Digital Learning Tools

According to the Foundation Center’s 2013 Key Facts on U.S. Foundations report, the education sector received 20 percent of U.S. foundation grant dollars, or $5 billion—the second highest funded issue area behind health. Education is also one place where technology is rapidly innovating the experience, shaking up traditional models at all levels. Digital learning tools—how The Rockefeller Foundation refers to technology that facilitates learning—are thought to reduce costs, broaden reach, and deepen engagement. But are these innovations succeeding?

At the Foundation, we are asking ourselves these questions. We are exploring how digital learning tools can decrease logistical barriers and increase engagement for our Social Innovation Fellows, and discovering how to support our grantees incorporating them into systems-based solutions. We look at how technology works with their solution, not how technology is the solution.

Changing ‘when’ and ‘where’ learning happens 

By taking advantage of modern communications infrastructure, education is increasingly more accessible to more students in more places. Rockefeller Foundation grantee African Management Initiative (AMI) is using a combination of digital learning tools to deliver education at the time and place their students – African impact enterprise entrepreneurs - need it. The Initiative’s program is designed specifically for the African context, developing the skills of management in impact enterprises that serve vulnerable populations by providing affordable online classes created to be easily accessed over the internet, including on a mobile, often considered the most accessible medium in the continent.

To ensure engagement of the entrepreneurs, AMI creates a social connection to and between the students. Beyond just discussion boards, AMI will be curating a dynamic online community by offering networking and career support. Always seeking ways to deepen the engagement, more features are being designed to enrich the networking experience, connect others and support their students’ career growth.

Delivering education through digital learning tools broadens access, if a learner has access to the right technology. AMI ensures their products can be delivered over low bandwidth connections to reach their students, but that still doesn’t reach everyone. To bridge the digital divide, AMI takes their courses into on-site, off-line settings called Learning Labs. Through local partners they broaden access and deepen engagement in a more traditional facilitated way, using the same digital content available through their distance learning solutions.

Let’s Play!

Playtime is something all kids – and let’s face it, adults too – love. Taking a video of a lecture and posting it online broadens access to knowledge, but organizations like GlassLAB and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education are getting more creative with technology that we’re already familiar with to make it fun – deepening engagement and ensuring students are learning.

GlassLAB develops games and simulations that track student learning, including skills extremely difficult to quantify like reason and argumentation. They don’t try to “gamify” current curriculum, they reimagine how you teach a skill by building a game based on it. They intend to show that games = learning = fun.

The team at Harvard is exploring how to creatively incorporate mobile phones to teach ecosystems science where it happens - outdoors. Building on their current EcoMUVE simulations, they plan to change how old-fashioned field trips are facilitated with experiential learning components augmented by mobile phones. Students test, examine, and learn on-the-spot.  

Learning through play is nothing new, teachers have been employing these techniques forever. By taking it digital, teachers now have a plethora of analyzed data to demonstrate skill building. Data is captured that provides a highly important immediate feedback loop of evidence. This gives teachers a higher degree of visibility into their students, allowing them to adjust more rapidly leading to greater learning outcomes.

Both GlassLAB and Harvard bring together experts in education, assessment and game design to create instructional materials from the “bottom up”. Like any great game or app, it requires significant time and effort to design, develop, and test. Then there’s the cost to purchase or license, as well as train the teachers how to use it and interpret the feedback analytics.

Whether it’s K-12, post-secondary, or continuing education, technology is being incorporated into the learning experience in exciting ways, reframing how education is delivered. The lure of decreasing costs and increasing outcomes through digital learning tools is significant, however, they don’t enhance learning by themselves. Digital learning tools are just that – tools. As funders evaluate digital learning tools that can deepen impact, they should follow the advice of Mark Milliron, CEO of Civitas Learning, and not ask how the new tool is better, but rather, how the learning experience is better with it. It’s easy to be “wowed” by the possibilities technology offers in broadening reach, deepening engagement, and even reducing costs, but before jumping in we need answers to two critical questions: will it fit the learners, and can it be supported by the ecosystem around it.

For more than 100 years, The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission has been to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world. Today, The Rockefeller Foundation pursues this mission through dual goals: advancing inclusive economies that expand opportunities for more broadly shared prosperity, and building resilience by helping people, communities and institutions prepare for, withstand, and emerge stronger from acute shocks and chronic stresses. To learn more, please visit

About the author(s)

Intern, Innovation Pathway Team
The Rockefeller Foundation