Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Digital Learning

Innovations in teaching are often synonymous with digital learning: “flipping” a class seems to deliver content more efficiently, or an exciting new webpage presents historical data in dynamic, interactive ways. Digital resources can be exciting, bringing students closer to artifacts, texts, and data while expanding opportunities for immersion in the field. But too often, digital resources are assumed to naturally elevate learning efficacy through more advanced, relevant, or supportive features. While digital resources certainly can be powerful learning tools,  learning innovations must first take place in changes to the learning process.

This page provides examples, recommendations, and links to effective uses of digital resources. Instructors considering digital pedagogy should first acknowledge the conclusions reached in cognitive and educational science that students learn best when engaged positively on intellectual, emotional, social, and personal levels, which favor face-to-face collaborations to solve problems and explore complex questions. Instructors should ask how a digital approach will further their students’ learning objectives, and consider evidence pointing to small changes (Lang 2016, Ambrose et al. 2010), active learning approaches like discussion and interactive lectures, and course organization as the enduring means for effective learning.

Research Findings on Digital Learning

Research suggesting the advantages of digital learning over face-to-face learning remains problematic. Some studies conclude that students achieve marginally better learning and feel slightly more supported with online and distance learning (Atchley et al. 2013, Sachar & Neumann 2010, Department of Education 2010). Many others suggest little to no difference (Holmes & Reid 2017, Means et al. 2013), while many still point to the benefits of face-to-face learning (Saghafian & O’Neill 2018, Bandara & Wijekularathna 2018). While digital benefits may seem obvious (for instance, reviewable lectures, after-hours learning, new visualizations), they are counterbalanced with problems including technological distractions and accessibility / socioeconomic concerns.

In digital as well as traditional learning environments, collaboration and social learning have been shown to form the heart of the learning process. Yet digital learning, like traditional learning, can reinforce various modes of engagement that do not always privilege collaboration, especially student – content interfacing (Martin & Bolliger 2018). Online learning often prioritizes polished, accessible content over maximized student engagement (Nilson et. al 2018 pg. 23). Student engagement, however, among one another and with the instructor, has been shown to positively correlate in digital environments with student perception of learning and student satisfaction (Richardson et al. 2017).

Unfortunately, research into the level of sociability in digital learning and its effects on student learning is sparse, largely because digital pedagogy studies tend to measure content and design over student learning outcomes. A major meta-study of digital learning assessments (Esfijani 2018) found that most “quality of online learning” measures focus more on “O[pen] E[educational] resources, input, and processes,” and far less on “output- and outcome-oriented approaches” (69). Measures focused more on inputs that heighten institutional visibility and student perceptions cannot effectively measure actual learning outcomes. Performance data is often entirely missing in digital learning environments: the National Education Policy Center found only 15 of 38 surveyed states maintained overall performance rating data for K-12 virtual schools (Molnar 2017). Student cognitive development is critical and formational in the K-12 years, making the dearth of data on learning outcomes for these years additionally troubling.


Nilson et. al. underscore in their metastudy that “many students need more than the convenience of online learning and more than an online collection of content, activities, assignments, and assessments” (3). The following examples and recommendations contextualize digital resources and approaches in broader learning frameworks that attend to known learning processes, effective teaching strategies, and inclusivity concerns. 

  • An instructor makes a variety of open educational resources available to his students, including an open-source textbook, in order to reduce textbook costs and invite students to annotate and build the course textbook themselves.
  • An instructor uses a soundscape and visual representation of early modern London to immerse students in the sensory context of Shakespeare’s plays in performance and help them answer complex questions about the experience of his plays.
  • An instructor integrates virtual reality technology into her class, allowing students to stand in an ancient temple and reflect on the experiences of historic populations.
  • An instructor records their lectures, using small increments and rich visual displays to explain complex concepts in physics for students to watch, review, and respond to via the course’s Canvas Discussion and during class discussion.
  • A university’s online certificate program provides learning objectives, assessments, and regular writing prompts alongside video content in order to clarify learning goals and help learners target areas of weakness or misunderstanding.


