Technology is making inroads into American classrooms at a faster rate than ever before. As classes kick off for the 2012-13 academic year, more students are walking into classrooms with digital textbooks or tablet computers — and they are instructed not just by teachers standing in front of a blackboard wielding chalk, but by an image brought courtesy of video conferencing software. Even the iconic idea of a traditional school day is increasingly being reworked as educators are being asked to come up with the best way to deliver learning on demand, including after hours and on weekends.
Many students are looking to reap some benefits from the technology and education revolutions, but the ones likely to feel the biggest impact are those from rural school districts whose families sometimes struggle to provide them with regular access to beneficial technology. The proliferation of digital learning tools means that pressure is greater on families to afford to provide tech tools for their kids regardless of their income. School districts have stepped up to help their most needy students via volume buying discounts or even technology lending programs like the kind run by the Texas Education Agency, called Project Share. TEA's director of special projects explained that Project Share came about because her staff is at their best when working with limited resources and under tight constraints.
The state's Long Range Plan for Technology aims to provide access to relevant technology, tools, resources and services for individualized instruction 24/7 by 2020.
"We have to find ways to meet students where they are," said Alice Owen, executive director of technology services for Irving ISD. "That means anytime, anywhere, any device. That's the new mantra. And it will change the way we think about education."
The next logical step in this technological progress seems to be to standardize the means by which education institutions around the state and around the country can pool their equipment for the benefit of all. Currently two Texas districts, Irving ISD and Lewsville ISD, have been selected — along with several other school districts in the U.S. — to join the Washington D.C.-based effort called Consortium for School Networking. The initiative aims to bring together technology officials from several school districts in order to brainstorm on ways to improve academic outcomes in a "digitally-rich environment."
Texas' Project Share is a statewide online learning portal used to connect teachers and students.
Teachers can use the online technology to share ideas and extend their classrooms through additional student lessons or by putting resources and secure student communications online.
The system also provides access to rich educational content on demand like the New York Times Content Repository, the McDonald Observatory, the PBS Digital Learning Library and Texas PBS.
"This goes so much farther than hard-cover materials," said Ballast of the TEA. "It's a classroom beyond school hours."