Westlake High School in Maryland has pioneered a new way to bring technology into the classroom. A classroom equipped with flat-panel televisions, microphones hanging from the ceiling and an internet connection allows the school to look beyond the local teaching talent and bring in lecturers who are experts in their respective fields to make guest appearances, no matter where they are.
This time, students are looking at the screen in front of the classroom where Kenneth C. Davis, a noted historian and the author of "Don't Know Much About History," is delivering an hour-long lesson on the turn of the 20th century. Davis is appearing via Skype, but the microphones allow him to keep the lesson interactive. He invites students to raise their hands and ask question about the material just as they would if it was their traditional AP History teacher fronting the class instead.
Davis isn't the first person to pay a virtual visit to Westlake High. One of the more popular guests was comedian and a writer Dave Barry.
Davis says that this isn't just about Skype in the classrooms, but about teachers using this technology to open up their classroom to a much wider world that he calls the "connected classroom."
But technology is just a tool, Davis says, and it has its limits.
"I've seen teachers completely dedicated to making their students interested, enthusiastic, energetic learners, and using this technology is just one of the tools to do that," he says. "This is not the panacea, and I don't want to present it that way."
Another barrier to widescale adoption is the price. Although the guest teachers themselves rare charge a fee, equipping the classroom with the needed tools costs tens of thousands of dollars – not an amount that every school is in a position to afford.
However, even in the time of education budget crunches, the amount of money being spent by states, districts and schools on technology upgrades is growing rapidly. And the focus of the spending has changed as well. Technology no longer means a computer lab with boxy desktops and outdated screens. Schools are instead purchasing tools to make education more mobile, say Kristen Purcell of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
What did surprise us though was the extent to which mobile tools have become part of the learning process," Purcell says. "[We found that] 73 percent of teachers that we surveyed told us that cell phones are now either part of their classroom experience, or their students' classroom experience. Tablets and e-readers are being used by more than four in 10 of these teachers."