Little by little, technological innovations are revamping the look of education. The chalkboard gave way to whiteboards several years ago, and now textbooks and a vast array of other learning tools are readily available online. The rapid pace of digital innovation, in one way or another, has been transforming the nation’s schools. It has put vast resources – e.g., textbooks, lesson plans, student data and more – quite literally at the fingertips of students, teachers and administrators. It’s also become a new venue for old problems – such as the socioeconomic divide between students in different schools or, sometimes, even the same classroom. This section of Story Starters looks at the effects that digital tools for teaching and learning are having in classrooms across the country.
Where chalkboards and overhead projectors were once the most advanced technologies commonly found in classrooms, many teachers and students today head to class equipped with smartphones, with some bringing their own laptop or tablet computers. Such devices, whether provided by the students or the schools, can open opportunities for educators to alter how they teach. When practiced effectively, educators say, such “multimedia instruction” can get students more engaged in the learning process. James Ptaszynski, Microsoft’s senior director for World Wide Higher Education, summed it up this way: “It’s not just a matter of giving you this bright and shiny new device, but how do you use it pedagogically? How does it make a difference? Just because there are some cool education apps on there, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re integrated into the curriculum that you’re teaching. … You really need to systemically use it.”
For example, as part of a social studies lesson on global economic differences, an instructor might ask the class to explore a website with animated graphic information that depicts how life expectancy and per capita income have changed in some areas over time. Hit “play” and a series of bubbles representing each country starts to move, some of them showing improvements, some not. The program, said University of Washington education professor Robin Angotti, is applicable not only to math lessons about mean, median and mode, but it also allows students to make a wide range of graphical interpretations that comply with Common Core standards.
Critics of multimedia instruction question whether the use of technology in the classroom is a fad, substituting entertainment for actual learning. They also question whether teachers receive enough training to make the best instructional use of constantly changing devices and platforms. Research on the impact on the long-term benefits for students of new digital technologies has been limited and inconclusive.
Even one of the most time-tested staples of the schoolhouse experience – the hardbound textbook – is subject to the rapidly spreading influence and availability of technological innovations. An increasing number of textbooks are now available online, and a whole new group of players, including technology companies and open source publishing initiatives, now have a role. Apple Inc., for example, formed a partnership in 2012 with three major textbook publishers to provide interactive iBooks to students for $14.99 or less. (However, that partnership has led to an antitrust lawsuit brought to the companies by the U.S. Justice Department.) At the same time, teachers throughout the country are creating their own textbooks, and open source publishing initiatives are gaining ground.
E-textbooks are relatively new and account for only a fraction of the multibillion dollar textbook publishing industry. But advocates of these digital teaching and learning tools tout their many advantages. Electronic textbooks don’t fall apart; they can be updated quickly and easily, which is particularly useful for science and social studies; and they have multimedia and interactive features. In addition, various devices and online applications allow students to tap into vast amounts of research and collect firsthand information in multiple formats – photos, videos, voice recordings, etc. They can then use that information to create presentations or share it for joint projects with fellow students. They can also travel the world, at least virtually, and watch an atom spin in 3D motion.
But e-textbooks also have faced criticism, most notably for issues of access related to costs. While the digital “books” themselves might be purchased for $14.99 or less, the devices on which students have to read them – whether a tablet computer, laptop computer or some other product – typically cost hundreds of dollars. These portable devices also are particularly vulnerable to wear-and-tear, meaning they might have to be replaced or repaired frequently. Thus, the price tags attached to making e-textbooks the standard for a classroom or school pose significant obstacles for school districts and households already grappling with tight budgets, critics argue.
‘Digital Divide’ and the ‘App Gap’
Such issues of cost and access in a variety of ways have been a core issue when it comes to the use technology in the classroom. The “digital divide,” or the gap between households and schools that afford technology and those that cannot, has been a persistent concern as computers have become more integrated into daily life. According to a 2010 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 3.1 students for every school-based instructional computer with Internet access. That ratio, however, can vary greatly from school to school. Often those schools with a high percentage of low-income students have far fewer computers per pupil than more affluent schools.
In the end, many educators say, if students don’t have computers at home and they have limited access to them at school, they end up struggling with very basic computer skills. A 2011 report found that 72 percent of children ages 8 and younger have a computer at home, but there is a wide disparity in that access between children from low-income households (48 percent) and those from higher-income families (91 percent). According to the Federal Communications Commission, an estimated 100 million Americans, or a third of the population, do not have Internet access at home. To alleviate the problem, the FCC announced in late 2011 that it is working with cable providers, technology companies and nonprofits on an initiative to provide low-income children with inexpensive broadband service and refurbished computers.
