Digital Learning Makes Rewards Fun, Effective

Children today are much more comfortable using information technology than are those of previous generations.  Many grow up playing video games offering strong visual and audio stimulation, instant feedback on decisions, and nonfinancial rewards for achievement, such as winning competitions, accumulating points, and being able to move to the next level of a game.  The popularity of such games confirms what parents and good teachers know instinctively: children can acquire knowledge and learn new skills at seemingly phenomenal speeds when they are fully engaged in the learning experience.

Technology applied to learning, also known as digital learning or online adaptive instruction, has vast potential to transform schooling.  Either by itself or “blended” with traditional classroom teaching, digital learning is building a record of results substantially superior to traditional teaching and potentially far cheaper when used on a large scale.

Online adaptive instruction can provide in one package the goals, activities, tests, and incentives needed to accelerate student learning.  Students receive feedback as they move through a set of activities that the program customizes to their individual abilities.  Many programs utilize algorithms grounded in psychological research on common errors students have made in face-to-face settings.  Such research makes it possible to offer detailed cues for what to do next and prompt the user to move on to more difficult levels, or to repeat a lesson, perhaps from another perspective, when appropriate.

While there are obstacles to the spread of digital learning, cost is not one of them.  The per-pupil costs of online schooling, which requires fewer teachers, have only recently been compared to that of traditional classroom instruction.  According to a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, full online learning on average costs about $4,300 annually less than traditional schooling, while the blended model saves about $1,100 per student per year [1].  These cost savings are likely to increase over time as the technology improves and as educators gain experience in its use.  Requiring nine rather than 12 years of schooling would reduce costs substantially more.

Best Practices

Digital learning is spreading quickly as parents, students, and educators recognize its transformative potential.  Some obstacles need to be overcome, such as certification requirements that block entry into the teaching profession by talented and motivated individuals, seat-time and class-size requirements that make school schedules rigid and unable to accommodate computer lab sessions, and opposition from teachers' unions [2].  A rapidly growing community of educators with experience using digital learning tools and literature describing best practices are available to reformers who want to accelerate this progress.

The Digital Learning Council, a nonprofit organization launched in 2010 to integrate current and future technological innovations into public education, has produced a series of publications (all of them available online) to help parents, educators, and policymakers find and use the best practices for digital learning.  The council has proposed “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning,” which it describes as “actions that need to be taken by lawmakers and policymakers to foster a high-quality, customized education for all students.  This includes technology-enhanced learning in traditional schools, online and virtual learning, and blended learning that combines online and onsite learning.”

In 2011, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a respected membership organization for state legislators, adopted a model resolution endorsing the “ten elements” approach.  In 2012, ALEC created and endorsed model legislation, the Statewide Online Education Act, that provides a detailed template for states to follow to remove roadblocks to expanding digital learning.  The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), another organization of state legislators, also has endorsed expanding the use of digital learning and provides case studies of its successful implementation [3].

The Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, formerly the Innosight Institute, is another good source of best practices.  The nonprofit think-tank was founded by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen, author of the 2008 bestseller Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.  The organization conducts original research on the cutting edge of digital learning, consults with elected officials, and provides speakers for public events.  Researchers affiliated with the organization have created a “blended-learning taxonomy” that distinguishes among the various ways of blending digital learning with traditional schooling, such as Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, Flex, A La Carte, Enriched Virtual, and Individual Rotation models.


Digital learning – the combination of online adaptive testing and instruction made possible by new technologies, software, and the internet – is beginning to transform K-12 education.  It accelerates learning for a number of reasons, but an important one is because it makes rewards for learning more accurate, timely, and attuned to the interests and abilities of students.  It promises to deliver the “creative destruction” required to substantially improve America’s failing elementary and high-school system.

ClassDojo, Goalbook, and Funnix are three examples of the rapidly growing number of software programs available to educators to bring digital learning into the classroom.  Rocketship Education, Khan Academy, Coursera, and Udacity illustrate the variety of new institutions that are using digital learning to transform traditional teaching methods.  Given the pace at which software is improving and institutions are evolving, these examples may seem out of date in a few years.

Research shows substantial positive achievement effects of online education in pre-internet days and larger effects in recent years.  More advanced technologies used on a much wider scale promise even larger achievement effects, lower costs, and a greater variety of incentives, curricula, and teaching methods from which parents, students, and educators can choose.  Obstacles in the path to increased use of digital learning can be removed by parents and policymakers working together to adopt the policies recommended by pioneering leaders in the field, the Digital Learning Council, and other groups supporting this disruptive innovation – which will likely lead to far more effective education.

Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast are chairman and president, respectively, of The Heartland Institute and authors of Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well (October 1, 2014; ISBN 978-1-934791-38-7).  This article is excerpted from Chapter 10, “Rewards and Digital Learning.”


[1] Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans, “The Costs of Online Learning,” in Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela R. Fairchild, eds., Education Reform for the Digital Era (Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2012), pp. 55–76.

[2] Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniella R. Fairchild, “Overcoming the Obstacles to Digital Learning”; Paul T. Hill, “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era”; and John E. Chubb, “Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning,” all in Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela R. Fairchild, eds., ibid., pp. 1–11, 77–98, and 99–134.

[3] Sunny Deyé, “K-12 Online Learning Options,” National Conference of State Legislatures, Legisbriefs 21, no. 16 (April 2013).

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