For the generation of people whose classroom memories consist of chalk squeaking on a blackboard, weather-beaten textbooks and a ready supply of sharpened No. 2 pencils, the resources available to students in many 21st-century American schools may seem unfamiliar, even amazing.
Computer networks with access to the Internet — wired or wireless — have become commonplace. Instead of a chalkboard or its less dusty successor, the dry-erase board, many classrooms have interactive whiteboards that connect to computers and enable a teacher to project class notes, World Wide Web pages and other data that can be revised on the screen and saved for later review by students.
Many schools provide students with access to online versions of textbooks to supplement or replace the printed versions. One district in Arizona even provides wireless Internet access on one of its school buses so students can make more productive use of their long commutes.
Any one of these innovations would seem astounding to someone transported to the present day from 25 or 30 years ago, when the personal computer was just beginning to turn up in some U.S. classrooms.
But for those eager for a more fundamental transformation of the nation's education system, including the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan, such innovations represent just a dip of the toe in the ocean of technology.
A draft of The National Education Technology Plan 2010, released in March by the Education Department envisions America's schools totally immersed in technological advances that will produce better prepared students, more effective teaching, more authentic assessments of student performance, more accessible learning resources and more productive school systems.
"Technology provides access to more learning resources than are available in the classroom and connections to a wider set of 'educators,' including teachers, parents, experts and mentors outside the classroom," the plan states.
Opening the Gates
Although the education system as a whole must make great strides to begin to tap the full potential of technology, many schools and universities can point to their efforts in using technological resources to enhance learning opportunities for students.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the OpenCourseWare project (OCW) provides unrestricted Internet access to educational materials — lecture notes, course calendars, exams, reading lists and some video lectures from more than 1,900 MIT courses.
The first courses went online in 2002, and since then, the school has had more than 91 million visits to OCW (http://mit.ocw.edu) from more than 65 million visitors — representing nearly every nation in the world. Forty-three percent of the users are identified as self-learners; another 42 percent are students; and 9 percent are educators.
The ability to transmit video over the Internet has enabled schools to expand distance-learning opportunities. Electronic or virtual field trips remove geographical barriers and can provide students with interactive experiences and access to resources that would otherwise not be available or affordable.
Last month, fifth-grade students at Westwood View Elementary School in Westwood, Kan., took part in an electronic field trip to Colonial Williamsburg, more than 1,100 miles away in Williamsburg, Va. After watching a broadcast of "The Rights of Youth," several students became part of the presentation via webcam by presenting summaries of what they had been studying about the Revolutionary Era.