The technological divide among students is not limited to hardwired connections. As smartphones and tablet computers proliferate in households, there is some evidence that students from low-income households are again at a disadvantage. For example, a 2011 survey found that among children from lower-income families, only 27 percent have a parent with a smartphone and only 2 percent have a tablet device at home, compared with 57 percent and 17 percent on the same measures for higher-income children. And 38 percent of lower-income parents said they did not know what an app is, compared with just 3 percent of higher-income parents. As these technologies become more integrated into schools and daily life, such “app gaps” will pose hurdles for educators and students without access.
Classroom Internet Speed
As education leaders explore new ways to educate students, the internet speed in most classrooms is due for a supercharge. Ideas to supplement classroom instruction like blended learning, video conferencing for remote learners and reliance on high-definition videos are all dependent on a school's high-speed internet access. The key to improving that access, many say, is the E-Rate, a program of the Federal Communications Commission that raises $2.38 billions per year via fees charged to telecommunications companies and redirects that money to schools and libraries to spend on telecommunications services. In Washington, the FCC has proposed an overhaul of the program's rules, and debate is ongoing over whether the available pot of money should be expanded in order to meet schools' voracious appetite for more bandwidth.
But with dollars scarce, federal officials will have to determine how best to spread the money around: While households with incomes of $100,000 or more are twice as likely to have high-speed internet than households earning $25,000, few schools are meeting their high-speed internet needs. The popular Khan Academy video series recommends 1 to 1.5 megabytes per second (mbps) of internet speed per student; many schools in New York City, for example, have that much internet capacity for all their students. In 2013 President Barack Obama called for schools to reach a gigabyte of internet speed per 1,000 students -- hundreds of times faster than what New York City offers. But bringing schools up to speed on internet connectivity is expensive, and there are debates over which type of technology is best for bringing the additional bandwidth to students. Some states are leading the charge. Recently, Utah has increased its internet speeds to a gigabyte per second for many of its schools, in part through E-Rate funds.
— Lucy Hood, June 2012 (Updated by Mikhail Zinshteyn, November 2013)
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
But many students don’t have that advantage. By one estimate from a survey of school administrators and technology specialists, a third of Florida students don’t have a computer at home. And even if they did, it wouldn’t guarantee they would land on the right side of the digital divide. (StateImpact Florida)Read More »
By one estimate from a survey of school administrators and technology specialists, a third of Florida students don’t have a computer at home. And even if they did, it wouldn’t guarantee they would land on the right side of the digital divide. (StateImpact)Read More »
Young children—even toddlers—are spending more and more time with digital technology. What will it mean for their development? (The Atlantic)Read More »
More than 10,000 students in nearly four dozen schools across Idaho will log into newly created Khan Academy accounts during the 2013-14 school year as part of an initiative that aims to infuse technology into instruction and supplement teachers' curricula. (Education Week)Read More »
As schools incorporate more blended learning and take-home digital assignments, many students face a challenge: how to do their work, which requires Internet access, outside of school hours and school buildings. (Education Week)Read More »
In the past few years, a quality education at Levin High School became harder to come by. Money for a college scholarship in Mr. Levin’s name dried up. A ball field that a Mets official helped pay for fell into disrepair. Computers sat untouched, applications to the school fell and the graduation rate sank to 31 percent, the fifth-lowest in the city. (The New York Times)Read More »
Students with broadband Internet access at home may have an advantage over those who don't, officials say. (USA Today)Read More »
Flipped learning -- which flips the time-honored model of classroom lecture and exercises for homework -- apparently is catching on in schools across the nation as a younger, more tech-savvy generation of teachers is moving into classrooms. (Associated Press)Read More »
Rachelle attends an unusual charter school in an office building across the street from Newark City Hall. The school, Merit Prep, opened up at the beginning of the 2012-13 academic year with the noble mission of raising the academic performance of low-income minority students. But it is also embroiled in a controversy over how much children should be taught by computers. New Jersey’s biggest teachers union is suing to shut the school down and is hoping a state appellate court will do so in early 2013. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
John Jay Science and Engineering Academy started making students carry "smart ID" badges implanted with microchips this fall to ensure they are counted as present, since some state funding is tied to student attendance.
