Written by Dan Wiessner
"Class, please take out your phones."
Most teachers are unlikely to utter those words as students head back to school this year, but the use of smartphones, tablets, cloud computing and other cutting-edge mobile technology in classrooms is rapidly on the rise.
The shift was highlighted most recently in Los Angeles, where school officials this month began distributing iPads to all of the city's 650,000 students. While the $1 billion effort may be dramatic, experts said it's part of a larger trend that could soon upend traditional education methods.
Advocates for increased use of technology in schools say the greatest advantage is that it enables teachers to personalize lessons to meet students' needs, a sea change from a system that is often criticized for adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to preparing students for state tests.
At the same time, students are more engaged as they utilize familiar technology. In a model known as blended learning, for instance, students use software that allows their progress to be tracked in real time. The teacher can then break students into groups, focusing on individuals who are struggling, while other students work at their own pace.
"A teacher can instantly know who is able to do the long division, and who is getting stumped, compared with having to wait to correct 30 students' assessments," said Tracy Gray, the managing director of the Center on STEM Education and Innovation at the American Institutes for Research.
Gray's team this month will launch a new website, powerupwhatworks.org, that will provide various tools for teachers to use to implement tech-driven lessons. The project's focus is on kids with disabilities, including learning disabilities, whom Gray said can benefit greatly from technology that allows them to learn at their own pace and engages them in ways books cannot. Kids with Down Syndrome and children on the autism spectrum are using iPads to communicate verbally.
One of the obvious issues for schools, particularly in a time of state funding cuts and tight budgets nationwide, is where to find the money to make the initial investment in new technologies.
Jason Tomassini, a spokesman for Digital Promise, a non-profit created by Congress to spur technological innovation in education, said the upfront costs have pushed some school districts to find creative ways to fund new programs. For example, he said, many educational programs can be downloaded for free, and teachers can incorporate those programs into their lessons. Some of the results are particularly ingenious, such as the idea floated by a string of educators to use the popular game Angry Birds, in which players catapult birds into towers of precariously balanced objects, to teach physics.
Other schools have eliminated their textbook budgets or cut teaching positions. The resulting increase in class size, advocates said, is offset by the ability of teachers to focus on small groups of students while others use computers or tablets.
"If you plan well, there are all of these efficiencies that make the equation a lot more manageable for school districts," Tomassini said.
To save on costs, other school districts have adopted "bring your own" policies, in which students are required to use laptops, tablets or other mobile devices brought from home. The schools often provide devices for students who don't own them or can't afford them. According to a recent Pew study, 37 percent of American teens own smartphones, and 23 percent own tablets.
Tomassini and other experts pointed to success stories with various tech-based models nationwide, from Chicago suburbs to rural areas in the South. In Moorseville, North Carolina, school officials in 2009 distributed MacBooks to all 4th through 12th grade students and launched a computer-based curriculum. Over the next three years, the district's graduation rate increased 11 percent, and its students' scores on state reading and math tests increased 15 percent, catapulting the district to the top of state rankings.
But Gray warned that some districts note the success of others and flock to purchase expensive devices, such as tablets, without considering the cost of software and professional development for teachers. Some educational apps are free, but many cost up to $5 per student."If you want 10 apps for each student, do the math, and it very quickly becomes a significant budget item," Gray said.