Overview

Classroom Technology

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 Topics section 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 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.

E-Textbooks

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. A major FCC ruling in July of 2014 tweaked the spending priorities of E-Rate, pouring more money into Wi-Fi technology and expanded broadband for schools. Later in 2014, the FCC ruled to increase the E-Rate budget by $1.5 billion

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, July 2014)