But Andrea Hernandez, a 15-year old sophomore at the magnet school for exceptional students, filed a federal-court petition on Nov. 30 seeking to be excluded from the program. She argues that as an evangelical Christian, she can't wear the badge because it is a sign of submission to a secular ruling authority, a form of idolatry she says is prohibited in the Bible's New Testament. (The Wall Street Journal)Read More »
Call it the a la carte school.
The model, now in practice or under consideration in states including Louisiana, Michigan, Arizona and Utah, allows students to build a custom curriculum by selecting from hundreds of classes offered by public institutions and private vendors.
A teenager in Louisiana, for instance, might study algebra online with a private tutor, business in a local entrepreneur's living room, literature at a community college and test prep with the national firm Princeton Review - with taxpayers picking up the tab for it all. (Reuters)Read More »
The document makes five recommendations to prepare schools for the new assessments.
1. Move away from Windows XP (which is currently used by more than half of schools today) to Windows 7. Windows 8 might be acceptable, but further testing is needed. However, the assessments will work with Windows XP.
2. Upgrade computers to at least 1 GB of internal memory. Most schools have already implemented this recommendation (63 percent, to be exact.) (Education Week)Read More »
In olden, pre-Twitter days, graduate students traipsed around academic conferences meeting peers and mentors. But Twitter chats—or hashtags, the number signs indicating a topic of conversation—are the new networking spaces, at least according to a recent blog post on The Daily Muse, "10 Great Twitter chats for Grad Students." (U.S.News & World Report)Read More »
Through Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and text messages sent in multiple languages, school staff members are giving parents instant updates, news, and information about their children's schools. Not only that, but a number of districts are also providing parents access to Web portals where they can see everything from their children's grades on school assignments to their locker combinations and what they're served for lunch.
Socioeconomic disparities in Internet access can make such digital-outreach efforts challenging and even divisive, however; some parents have many options for connecting digitally, and others don't. (Education Week)
Blended learning—the mix of virtual education and face-to-face instruction—is evolving quickly in schools across the country, generating a variety of different models. This special report, the second in an ongoing series on virtual education, examines several of those approaches and aims to identify what is working and where improvements are needed.Read More »
“Prior to kindergarten, everyone learns to talk at a different time,” he continues. “They get potty-trained at different times, but suddenly when you get to kindergarten, you’re placed in this box, and you’re given the kindergarten curriculum because you’re five, not because you’re ready for it, or even if you already know it all. Kids learn in different ways on different time frames.”
National advocates for competency-based education echo those sentiments, pointing out economic and policy forces that are building momentum for such an approach. (Ed Week)
School districts are raising concerns about their ability to be technologically ready to give Common Core State Standards assessments to students online in two years. Administrators say they remain uncertain about the types of devices to buy, the bandwidth they need, and the funding available for technology improvements. (Edd Week)Read More »
Many entrepreneurs in K-12 believe technology can solve education’s problems, but don’t work to understand those problems before prescribing technology to solve them. That frustrates educators and can be a recipe for failure for fledgling companies.
The founders of Imagine K12—Tim Brady, Alan Louie, and Geoff Ralston—made their fortunes working for some of Silicon Valley’s star companies, like Yahoo and Google. But they’re trying to change that dynamic by helping people who start education businesses understand what educators truly need and then create products to meet those needs. (Education Week)Read More »
This is the first time a university in the United States has offered academic credit for a Udacity course, although several universities in Austria and Germany already do.
