How Digital Learning Can Be a Social Success for College Students

By Christine Porretta


"A couple semesters ago, I had a student who during peer reviews would shut down when we would do the feedback sessions. He was normally a very engaged student, so it was very strange for me to see that," says Whitney Olsen, an English-department instructor at Arizona State University. "After going through a session, we did our second essay, and for that second essay, I did not only a face-to-face feedback session, but also a peer-review assignment on Connect. He came to my office hours, and he said, 'I get what a peer review is now. I really understand that I can get feedback, and I can give feedback.' It made the workshop click for him, because he understood this new facet of writing that he hadn’t understood before."

In this moment, Professor Olsen and her student discovered a vital balance in promoting student success and improving outcomes: an exceptional harmony between educators, students, and digital learning technology (DLT). As McGraw-Hill Education President and CEO, David Levin says, "Technology on its own can’t solve all of our education problems. Great instructors will always be at the center of the learning experience." This deep partnership between educators, students and DLT is essential to propel students into better performance.

In the 2016 McGraw-Hill Digital Study Habits and Trends Survey Analysis, a survey of over 3,300 higher education students, McGraw-Hill Education delved into how technology is impacting student collaboration and social elements in learning, and the results revealed that while technology is contributing to effective learning and the improvement of grades, it’s simply not facilitating a spirit of community within educational environments.


"Technology on its own can’t solve all of our education problems. Great instructors will always be at the center of the learning experience."

– David Levin


In order to foster these communities, it’s vital for educators to play an instrumental role to provide a supportive environment to unlock student potential and facilitate communication within groups. Olsen’s experience with McGraw-Hill Connect demonstrates that with instructor encouragement, a student can journey from reluctance to empowerment.

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Let's Work on Soft Skills

Great systems are always evolving, and that growth is built into the nature of digital learning technology, but with development, comes growing pains.

So, while using technology for homework and prepping for exams is considered helpful by a large majority of students (81% and 79%, respectively), significantly fewer students find that technology is extremely or very helpful when interacting with educators (69%), collaborating with other students (61%), and asking questions in class (52%).

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That’s right, technology is a hit with students when it comes to academic performance, but it’s not a runaway success yet with respect to learning in social settings. Translation: students are convinced tech can help them earn better grades, but can it help them communicate with educators and collaborate with fellow students?

71% of surveyed students say technology positively impacts their engagement with course materials, but less (58%) note technology’s role in improving engagement with professors and teaching assistants, and only 51% agree they’re more engaged in their school’s community due to technology. Just 45% see the benefit with fellow students. Continuing this trend, less than half of students surveyed feel that DLT is helping them with soft skills, such as interacting with others, working well in groups, and improving other interpersonal and social abilities.

Critical Connections

These “soft skills,” or more accurately: relationship-building skills, are deeply valued in today’s human-centric workplace. Employers increasingly evaluate employees’ EQ, and according to a working paper published by Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2015, “high-skilled, difficult-to-automate jobs increasingly require social skills.” This research also reveals that “employment and wage growth has been strongest in jobs that require high levels of both cognitive skill and social skill.” It’s essential that students develop these skills to thrive n the workplace.

While DLT continues to provide enormous advantages in the classroom, it is critical that instructors—like Olsen—take a smart approach both embracing DLT and encouraging interactions with, and between, students. The lessons learned from this multi-pronged approach will enable students to excel throughout their lives.