The days of notebooks, chalkboards and flour sack babies in schools across the country may be ending. Many of today’s schools are incorporating Chromebooks, Smart Boards, and even high-tech infant simulators that are taking the classroom into a highly digitized 21st century.
As tablets, laptops and apps have taken hold with consumers in recent years, they have also gained a steady following within schools, said Ellen Meier, a professor at Teachers’ College at Columbia University.
One influential addition in many classrooms is the Chromebook, a low-cost, simplified laptop, loaded with Google apps like an internet browser and word processor, that can work offline. Last year, Chromebooks made up 5.4 million of the devices sold for U.S. classrooms, or just under half of the total, according to the Associated Press.
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Chicago Public Schools has spent about $33.5 million to provide Chromebooks for more than a third of its 381,000 students, The New York Times Magazine reported. “In less than 10 seconds, a student can grab a Chromebook and be off and running,” Rajen Sheth, who oversees Google’s Chromebook business, told the magazine.
With these basic laptops or tablets like iPads, schools can create virtual classroom hubs that let students view assignments, submit homework and talk to teachers online on platforms like Moodle and Blackboard.
Meier, who directs Columbia’s Center for Technology and School Change, said that schools are facing a growing impetus to make sure that more students have experience using keyboards because tests are increasingly being administered online.
Cassettes or CDs in foreign language classes, meanwhile, are getting competition from interactive language lessons apps like DuoLingo. It's being used by tens of thousands of students, according to the company.
“More and more technology is being used in classrooms for practicing math and reading skills,” Eric Cayton, vice president of merchandising at Staples, said in an email. “In order to do this work independently, headphones now often appear on [back-to-school] shopping lists for students in elementary school.”
But the digital revolution in the classroom isn’t just tied to the arrival of laptops and tablets. High-tech reinventions of traditional school supplies are starting to make older models obsolete.
The same way that classic chalkboards were phased out in favor of dry-erase boards in the late 1990s, the Smart Board — an interactive whiteboard/projector combo — is now the board of choice in many classrooms. Texas Instruments, meanwhile, has kept its monopoly on calculators with the TI-Nspire, a modern version of the company’s bulky devices from the 80s and 90s.
More than three million classrooms now use Smart Boards, whose latest model of touch TVs can hook up to Chromebooks, according to a Smart Board representative.
Benjamin Glazer, an editor at consumer shopping website DealNews, said he predicts that many traditional items on back-to-school lists may also receive a digital update soon.
“There’s a strong possibility you might see things like smart binders or smart notebooks where you can access calendars and schedules from a touch screen inside the notebook,” he said.
But what’s often more important than the technology itself is how it ends up being used in the classroom, researchers say.
“The Smart Boards have become well-known for replacing blackboards, but they have so many things that we often don’t prepare our teachers to do,” Meier said. “There’s going to be an ongoing parade of new devices, but devices are not the answer in terms of how we can use these tools for more thoughtful teaching and learning.”
In any case, the most basic supplies — like paper, pencils and erasers — won’t be going away anytime soon.
“Every year, we see massive price loads on those items,” Glazer said. “Retailers continue to treat them as doorbuster deals that will bring in customers.”