WASHINGTON — Social studies students in a District of Columbia middle school use a touch screen to swipe through the articles of the Constitution. A fifth-grade teacher in Arlington, Va., sends video lessons as homework so she can spend more time helping students in class.
Heather Blake, an Arlington second-grade teacher, was able to keep assignments flowing during snow days this past winter, sending daily messages with grammar lessons and math activities, directing homebound students to measure the snow drifts or follow a recipe for snow ice cream.
“It’s like we didn’t really miss a beat,” said Blake, who teaches at Jamestown Elementary School. “We just continued with our learning.”
Teachers like these are able to abandon textbooks or stretch out the academic day because each of their students has a school-issued iPad.
One-to-one computing — in which each student receives a computer for Internet access and digital learning — took root with laptops in schools well over a decade ago, but it received a huge boost in recent years with the advent of lower-cost tablet computers. U.S. schools are expected to purchase 3.5 million tablets by the end of the year, according to industry analysts, giving students access to an array of modern educational opportunities that come with the technology. Worldwide, K-12 spending on tablets has increased 60 percent over last year.
The rush for schools to buy tablets and other computers comes ahead of a looming deadline for new online standardized tests, scheduled to be introduced next year in 45 states that signed on to the new national Common Core learning standards.
But many advocates for education reform, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, see the scaling up of classroom technology as a much bigger opportunity to rethink schools, to untether them from a calendar designed in an agrarian era, a bell schedule that tells students when and where to go, and a teacher in the middle of the classroom who is considered the source of all knowledge.
“Before, it was more sit and get,” said Leslie Wilson, chief executive of the One-to-One Institute, which advises school districts. “In this transformed environment, students can direct their own learning.”
Computers can help students learn at their own pace. Experts said this can be particularly helpful for a ninth-grader who reads at a fourth-grade level. Computers also have the potential to engage students through the same kinds of games, videos and social networks that captivate them during their free time.
But offering every student an easy window to the World Wide Web raises steep challenges for school districts. They must provide enough bandwidth and professional development, and they have to have enough network control to prevent the devices from becoming easy tools for the distractions of online shopping or instant messaging that could easily lure students away from their math classes.
There are no recent national counts of districts that issue their students tablets or laptops, Wilson said. But many districts have launched ambitious efforts in the past few years, including a laptop initiative approved in Baltimore County, Md., this spring and a $1 billion effort in Los Angeles to give every student an iPad. That plan has been fraught with problems, including an investigation into its bidding process and inadequate filters, which students quickly broke through to access non-educational content.
The infusion of new technology also raises troubling questions for educators and parents. Many worry that the seven hours a day an average child already spends using electronic media is more than enough and that the art of teaching will be reduced to connecting students to the most helpful apps or software.
But most teachers are not interested in dramatic change through technology, said Jaim Foster, president of the Arlington Education Association.
“Best practice is still with a live teacher,” Foster said. “It’s that person-to-person communication that is still the most important piece of our instruction. Teachers feel strongly about that.”