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Goodbye dry-erase board, hello digital classroom

By Evan Wade / December 20, 2013

Goodbye dry-erase board, hello digital classroom

Book bags are about to get a whole lot lighter now that schools are ditching bulky textbooks and implementing mobile devices. For those of us who didn’t grow up with smartphones and tablets, the “digital classroom” used to consist of the one period a day we’d spend playing Math Blaster or Mario Teaches Typing. Nowadays, that term means video calling students from another country via a handheld device to collaborate on a class project.

Because of the “smartphonification” of youth, kids are more likely to see devices like the generation before them saw computers: Tools to integrate into their everyday lives. Adults do the same thing — 72% of smartphone owners say they’re rarely more than five feet from their device of choice — but the familiarity of growing up with the hardware, not to mention natural improvements in technology, will undoubtedly make smart devices even more important for the next generation as they grow older.

In a world where technology finds a new way to implant itself in our lives on a daily basis, giving kids the basic training they need to work smart devices, computers and other high-tech toys isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity. And thanks to digital classrooms, it’s rapidly becoming a reality.

Apple’s iPad: A well-rounded educational tool

While any smart device can augment the learning experience, many of Apple’s practices, policies and business interests make iOS devices particularly useful in a digital classroom environment. By designing an entire suite of software products to utilize their mobile hardware, Cupertino’s devices are probably the easiest to administer across a large user base. They also allow organizations and schools to develop and distribute custom software in an App Store-like environment through the iOS Developer Enterprise Program

iOS’s eBook platform, iBooks, is another potential selling point for schools looking to make the digital switch. Apple’s long-term interest in textbooks is finally coming to fruition on the iPad. Interactive texts on the tablet feature multimedia snippets of all formats as well as editable resources like “study cards,” which allow students to take notes without marking up pages.

Adoption rates don’t always indicate a quality product, but Apple’s strong showing in a recent survey of U.S. educators is even more proof the iPad in particular may be a good choice for a digital classroom environment. In total, 81% of survey respondents said their school “had already adopted or planned to adopt” an Apple tablet. Only 30% said the same of Google’s Chromebook line, the second-most popular item on the list.

Getting smarter with smart devices

Apple may be the valedictorian of educational devices, but there are plenty of other pupils in the digital classroom. The same universal strengths that make iOS, Android and Windows devices popular with consumers can be applied to students as well. Internet access, a staple for any youngster tasked with writing a research paper in the digital age, is one obvious (and continual) perk for connected students.

Apps like Evernote and LectureNotes are, in many cases, vastly superior to traditional pen-and-paper note-taking methods, especially in classes with long lectures or in-depth student participation. Specialized apps can also play a large role in the digital classroom. With everything from CAD software to recipe books readily available on the App Store, teachers with limited desktop computer access can just as easily have their students complete projects on a tablet.

Cost, a huge factor behind the rise of smart devices over desktops and laptops, is another potential advantage for mobile devices in the cash-strapped world of education. Because they’re often less expensive than desktop computers — both to purchase and maintain — a school looking to undergo a digital upgrade could put more devices in more students’ hands by going mobile, with the above-mentioned specialized software bridging the gap between the two in terms of overall performance. They might not be ready to completely overtake computers, but price, along with other the factors mentioned earlier, could make a compelling case for making mobile devices the primary hardware in the digital classroom.

Potential problems

Though they tend to be cheaper than desktops, it’d be hard to argue tablets like the iPad are cheap overall, especially when the organization in question buys them for all their students. In a recent article about tablets in the digital classroom, The New York Times outlines several instances of schools implementing these devices at a great expense. The article claims, one institution bought 47 iPads at $750 each for students in an experimental program, while another spent close to $60,000 on 75 of Apple’s high-end tablets.

And those are just two examples. Other articles, like a recent NPR piece on digital classrooms, spell out similar situations across the country, with schools spending thousands, even millions, to put iPads and other tablets in students’ hands. The problem? Many detractors doubt the efficacy of digital classroom programs. One educator in the above-mentioned NYT article says there’s “very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better” by using tablets, a fact that becomes even harder for detractors to swallow when considering the cost of the devices.

Toss in potential privacy/security issues and questions regarding how students will use the hardware — an expert in the NPR piece expresses concern that students might treat the iPads they’re given as little more than “toys” — and you have enough firepower to sustain a debate for a long, long time. Without hard figures (the effectiveness of tablets has yet to see serious study by researchers), it’s difficult to refute many of those claims with numbers, but it’s just as difficult to imagine tablets not improving the classroom experience for students who would normally be “stuck” with regular textbooks.

Versatility, a major strength among pretty much all smart devices, is key here. By giving students access to tablets, administrators are empowering them with an all-in-one tool for research, hands-on learning and infotainment-style lessons, all presented in a format most students understand intuitively.

We believe concerns over students using the devices as toys, as outlined in the NPR piece, are also largely without merit. Sure, some students will probably make bad decisions with regard to what content they consume on their new devices, but those students will also make bad decisions with existing classroom computers and other school resources. Administrators also have the ability to place security measures on the devices that prevent kids from playing games or searching unapproved websites. Because of that, it’s hard to imagine a school system denying its students access to tablets over these worries alone.

Educational programming

In the end, tablets and other smart devices are tools. It’s the content behind them that makes them a potentially great match for schools. Discovery Education, a tech-based learning initiative set up by the educational TV network of the same name, uses technology like tablets and laptops to “take students beyond the classroom.”

Programs like Discovery Education will likely help legitimize the digital classroom concept a lot faster than tablets could alone. Instead of making educators plan lessons around the devices with traditional resources, initiatives like these teach students in a guided, moderated environment designed to logically integrate high-tech gadgets instead of shoehorning them into the lesson plan.

Other programs, like Google Play for Education, also help educators acquire hardware and software, making it easier for teachers to find an all-in-one solution for the kids they teach. Google’s offerings, thanks to its administrative control over most aspects of the tablet experience, seem particularly useful for the digital classroom. For example, teachers can set a list of “approved” apps from Google Play, preventing students from downloading unapproved software to their school-provided devices.

The digital classroom: Education’s future

Tablets and smartphones are still relatively new in the overall scope of technology. The concept of using them as an educator-approved classroom tool is even newer. Because of this, it’s easy to see how digital classrooms across the country will only improve and expand as the technology behind them drops in price and increases in power. Combined with directed programs like Discovery Education and Google Play for Education, tablets are destined to improve schools all across the nation — as long as they can afford it.