In Our View: Plugged-In Classrooms

Latest technological advancement has huge impact on way students learn

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This isn't your father's classroom. Heck, it's not even your classroom, or at least not one that you would recognize from your school days. Today's classrooms are wired in and wireless, using the latest in technology and vastly altering the methods by which students learn.

The fact that schools are employing technology certainly is no surprise. The most effective classrooms long have incorporated the latest devices in an attempt to engage students. Not all that long ago — OK, maybe it was a long time ago — that meant film strips that could show moving pictures without sound. How quaint. Today's classrooms have individual Internet connections right at each student's fingertips in the form of iPads or other tablet devices.

A recent article in The Columbian by reporter Tyler Graf pointed out some of the ways schools are incorporating iPads into their lesson plans. The La Center, Battle Ground, Vancouver and Washougal districts all use or have used iPads, with many schools expanding their programs this year.

"I think the whole electronic use thing gives kids more of a feeling that it's going to help them," said Camron Rowen, a seventh-grader at La Center Middle School.

While technology long has been used to support traditional methods in the classroom, the development of tablets can represent a huge leap in how students learn. Introduced in 2010, the iPad initially seemed like a ludicrous idea -- a laptop computer without the computing capability. But it quickly has expanded the horizons of learning at every level. La Center math teacher Mike Holland has students use the device to access a website called Khan Academy, which provides interactive tutorials that supplement his instruction.

"One of the things that has always bothered me about the way we teach is that life doesn't present a page of fractions," Holland said. "The whole day is not one kind of problem. Everything is a different kind of problem. (Khan Academy) has a variety of problems, and that's more real."

The potential goes well beyond that. Author Lisa Guernsey, writing for Slate.com, recently described her experience observing a school in Zurich, Switzerland. "The tablets were intended to be used as video cameras, audio recorders, and multimedia notebooks of individual students' creations. . . . Instead of focusing on what was coming out of the iPad, they were focused on what was going into it." One assignment involved first-graders explaining what they understood about "systems," with one girl creating a digital flow chart to show how a book gets checked out from the library, taken home and then returned.

Guernsey stressed, however, that the key to success wasn't the iPads themselves, but the talent and the patience of the teachers. "Are American public schools ready to recognize that it's the adults and students around the iPads, not just the iPads themselves, that require some real attention?," she wondered. That will be crucial if the latest technology is to have a significant and lasting impact on U.S. schools. Many a fad has promised to alter the education system only to quickly disappear because of poor implementation.

Still, tablets hold potential, and not only for young students. At the college and high school level, the ability to download entire text books onto a device could help stem the ever-rising costs of such books -- and the need to lug around a 50-pound backpack.

The educational system in this country frequently serves as a punching bag for critics. But in many, many ways — as reflected by the use of iPads in classrooms — it's better than ever.