The course, "Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine," teaches basic computer-science skills by having students build a Web search engine similar to Google. Students enrolled in the free, online course also learn the basics of the programming language Python. (The Chronice of Higher Education)Read More »
In the 105,000-student Memphis city school system in Tennessee, officials were also concerned about making sure every student had the access needed when the district decided two years ago to require students to take an online course before graduation.Read More »
The district got creative, said Cleon L. Franklin, the director of instructional technology. It provided computer-lab time before and after school and coordinated with community organizations, such as libraries, to make sure students could use computers there. (Education Week)
This shortfall in mathematical preparation for college-bound students has existed for a long time, but it is being exacerbated by the increased use of technology. College-level math classes almost never use graphing calculators, while high-school classes invariably do. College professors want their students to understand abstract concepts; technology advocates claim their products help teach students such abstractions, but in practice they simply don’t. (Slate)Read More »
2012: Virtual Shift Technology Counts 2012—the 15th edition of Education Week’s annual report on educational technology—tackles the shift in the virtual education landscape, where the rise in popularity is intersecting with a call for greater accountability. (Education Week)Read More »
As schools aim to prepare students for life outside of school, they need to realize that the world now values knowledge and skills that can be applied in creative ways. Epistemic games fit the learning requirements of today’s world because they allow students to role-play professions while learning skills that they apply in the game. (KQED)Read More »
Through a partnership with three major K-12 textbook publishers, Apple announces a plan to make interactive, multimedia textbooks more accessible to classrooms. Critics question whether the devices that play the textbooks are affordable for schools and students. (Education Week)Read More »
School districts have struggled to determine whether they can discipline students for blogs, videos, and other media they post online from home about what happens during the school day. (Los Angeles Times)Read More »
For many students, the computers at school are their primary route to get online. How responsible does this make schools for policing students’ behavior, both on- and offline? (Victoria Advocate)Read More »
Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ longstanding recommendations to the contrary, children under 8 are spending more time than ever in front of screens, according to a study,” this article reports. The news is especially noteworthy because of the emerging “app gap” between children from low-income households and those from affluent homes. (The New York Times)Read More »
“Amid a classroom-based software boom estimated at $2.2 billion a year, debate continues to rage over the effectiveness of technology on learning and how best to measure it,” according to this article. “But it is hard to tell that from technology companies’ promotional materials.” (The New York Times)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. From the subhead: “As smartphones and handheld computers move into classrooms worldwide, we may be witnessing the start of an educational revolution. How technology could unleash childhood creativity -- and transform the role of the teacher.” (Fast Company)Read More »
SourcesClick to View (opens in new tab)
Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
Our report, Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators, shows that while many digital products claim to teach reading, the app marketplace currently puts a heavy emphasis on teaching letters, sounds and phonics. A snapshot of the iTunes App Store's most popular paid literacy apps showed that 45 percent targeted letters and sounds and half targeted phonics, but only 5 percent targeted vocabulary. And none of the iTunes paid apps in the scan focused on comprehension, grammar and the ability to understand and tell stories. (New America Foundation)Read More »
As online college courses have become increasingly prevalent, the general public and college presidents offer different assessments of their educational value. Just three-in-ten American adults (29%) say a course taken online provides an equal educational value to one taken in a classroom. By contrast, fully half of college presidents (51%) say online courses provide the same value. (PEW)Read More »
This influential brief from the National Education Policy Center offer recommendations to legislators regarding how they should manage the costs, enrollment, and quality controls for virtual programs, which have expanded quickly over the past decade. (National Education Policy Center)Read More »
This paper examines some the ways that new technologies have altered approaches to education in classrooms across the country. It concludes that when used to complement other aspects of the school system’s approach, increased use of technology can improve the quality of students’ learning experiences. (The Brookings Institute)Read More »
This comprehensive report finds that children’s use of and exposure to media technologies is increasing rapidly even as equity concerns about the digital divide and the app gap persist. (Common Sense Media)Read More »
Chart for the number and internet access of instructional computers and rooms in public schools. (National Center for Education Statistics)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- What do local educators (superintendent, principals, teachers, etc.) think is the most effective use of technology in schools? How much money is set aside in the schools’ budgets for purchasing and upgrading technology, and has that amount increased or decreased in recent years?
- What kind of privacy policies do local schools have in place, for both student and employee data stored electronically? Is that personal information stored on-site or at a central location, and how is it archived? Is this data accessible via the Internet?
- Is the “digital divide” (student access to computers and the Internet at home) or the “app gap” (student access to smartphones, tablets, or other such devices) an issue in local schools, and—if so—how do they try to close the gap?
- Does your district use E-textbooks? If so, what has the response been so far? If not, are there any plans to try this technology?
- What kind of online learning takes place in local school systems -- blended learning, personalized learning, credit recovery, virtual learning, etc.? Are there anomalies, oversights or potential conflicts of interest involved in the running of virtual schools in your city, country or state?
Alliance for Excellent Education focuses on reforming high schools to prepare students better for postsecondary education and the workforce. Recently, the Alliance has started advocating for the increased use of technology; the organization held its first Digital Learning Day in February 2012.
The Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use was established by online safety expert Nancy Willard in 2004 as a resource for students and families. The center offer guidelines for monitoring and protecting youth as they use internet and other emerging media.
The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) was founded in 1992 and gathers school technology officers, educators, and policy makers to ensure that technology efficiently assists districts in educating students.
The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is a non-profit organization that advocates for the use of quality online educational tools to provide more students access to a high quality education. The group was previously known as the North American Council for Online Learning.
State Education Technology Directors Association was founded in 2001 as a professional organization for administrators who manage schools’ technology infrastructure. Its focus is how school systems can use technology to improve students’ educational performance while also curbing unnecessary costs.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.