  • Clarify Your Own Goals: Instructors should first consider authoring their course learning objectives and considering what kinds of practice and content students should experience in order to attain course learning goals. Digital strategies, like any strategy, should be used specifically in the service of student learning. For more on the translation of student learning into digital contexts, the classic essay by Chickering and Ehrmann (1996) remains highly relevant.
  • Consider Active Learning: While digital learning often provides students with interactive opportunities, it also introduces new distractions, complexity, and equipment. Instructors may consider ways that various active learning exercises provide the same or greater interactivity and visualization approaches than digital resources, without the additional layer of equipment and access needs. Activities like jigsaw discussions, role play, and debate keep students engaged and reduce the opportunity for distraction while presenting ideas and concepts in imaginative, multimodal ways. At the same time, digital tools contextualized within broader active learning approaches can ensure that students are not left behind in a struggle with equipment, or prevented from participating entirely due to socioeconomic status or digital literacy. Digital learning can also helpfully enhance active learning strategies through technology like polling and active learning spaces.  
  • Clarify Digital Procedures: Because students will most likely have varying degrees of familiarity with tools like learning management systems (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle), polling software, video content, and even basic technological literacy, instructors can provide detailed help guides and / or additional help sessions hosted by the instructor, or a TA. Additionally, instructors can ensure their syllabus clarifies expectations like online submission protocols, measures of participation in digital opportunities, and reasoning for inclusion of major digital resources in course design.
  • Be Sensitive to Inclusion and Accessibility: Students will arrive at class with varying levels of technological literacy and sensory ability, which will limit some and privilege others in the use of digital tools or environments. By being sensitive to inclusivity concerns in class, instructors can drastically improve the learning experience for students. While respecting privacy, instructors must seek out the needs of each student in their class, and provide additional supports or alternative pathways to crucial digital scenarios in class.
  • Clarify Technology Policies: Because digital pedagogy increases the likelihood of devices in class, instructors should develop clear classroom policies regarding laptops and mobile devices. Digital pedagogy can be seen by students as an advertisement for lax policies regarding technology in the classroom, and instructors must ensure they maintain control over such policies early in the semester.  
  • Be Present for Students: More than depth and breadth of content or sophistication of digital interface, effective learning emerges from an instructor’s ability to express care and intentionality for students, and to create an environment of social belonging (Freeman et. al. 2007). This practice can be difficult in a fully digital environment, and even blended environments or environments with significant technological focus can introduce distractions that remove students’ focus from collaboration and classroom togetherness (both vital components of student satisfaction, according to Freeman et. al.). Presence and focus can be equally problematic in traditional classrooms, and both start with the personality and commitment of instructors who can make efforts to connect with students.

Additional Resources

Blended and Online Learning – Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

DeLozier, S., and Rhodes, M. (2017). Flipped Classrooms: a Review of Key Ideas and Recommendations for Practice. Educational Psychology Review 29: 141-151.

Flipping the Classroom, University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning

Flipping the Classroom, Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

Flipping Your Class, University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching and Learning

Online Learning – Center for Educational Innovation, University at Buffalo

Online Learning Consortium

Yale Online Learning


Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research – Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Atchley, W., Wingenbach, G., and Akers, C., 2013. Comparison of Course Completion and Student Performance through Online and Traditional Courses. International Review of Research in open and Distributed Learning 14.4.

Bandara, D., and Wijekularathna, DK. 2018. Comparison of Student Performance Under Two Teaching Methods: Face to Face and Online. International Journal of Education Research 12.1 (69-79).

Chickering, A. and Ehrmann, S. 1996. Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever. AAHE Bulletin: American Association for Higher Education.

Department of Education. 2010. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (Prepared by Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., and Jones, K).

Esfijani, A. 2018. Measuring Quality in Online Education: A Meta-synthesis. American Journal of Distance Education 31.1 (57-73).

Freeman, T., Anderman, L., and Jensen, J. 2007. Sense of Belonging in College Freshmen at the Classroom and Campus Levels. Journal of Experimental Education 75.3 (203-220).

Holmes, C. and Reid, C. 2017. A Comparison Study of On-campus and Online Learning Outcomes for a Research Methods Course. Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision 9.2.

Lang, J. 2016. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco: Wiley.

—. 2015. Waiting for us to Notice Them. Advice: Chronicle of Higher Education.

Martin, F. and Bolliger, D. 2018. Engagement Matters: Student Perceptions on the Importance of Engagement Strategies in the Online Learning Environment. Online Learning Journal 22.1 (205-222.

Means, B, Toyama, Y, Murphy, R., and Bakia, M. The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Teachers College Record 115.3.

Molnar, Alex (ed). Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2017. University of Colorado, Boulder: National Education Policy Center.

Nilson, L. and Goodson, L. 2017. Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Richardson, J., Lv, J., and Caskurlu, S. 2017. Social Presence in Relation to Students’ Satisfaction and Learning in the Online Environment. Computers in Human Behavior 71 (402-417).

Sachar, M., and Neumann, Y., 2010. Twenty years of research of the academic performance differences between traditional and distance learning: Summative meta-analysis and trend examination. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 6.2 (318-334).

Saghafian, M., and O’Neill, D. 2018. A Phenomenological Study of Teamwork in Online and Face-to-Face Student Teams. Higher Education 75.1 (57-73).