Cedars School of Excellence, an elementary school in Scotland, is trying something new. It has gotten rid of chalkboards, textbooks, pens and paper to create what is believed to be the first school in the world in which all instruction is conducted using computers.
Last year, more than 100 students at the school competed for time using a total of 12 laptops. Now, every student has been issued an iPad.
“Before we had the solution, the children were only able to get around 45 minutes a week on computing studies as they were sharing the existing laptops,” said instructor Fraser Spiers. “But now they'll be some of the most technologically advanced in the world.”
Technology is encroaching into nearly every classroom. Smartboards — modern white boards that can display Web pages, spreadsheets or other visual and interactive materials — have become staples. Schools that just a couple of years ago banned cell phones are now offering lessons that incorporate smartphones. Some districts are even equipping their school buses with wireless routers for laptop users.
The National Broadband Plan released by the Federal Communications Commission encourages greater use of the Internet and telecommunications in schools by simplifying federal subsidy programs for broadband adoption and removing barriers to online courses.
“Within five years, every child in every grade in every school in America will be using a mobile learning device — a netbook or smartphone, something less than two pounds,” says Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. “Because it's the mobile generation's tool, kids are saying, ‘If the school's letting me use my tool, I'm going to meet the school [halfway].’”
Soloway says that schools where he's helped design instruction using mobile devices have seen notable improvement in test scores and student participation.
But access to technology doesn't always improve student performance. A recent Duke University study of computer use among a half-million elementary and junior high students in North Carolina found that increased high-speed Internet access at home was associated with significant declines in math and reading.
Of course, heavy use of the Internet at home is not the same as using technology in the classroom. But the data are mixed there, too. “You look at the studies about schools and technology adoption, they're all over the place,” says Levy, at the University of Washington's Information School.
Both proponents and critics of computers for coursework seem to agree it's not a panacea. Nor is all the information on the Web a substitute for quality instruction.
“One of the interesting things about these kinds of technology is that in some sense, people have been looking to them to be what we used to call ‘teacher-proof,’ a way of getting around a lack of teacher expertise,” says William H. Teale, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“What we've seen so far with technology and the way it's been used in classroom settings, is it doesn't take the place of the teacher,” he says. “It can complement.”
Technology doesn't always help students perform better, but educators nonetheless are embracing it. “Within five years, every child in every grade in America will be using a mobile learning device,” says Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. (AFP/Getty Images/Fethi Belaid)
It's important to recognize that technology is a tool, not an end in itself, suggests Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va. You can't just turn on the computers and expect students to learn, any more than you could just hand them textbooks and offer them no further instruction.
“Rather than dumping students into some kind of online environment,” Cohen says, lessons incorporating technology should take students through “an orderly progression,” showing them historical sources, for instance, and helping them learn how to interpret them.
Students need help not only navigating through the oceans of material available on the Internet but also learning how to sort through it all and think about it critically, says John M. Staudenmaier, assistant to the president at the University of Detroit Mercy.
“If you're teaching young people how to sort out the threads so that they can understand a message, then they can begin to say, ‘What do I think of the message that has been crafted?’” he says. “If that skill is not taught to kids, they're going to be babes in the woods.”
Ironically, the one area in education where use of computers and mobile devices does not seem to be growing is computer science itself. There's been a big drop in the number of computer courses offered in both public and private secondary schools since 2005, while participation rates for advanced placement courses covering computer science have stayed flat, even as they've gone way up for other fields in science and math.
— Alan Greenblatt