As the use of electronic teaching and learning tools has increased, technology in education has become a key focus for educators at all levels. Using electronic and digital tools is seen as a way to enhance learning and provide a beneficial experience for all students. Administration of educational programs has also benefited from the growth of technology, allowing student progress to be tracked and analyzed more successfully. This in turn permits a fine-tuning of learning objectives and corresponding curriculum units. It also allows teachers to more easily share student progress with parents. For example, teachers might produce charts on a laptop showing a particular student's successes and challenges in math, even breaking down the data by type of math problem. While many embrace these benefits, critics contend that an overuse of electronic devices in classrooms might detract from the learning experience for some students, making it too impersonal without enough of a social component.
A student in the late 1970s would have been aware of the new inventions entering society around them, from the personal computer (uncommon at the time) to early cable television. In classrooms, however, technology was largely mechanical. For example, a teacher might use an overhead projector to show information on a screen to students. Alternatively, the teacher could show a science or history film on a 16 mm projector, which was wheeled from room to room. In the mid-1980s projectors gave way to videotapes and televisions, which continued to be wheeled from room to room.
By the late 1980s, personal computers had become common enough that many high schools had computer labs where students learned various skills. Most of the computers used DOS, and later the Windows operating system from Microsoft. In addition to word processing and printing, students could do advanced calculations on spreadsheets. Lotus 1-2-3, first released for MS-DOS systems in 1983, was a popular early spreadsheet program.
These software programs and the PCs they operated on represented the forefront of educational technology at the time. They were particularly beneficial to classes about business or math. Of course, students were excited to learn by using personal computers at their schools, which were still rare in the home environment.
By 2000 Windows-based PCs were common and the Apple iMac was taking off. Microsoft, Apple, and many other companies realized the benefits of getting their technology into schools with the hopes of creating lifelong customers. For that reason, they began to communicate to teachers and parents the benefits of their computing devices and software packages. That trend continues today, with software packages such as Microsoft Office having a home and student edition and Apple marketing aggressively to students. Because technology in education is big business, online outlets such as the Academic Superstore offering discounts on software for students who can verify their currently enrolled status. That is usually done by verifying a school-based e-mail.
The range of electronic devices that can be used for teaching and learning has blossomed dramatically since the start of the twenty-first century. Touchscreen machines such as smartphones and tablet computers can fulfill a wide variety of educational functions. For example, a science student can physically manipulate a 3D model of an atom or molecule displayed on their tablet with a series of gestures, learning about the structure of each. A student in a music class can play the notes of a classical composition on his or her tablet by using it as a full piano, with visuals and sound to match.
New educational technology also allows classes to be delivered remotely. An American university can arrange for a guest lecture from a professor in Scotland, with the entirety of the presentation transmitted via a service such as Skype. Such presentations can even include active review and alteration of documents via free file-sharing services such as Google Drive. In these ways, modern technology in education has opened the doors for learning across borders. This includes the chance for students in poor areas to have access to learning resources that would previously have been inaccessible for them.
Companies view these new electronic avenues as opportunities for profit. In the key college textbook market, expensive and heavy books are beginning to be replaced with digital versions, which are not only easier to transport, but also easier to search. The hope, on the part of students at least, is that updates to digital textbooks will be less expensive to produce and the savings will be passed along to students. In some cases, downloaded digital textbooks come with automatic updates for future revisions, either for free or a modest fee.
These advantages, coupled with the popularity of using tablet computers as e-readers, is likely to make digital textbooks the default at most university by 2020. At the same time, the availability of digital textbooks is accelerating the development of e-learning programs. Many universities are using advances in educational technology to deliver full classes and complete degree programs to students around the country. This opens up the chance for students in different regions to attend the college of their choice, and it allows the universities to gain a new source of revenue from out-of-state students. Correspondingly, opportunities to learn and teach are expanded far beyond what would have been possible without the current revolution in technology.
—Isaiah Flair, MA
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