vice President for Blackboard K-12. “Project Tomorrow’s research offers valuable insight into how we can harness these shared experiences and develop environments that put learners in the driver’s seat of their educational journey.”

Giving students control of their destiny

From selecting courses to researching topics through videos and increasing the use of online writing tools, students have welcomed the added responsibilities and freedom of working at their own pace. Researchers note the enjoyment students feel “when they have control over the what, when and how of learning.”

Despite the obvious negative outcomes presented by the pandemic, favor seems to have shifted toward student-led learning among decision-makers. More than 50% of teachers say they are OK with a boost in the use of mobile devices to support student learning. More than 70% of principals say that mobile learning “results in students taking greater responsibility for their own learning.” And notably, teachers who primarily instruct at minority-serving schools are even more likely to want mobile devices in the hands of students than those as majority white schools.

Parents too, having seen firsthand the development and savvy research skills being employed by their children working from home, say technology has fueled greater ownership. Nearly 50% say their child is now working on their own, compared with 33% before the pandemic. And more than 70% believe that giving children self-led assignments helps them become more college ready.

Across the board, students noted an increasing interest in exploring and learning, especially when they were doing online research about a topic they were interested in. Two-thirds said they appreciated being able to do a self-paced tutorial on their own and love watching how-to videos.

They noted the use of non-traditional forms of learning as piquing their interests – social media (55%), TED Talks (38%) and voice-enabled assistants such as Siri and Alexa (49%). What do they value most, according to the researchers? Active involvement in projects (70%), building or creating (55%) and problem-solving (49%).

Removing barriers to student-led learning

The report highlights some of the barriers preventing student-led learning from really taking off. The most notable is that only 18% of teachers would let students choose their own self-directed paths of learning. Researchers recommend further professional development for educators to embrace the potential to increase student ownership.

One of the outcomes of the pivot to hybrid environments has been the need for teachers to instruct to both the class and to those working remotely in a synchronous way to preserve equity. But authors of the study say that could be hampering student ownership by forcing more traditional, teacher-led instruction at times when students could be developing those important self-directed skills. Students, they say, are not often inspired to think critically in these situations or with regular “homework assignments.”

By contrast, students operating in an asynchronous model may use better research and exploration skills and turn to different digital tools when they are given the freedom to do so.

Most are in agreement that digital tools provide incredible value to students, with more than two thirds of teachers and administrators saying they “increase engagement and promote self-directed learning.” Nearly 60% say they increase student ownership away from school.

As Evans points out, this lean to student-led learning is not likely to change even after the pandemic. So the question remains: is your school or district prepared for it? For those struggling to fully embrace this ideal, Project Tomorrow researchers presented a number of questions at the end of the report that may help those reflect on future decision-making. Among them:

  • “What types of digital tools and resources best support learning experiences that help students develop their learning?
  • Do teachers know how to effectively use these tools to create self-directed learning experiences? How should they be evaluated?
  • What can leaders to ensure students have access to learning experiences that help them develop greater ownership?
  • What types of professional learning do teachers need and how can administrators help them achieve that?”


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