Research into Ideal Digital Learning Spaces

A picture of notes and lists

Research conducted on the use of technology and digital learning spaces has told us about practices that produce evidence of student knowledge creation (CAST, 2011; Mitra, Dangwal, Chatterjee, Jha, Bisht, & Kapur 2005; Papert, 1993) beyond using a computer to simply learn math facts or type faster. Teachers still struggle with understanding a theoretical framework that best addresses how to use a computer in a learning space producing genuine knowledge creation. There is research describing successful practice and use of technology, but teachers or school administrators continue to try and use technology in the same way our education system was designed to serve the clerical human computer of the 19th century British Empire.

There are ten characteristics, based on research, that make up an ideal digital learning space.

  1. Personalized (CAST, 2011; Kohn, 2015)
  2. Active (Brown & Adler, 2008; Jensen, Kummer, & Godoy, 2015)
  3. Student-centered (Dron, 2007)
  4. Social (Windham, 2005)
  5. Constructionist (Papert, 1993; Stubbé & Theunissen, 2008)
  6. Inclusive of all digital devices and agnostic of operating system (CAST, 2011)
  7. Minimal teacher and administrative oversight (Mitra et al., 2005)
  8. Approach, not application, focused (Downes, 2005)
  9. Learner needs outweigh the technology to drive learning (Attwell, 2007)
  10. Learner controlled (Conole, Creanor, Irving, & Paluch, 2007)

Along with these research based characteristics, and sometimes ignored by the teacher, is the need to adjust pedagogy. The challenge for teachers is enabling student self-direction, encouraging knowledge building, providing students with autonomy, options and choice, and building structure and scaffolding in their classrooms (McLoughlin & Lee, 2010). All of these pedagogical changes are based in the theoretical frameworks of constructionism and UDL. However, even with these well researched frameworks, teachers are willing to attempt to employ much more simplistic unproven and unstudied frameworks, like SAMR, adding substantial weight to this topic.

Personally, as an instructional technology director, it is daily struggle of teachers and administrators coming to me with computer programs and websites that guarantee student growth and engagement – a “Box of Magic,” if you will. Most of these products cannot provide peer-reviewed research that demonstrates the basis for the design of their products. By employing a theoretical framework like UDL or constructionism, there really is not anything that needs to be purchased outside of a computer and access to the Internet.

And yet, if your school district has an “ill” there is a vendor ready to sell you a “cure”. Recently attending the Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) Conference, not one session attended provided research backing claims, or even a basis of why, technology was used in certain way. My attendance at the Association for Educational Communication and Technology Conference in 2013, I discovered that a presenter at a typical K-12 EdTech would not fare well presenting to attendees at AECT because of the complete lack of sources in their presentation.


051309: Note maker/ List taker” by Kimberly Jones is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Attwell, G. (2007). Personal learning environments-The future of eLearning? eLearning Papers2(1), 1–8.

Brown, J. S., & Adler, R. B. (2008). Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0. Educause Review, 43(1), 16–20.

CAST. (2011). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.0. Retrieved March 17, 2015, from

Conole, G., Creanor, L., Irving, A., & Paluch, S. (2007). In their own words: Exploring the learner’s perspective on e-learning. JISC.

Dron, J. (2007). Designing the undesignable: Social software and control. Educational Technology & Society, 10(3), 60–71.

Downes, S. (2005). E-learning 2.0. Elearn Magazine, 2005(10), 1.

Jensen, J. L., Kummer, T. A., & Godoy, P. D. d M. (2015). Improvements from a flipped classroom may simply be the fruits of active learning. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 14(1), ar5.

Kohn, A. (2015, February 23). Four reasons to worry about “personalized learning.” Retrieved from

McLoughlin, C., & Lee, M. J. (2010). Personalised and self regulated learning in the web 2.0 era: International exemplars of innovative pedagogy using social software. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(1), 28–43.

Mitra, S., Dangwal, R., Chatterjee, S., Jha, S., Bisht, R. S., & Kapur, P. (2005). Acquisition of computing literacy on shared public computers: Children and the “hole in the wall.” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(3), 407–426.

Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Stubbé, H. E., & Theunissen, N. C. (2008). Self-directed adult learning in a ubiquitous learning environment: A meta-review. In Proceedings of the First Workshop on Technology Support for Self-Organized Learners (pp. 5–28).

Windham, C. (2005). The student’s perspective. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the Net Generation (pp. 5.1–5.16). Educause. Retrieved from

1 Comment

  1. Alice Flarend

    I really appreciate the idea of going back to basic learning theory, whether we are designing instruction with or without computers. With constructivism in mind, the list of ten characteristics make complete sense. Constructivism is not a simple idea like SAMR and it is often misunderstood but focussing on the basics of how people learn has made a huge difference in my teaching. With increases to push tech, it grounds tech practices and tempers wild claims. Maybe a reference on learning theory can bet added to your list of references. Maybe NAP report “How people learn” could be a good starter paper.


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