Years ago, as personal computers and other technological advancements began to find their way into classrooms and other educational settings, teachers and administrators sought ways to use new technology to benefit students. The potential for improving education was clear, but the limitations of the available education technology made it difficult for education institutions to turn that potential into reality.

"From the late ’80s through the 2000s, a lot of people in education thought we were serving technology," says Frank Mulgrew, president of the Online Education Institute at Post University in Waterbury, Conn. "You had to operate it the way it was set up."

But the unrelenting pace of technological advancements has created more options and has put more power in the hands of individuals.

"The real innovation is how easy you can use it and how much control you have," says Mulgrew. "The tools have become democratized. The focus is on students, and they’re expecting technology to be used."

Online learning

The most obvious way in which technology is changing schools and universities is online education. More than 6.1 million college students took at least one online course during the fall 2010 semester, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. At the K-12 level, 55 percent of districts had students enrolled in distance education courses in 2009-10, the National Center for Education Statistics says.

Education technology not only provides students with access to courses that might otherwise not be available to them, but also changes the way they learn.

"The interaction between students and faculty is much greater in online courses," says Mulgrew. "The interaction can take place anytime, anywhere. They don’t have to wait in line to talk to the professor. If you’re an introvert, communicating online might be a more comfortable and effective way for you to have contact."

Interaction among students can become more robust, even though they may never actually meet face to face. Discussion boards for some online courses have a few hundred entries a week.

Technology also is changing the kinds of students that are seeking higher education. People whose life circumstances—job, family, finances, health—prevent them from physically attending classes on a college campus now are able to pursue their education in a way that accommodates their needs.

"Online programs can help people overcome barriers to education," says Mulgrew.

Bring Your Own

It wasn’t too long ago that it was commonplace for schools to restrict students’ ability to use technology. Policies typically prohibited students from using cell phones. But as phones have become "smarter" and more powerful, and other mobile devices have become more prevalent, some education institutions have decided to let students take advantage of the equipment they already own.

The Lewisville (Texas) Independent School District is one of several systems that has formalized this more welcoming approach with a "Bring Your Own Technology" program. Students are encouraged to bring any Wi-Fi-capable device, such as laptops, netbooks, tablets or smartphones, for use in their classrooms. They sign on to the district’s wireless network and are able to use their devices in classes when "the teacher deems it appropriate for educational purposes."

Wireless access is available for high school and middle school students; elementary school students will gain access by August 2012. For students that don’t have their own technology, the district will provide resources for them to have access to the Internet.

Schools that let students bring their own devices save money because they don’t have to acquire equipment for all students. "Bring Your Own Technology" programs also bring schools closer to a goal of one computer for each student. Research from Project Red (Revolutionizing Education) shows that students in schools that have one-to-one computer ratios have fewer discipline problems, fewer dropouts, and are more likely to have plans to attend college.