Transformative Learning

Designing Courses to Account for Digital Readiness

Icon squareby Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

In the past, much attention was paid to a “digital divide” between learners who had and used digital devices versus people who did not.  While the ownership of digital devices continues to grow exponentially, research in how digital technologies impact learning is needed.  Recently, a number of studies have been published that examined students’ experiences, perceptions and comfortability with using technology for educational purposes.

One recent study published in Studies in Higher Education, surveyed undergraduate students to identify what forms of digital technologies they found to be “particularly helpful” and/or “useful” during their university studies. (Henderson et al., 2017, p. 1570)

Results from the survey indicate that students value digital technologies related to “organizing and managing the logistics of studying.” These technologies are typically learning management systems and other online services that serve as a one-stop repository of resources and information for students. While the use of such technologies may not be the most expansive, expressive, empowering, enlightening or even exciting ways that digital technologies could be used (Henderson et al., 2017, p. 1578), students expressed these tools as “priceless” in providing structure and guidelines, and in staying informed.  (Henderson et al., 2017, p. 1572)

While the value of using online learning management systems and other organizing technologies may not come as a surprise for some undergraduate educators, it is important to consider students’ preparedness to access and utilize digital tools for teaching and learning. In 2015, the Pew Research Center released survey results to examine digital readiness; a term to help describe “the attitudes and behaviors that underpin people’s preparedness and comfort in using digital tools for online learning.” (Horrigan, 2016a)

While past research has shown how race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and level of access to broadband connectivity impacted access to learning (Horrigan, 2016b), the current study strived to assess American adults’ relationship with technology use based on five main factors.  These factors include: a person’s confidence in using computers, ability to get new technology to work, their ability to use digital tools for learning, their ability to determine the trustworthiness of online information, and their familiarity with contemporary “education tech” terms. (Horrigan, 2016a)

Results from the survey show that 52% of the participants exhibit some form of hesitation when it comes to utilizing digital tools for learning.  While the first three clusters; The Unprepared, Traditional Learners, and The Reluctant, reported generally lower levels of digital skill and involvement with using technology for personal learning activities.  31% of those surveyed who report high levels of confidence using technology still need to become familiar with using online tools for learning.

While providing online tools for learning is becoming an essential element for education, it is important to be aware that not every student will share the same ability to utilize learning technologies. As you prepare to start another semester of teaching, consider how students may be utilizing technology offered in your course and make accommodations to ensure “best use.”  Think pedagogically about how technology impacts the learning experience. Have students complete a tech-assessment survey at the start of the class to gauge students’ familiarity, comfort, and experience using learning technologies.  Take time to walk through the course hosted on your learning management system and show students how to use the site.  Consider a video recording that offers an overview of how to use your course site or offer a “tech check-in” outside of class to help students learn about technology.

If you would like to discuss ways to design a course that considers students’ digital readiness and comfort with technology, please feel free to contact the Reinert Center.  We are here to help.



Henderson, M., Selwyn, N., & Aston, R. (2017). What works and why? Student perceptions of “useful” digital technology in university teaching and learning. Studies in Higher Education42(8), 1567-1579.

Horrigan, J. B. (2016a). Digital Readiness Gaps. Pew Research Center.

Horrigan, J. B. (2016b). Lifelong learning and technology. Pew Research Center, available at