ARLINGTON, Va. — On a warm spring morning, a pair of first-grade boys enter the computer lab at Jamestown Elementary, a traditional-looking red-brick neighborhood school that's educated generations of students.
The first-graders take a black cart, big enough that they both could fit in it, and push it down the hall to their classroom. It contains an Apple iPad for every student in their class.
This school is anything but old school.
Jamestown, part of the 21,000-student Arlington Public Schools, is on the leading edge of what many educators describe as the classroom edition of the digital revolution.
"Kids are not only able to access material but use a number of tools to construct learning in a completely different way from what they've seen before," said Camilla Gagliolo, the instructional technology coordinator for Arlington Public Schools.
While this revolution is far from complete amid concerns about its cost and effectiveness, schools and textbook publishers say it's opened up a new chapter in education, changing the way students interact with teachers and with one another.
"Teachers are having to rethink their classroom," said Becky Keith, a technology integration specialist at Woodford County Public Schools in Kentucky. "The teachers who are embracing it are having great success."
Teachers in digital classrooms have become learning coaches, moving around the room and giving students more one-on-one instruction. Educators who have embraced this approach said it better prepares students for the interactive environments they'll encounter in their college and professional lives.
"In the past, the teacher was the owner of the knowledge," said Richard Jean, the principal of Archbishop McCarthy High School, a Roman Catholic school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "A year ago, if a child wanted to tape a lecture, he couldn't."
From kindergarten through 12th grade, students in more than 2,000 school districts across the country are learning with electronic devices that until recently they were discouraged from using in class.
"We asked them to turn off all electronics when they came to school," Jean said. Now, "we have a tool they can use for everything."
Students can use tablets — whether from Apple or rival brands — to take notes, submit assignments and engage in group discussions with teachers or other students. They can shoot and edit movies, produce podcasts and record lectures. They also can look up information right at their desks, saving a trip to the computer lab or the library. They're also allowing teachers to jettison traditional textbooks.
"I do not really use the textbook at all," said Jessica Basanta, who teaches Spanish at Woodford County High School in Versailles, Ky. "Sometimes I'll pull a few things from textbooks."
Woodford County is among hundreds of school districts across the country to buy into tablets as the future of classroom instruction. It purchased iPads for all 1,250 of its high school students last fall at a cost of $785,000. It plans to buy a new set for each incoming class and offer students the option of buying them at a steep discount when they graduate.
"We feel like we have a model in place to sustain this for many years to come," said Scott Hawkins, the district's superintendent.
But not every district can afford the money that Woodford spent on the iPads, cases and management software for one high school. Hawkins said it cost another $170,000 to build a wireless network, another important requirement beyond the outlay for the tablets themselves.
And not every parent can afford to chip in. The parents of Archbishop McCarthy's approximately 1,500 students pay a $25 monthly technology fee on top of regular tuition, which runs about $10,000 a year.
Arlington Public Schools in Virginia allocates $360,000 a year over a four-year cycle to replace computers at its 37 schools. Frank Bellavia, a district spokesman, said principals at schools that are due for upgrades can decide whether they want tablets or laptops, or a mixture of both.
Schools also can receive state and federal funding for classroom technology, but the funds aren't unlimited.
"I would check my wallet if anyone said this is the solution and you have to do it tomorrow or your schools will fail," said Mark Warschauer, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine.
Warschauer said there is no evidence yet that such devices improve learning.
"I'm a big enthusiast of technology in education, but I'm very wary of notions of silver bullet or magic bullet or game changer," Warschauer said. "An iPad is a different way to deliver content. It has some advantages, and it has some disadvantages."
Education experts who embrace the technology acknowledge the hurdles.
"The money itself is extremely daunting," said Justin Bathon, an assistant professor of education at the University of Kentucky. "The infrastructure is hard to build."
The U.S. education system is highly decentralized, meaning that new concepts aren't adopted uniformly. It also was built for another era.
"We built schools for an industrial economy, and we did spectacularly good at it," Bathon said. "It made us the country what we are today."
In a competitive global economy, Bathon said, it's time for a new model. South Korea had planned to convert every classroom to digital textbooks by 2015. However, this approach worries some educators who think students spend too much time on digital devices, so in a shift, the country won't eliminate printed textbooks entirely.
In William Donovan's fourth-grade class at Arlington's Jamestown Elementary School, it almost appears that the printed history textbook has become history.
On a recent day, Donovan's students are engrossed in a lesson on Virginia history, scrolling through an electronic textbook on their iPads. Meanwhile, a faded set of World Book encyclopedias — an old staple of grade school research — occupies a nearby shelf.
"There's a lot of discussion about when we won't buy textbooks anymore," Donovan said. "Everything we do is interactive."
Rather than fighting the digital trend the way other traditional content providers did, the nation's textbook publishers have embraced it.
"I don't see any resistance at all," said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers. "We're seeing education publishers of all sizes going in this direction, because there is a great deal of demand."
McGraw-Hill Education, one of the largest, is making "significant investments" in digital textbooks, said Lisa O'Masta, a vice president of marketing. She said the company offers schools both printed books and digital ones or a combination of both.
"Our hope is we help our districts in that digital transition," she said. "In many cases, school districts aren't ready yet. We try to develop programs for where they are today."
While Apple dominates the market for classroom technology, much as it did in the 1980s, other companies are offering the devices based on Google's Android operating system, and the competition could bring down prices for schools.
A traditional textbook may cost $75, and a district would have to keep it for five to seven years, and the material quickly becomes dated. Now schools can download digital textbooks for as little as $15 a student and do so more frequently, keeping the information current.
"It is very early with the digital textbooks, but I do believe over the long haul we will save some money over the printed text," Hawkins said.
The students in Donovan's fourth-grade class aren't complaining.
"When my dad was a kid, it was a dream," Isabella Check, 9, said about using a high-tech device in class.
Others appreciate that they don't have to lug around a bag full of heavy books.
"I live right up the hill, so it's a pain," said Perry Gibbs, 10.
At Woodford County High School in Kentucky, students are even teaching their teachers. Andy Smith, a 39-year-old history teacher and by his own admission "not a digital native," said it's fine by him that the students have become innovators.
"There seems to be an attitude that we're all in this together," Smith said. "They've kind of taken ownership of their side of it."
Students staff the school's help desk. Zachary Rankin, a senior, is always in demand.
"A lot of teachers who stop me in the hallway say, 'Hey, can you help me?'" he said.
Daniel James, another senior who works on the help desk, said the devices are helping teachers live in the same world as their students.
"It's bridging a gap between teens and society," he said.
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