The education system has changed dramatically over the years, but the basic process still involves teachers conveying information and insights to students. The tools and strategies that help teachers accomplish this goal have evolved, and schools are continually in search of the piece of equipment that will enable them to educate more students more effectively.

More than a century ago, technological advancements were improving the school experience—when pencils and paper became widely available in classrooms and replaced the slates common in one-room schoolhouses, students could take notes, preserve them, take them home and refer to them later instead of relying on memory.

Many of the improvements enhancing the learning experience of today’s students have a similar benefit: They make it easier for learning to continue and be reinforced outside the school walls.

Reams of research might be available to students in the library, but computer access to information on the Internet enables students to carry out research at a time and place of their choosing. Teachers can supplement a lesson with a video shown in the classroom, but if that same video is available on YouTube or a similar Internet site, students can view it, and review it, on their own schedule. Online digital textbooks may be identical to the hard copy versions that weigh down a student’s backpack, but when the information is easily accessible on the Internet, students are more likely to take advantage of the resource when it’s needed.

A toolbox of gadgets

The tools that educators are embracing are those that can help schools reach one of the goals set out in the U.S. Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan. It says that schools should develop and use resources "that exploit the flexibility and power of technology to reach all learners anytime and anywhere."

Computer-powered devices are making anytime, anywhere learning a reality. Web cameras enable instructors to record video of their lectures or other course content; teachers also can record audio podcasts that students can listen to on mp3 players as they walk across campus or ride the bus home. Smart phones and the mobile applications that work with them give students that have them constant and quick access to the wealth of educational resources online.

Not too long ago, laptop computers were a breakthrough device in education. They gave students and teachers the portability that desktop machines could not, and the growing availability of Wi-Fi access to the Internet increased that portability exponentially.

The next step in portability is the tablet computer—smaller and lighter than most laptops, faster to turn on, with touch screens and longer battery life. The most prominent and popular of the tablets, Apple’s iPad, has found its way into thousands of classrooms since it was introduced in 2010. The San Diego Unified District announced last month that it is acquiring 25,700 iPad2s for students.

Bring your own

As laptops, smart phones, tablet computers and mp3 players have become more common among students in high school or younger, some administrators have decided to let down their guard and revise their view of these gadgets. Schools that once viewed these forms of technology as distractions now have come to realize that the devices can be used to supplement and enhance learning. And, if a student already has his or her own machine, school systems can reduce their expenditures by letting students use their own gadgets.

This movement is new enough that educators haven’t settled on the preferred jargon—call it "Bring your own device" (BYOD) or "Bring your own technology" (BYOT). The Fox-Bayside (Wis.) district is in the midst of testing the viability of a BYOD program for 7th- and 8th-graders at Bayside Middle School. For the last two months of 2011-12 classes, students who have their parents’ permission and agree to follow the district’s guidelines may bring their gadgets to school and use them in class. Acceptable devices, the district says, are laptops, netbooks, tablet computers such as iPads, e-readers such as Kindle or Nook, smart phones, iPods or mp3 players, and smart phones.

Students can use the gadgets before or after school, or during a class with the teacher’s permission. They cannot be used in hallways between classes or during lunch or recess periods. Students who do not have any of the allowed devices are not required to acquire one, the district emphasized.

"When electronic devices are used to enhance learning in the classroom, students without a personal device will be provided access to an appropriate district-owned device as needed individually, in pairs or as part of a group," the pilot program guidelines state.

Students who use their devices to connect to the Internet in class must do so as a "guest" on the district’s wireless network, which is pre-filtered and does not allow instant messaging or access to chat rooms. The district also stresses that students who bring devices to school do so at their own risk. The school system will not be liable for lost, stolen or damaged gadgets.

After the pilot program ends in June, students, parents and teachers will be surveyed to assess the success of the test, and district staff members will decide during the summer if BYOD is worth continuing at the middle school.