Technology reshapes US classrooms

From online courses to kid-friendly laptops and virtual teachers, technology is spreading in American classrooms, reducing the need for textbooks, notepads, paper and in some cases even the schools themselves.

Just ask Jemella Chambers (11).

She is one of 650 students who receive an Apple laptop each day at a state-funded school in Boston. From the second row of her classroom, she taps out math assignments on animated education software that she likens to a video game.

“It’s comfortable,” she said of Scholastic’s FASTT Math software in which she and other students compete for high scores by completing mathematical equations. “This makes me learn better.
It’s like playing a game,” she said.

Education experts say her school, the Lilla G Frederick Pilot Middle School in Boston, offers a glimpse into the future.

It has no textbooks. Students receive laptops at the start of each day, returning them at the end. Teachers and students maintain blogs. Staff and parents chat on instant messaging software. Assignments are submitted through electronic “drop boxes” on the school’s website.

“The dog ate my homework” is no excuse here.

The experiment at Frederick began two years ago at cost of about $2-million, but last year was the first in which all seventh- and eighth-grade students received laptops. Classwork is done in Google’s free applications like Google Docs, or Apple’s iMovie and specialised educational software like FASTT Math.

“Why would we ever buy a book when we can buy a computer? Textbooks are often obsolete before they are even printed,” says Debra Socia, principal of the school in Dorchester, a tough Boston district prone to crime and poor schools.

There is, however, one concession to the past: a library stocked with novels.

“It’s a powerful, powerful experience,” adds Socia. Average attendance climbed to 94% from 92%; discipline referrals fell by 30%. And parents are more engaged, she says. “Any family can chat online with teacher and say, ‘Hey, we’re having this problem.’”

Unlike traditional schools, Frederick’s students work at vastly different levels in the same classroom. Children with special needs rub shoulders with high performers. Computers track a range of aptitude levels, allowing teachers to tailor their teaching to their students’ weakest areas, Socia says.

Surge in online courses
The internet is also a catalyst for change. United States enrolment in online virtual classes reached the one-million mark last year, 22 times the level seen in 2000, according to the North American Council for Online Learning, an industry body.

That’s only the beginning, says Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

“Our projections show that 50% of high-school courses will be taught online by 2013. It’s about 1% right now,” says Horn, executive director of education at Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank in Massachusetts.

K12, which provides online curriculum and educational services in 17 American states, has seen student enrolment rise by 57% from last year to 41 000 full-time students, says its chief executive, Ron Packard.

Much of the growth is in publicly funded virtual charter schools.

“Because it is a public school, the state funds the education similar to what they would in a brick-and-mortar school, but we get on average about 70% of the dollars,” Packard says.

“We don’t usually get capital dollars, or bond issue dollars. Sometimes we don’t get local dollars. So on average it works out 70% of the per-pupil spending that an average school in the state would receive,” he says. “We’re getting the kids who the local school is not working for. And the spectrum goes from extreme special education to extremely gifted kids.”

US investment bank Morgan Stanley says K12 and similar companies look set to capture an increasing share of the $550-billion publicly funded US education market for children aged from about five to 18 as more American states adopt virtual schools.

Virginia-based K12 recently opened an office in Dubai to expand overseas. Packard says he expects strong offshore demand for American primary and secondary education tailored for foreign nationals who want to enter US universities.

Apex Learning, based in Bellevue, Washington, is seeing a similar surge in demand. It started in 1997 by offering online advanced-placement courses to parents and individual schools but now sells an array of online classes for entire school districts and state departments of education.

“Over the last two years in particular we have seen very, very significant growth in the interest and demand for our type of digital curriculum,” Apex chief executive Cheryl Vedoe says in a telephone interview.

Apex enrolments rose by 50% to 300 000 in 2006/07, and likely grew at the same pace last year, she says.

“Where we see the greatest growth today is actually in brick-and-mortar high schools for programmes for students who are not succeeding in the existing programmes,” she adds.

Online tutoring is also expanding rapidly. Bangalore-based TutorVista, which launched online US services in 2005, estimates its average global growth in active students at 22% a month—all taught by “e-tutors” mostly in India.

Horn expects demand for teachers to fall and virtual schools to boost achievement in a US education system where only two-thirds of teenagers graduate from high school—a proportion that slides to 50% for black Americans and Hispanics, according to government statistics.

“You deliver education at lower cost, but you will actually improve the amount of time that a teacher can spend with each student because they are no longer delivering one-size-fits-all lesson plans,” he says. “They can actually roam around.”—Reuters

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