Toggle open
Learning Library Blog 3 Ways To Support an Effective Digital Learning Environment
Expand breadcrumbs

3 Ways To Support an Effective Digital Learning Environment

By Rick Cave
December 13, 2023
Choosing Digital Tools

If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.

–John Dewey

It’s no secret that the emergence of AI chatbots like ChatGPT have increased concerns about technology use in the classroom. For many teachers, ChatGPT represents the latest distraction that occurs whenever a new digital tool is introduced. Over the years teachers have had to deal with a number of these disruptions, from calculators and computers to internet access and social media.

Not only can these digital tools disrupt the classroom, they often allow students to take shortcuts with their learning. It falls on teachers to both understand these tools and identify opportunities for students to use them meaningfully and appropriately in their studies.

But with an already-packed curriculum, many teachers are pushing back. How are they supposed to find the time to instruct students on the appropriate use of yet more digital tools when the instructional minutes of the school day remain the same?

After all, while ChatGPT is an incredibly powerful tool, it is also just the “next” digital tool. Soon enough, something else will come along that teachers will be scrambling to figure out how to use in the classroom.

So instead of trying to tweak the curriculum every time a new digital tool is introduced, maybe we should redesign the curriculum to take advantage of the functionality of digital tools.

If we change the learning goals to support the higher-order skills necessitated by access to these new tools, we can then give students opportunities to determine how digital resources support their learning.

No need for rote learning

The needs of today’s learners have changed. The Information Age has created a world where people have instant access to incredible amounts of information and resources – information that is constantly being updated, is accessible from anywhere and is available at all hours of the day.

In order to successfully interact with all of this information, students need to develop higher-order skills that will allow them to evaluate, analyze, synthesize and apply that information. Unfortunately, traditional curriculum was designed when information was available through limited and centralized resources, so the goal in a traditional curriculum is based on acquiring information. Today, information is readily available through open, decentralized and connected resources, which means memorization and rote learning are no longer necessary.

It is students, not teachers, who are finding the information and determining its validity. Students are no longer just passive receivers of information but active information managers.

Therefore, they need to know how to find accurate and relevant information, how to analyze and synthesize it, and how to use it to open doors to new ideas. This cannot be accomplished simply by adding new instructional strategies or the occasional “technology” lesson to the existing curriculum.

The curriculum of today should assume that every student already knows how to find the content of the course, and the goals should reflect that. Lessons that allow students to use digital tools to their full capacity can unburden learners of rote learning and introduce new ways of thinking.

The goals for each unit of study should, therefore, focus on developing higher-order thinking skills (as outlined in the ISTE Student Standards) not just learning the content of a course.

For example, in a math class, instead of asking students to solve linear equations with one variable, they could instead have a goal to use algorithmic thinking in exploring and finding solutions. As students work through activities and assessments that support the new goal, they will use the processes and content related to solving linear equations with one variable to evaluate and solve more complex problems.

By embracing new technologies and allowing students to determine how and when to use digital tools, students will meet the goals of the course and expand their learning beyond the limits of the content of the curriculum.

The key is to shift the focus from students memorizing content to students using content to meet these new higher-order goals. It is during the process of using content that students will also learn it.

Shifting to higher-order thinking

As the goals of the curriculum change, instructional strategies in the classroom need to conform to the changes. The following strategies support an effective digital learning environment:

1. Let students determine when and how to use digital tools to support their learning.

By providing learners with access to age-appropriate digital resources and allowing them to try different methodologies as they work through activities and assessments, learners will uncover what works best for them.

2. Ask open-ended questions to foster exploration and discovery. 

In addition, create a learning environment in which students feel safe to openly share ideas and criticisms with each other.

3. Give learners time to practice higher-order learning skills.

Multi-day activities scheduled regularly throughout the year will allow students to become proficient in this new way of learning. Assessments should complement open-ended activities and allow learners to use the digital tools available to them.

Empower learners by letting them choose their edtech tools

As you shift to a digital learning environment, the classroom will increasingly be filled with active learners who are working as hard, if not harder, than their teachers.

If we design lessons to support the skills students need to be successful digital learners and allow students to manage how they use digital technology, then emerging technologies will no longer be “one more thing to do” in an already overburdened curriculum. No question that shifting from content-driven instruction to a learning environment that empowers students to choose digital technology is a significant instructional challenge. But reverting to traditional instruction and ignoring the digital tools of today is not the answer.

Recognizing how digital tools can empower learners and open the door to learning experiences previously unattainable will allow educators and students to adapt to the ever-changing digital world.

Rick Cave retired as the director of technology for the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey after 40+ years of experience as a teacher, edtech coach and director. Rick has been involved with instructional technology from the beginning. During his career he focused on how digital technology has changed the needs of today’s learners. Rick has written for various publications and presented at local and regional conferences focusing on the impact of technology on teaching and learning. You can contact him at