Technology transformed education in the twenty-first century by integrating digital tools into classrooms and by moving classrooms to virtual environments. Digital tools can be leveraged to enhance learning processes, broaden access to academic resources, and connect teachers and students in new ways.
Interactive whiteboards and tablets facilitate blended learning in schools by incorporating online technology with face-to-face instruction. Personal computers and smartphones link to internet-based curriculum and resources such as electronic books, videos, and learning games. Virtual platforms allow for approaches including at-home educational support and distance learning through online schools operated by states, school districts, and charters.
Summary of the Article
- Advances in digital technologies have brought new opportunities for students and teachers to approach learning in different ways. School districts around the United States have made substantial investments in education technology.
- Initiatives to incorporate more technology into education have been met with concerns that such investments may not be the best use of school resources. Education experts advise that these technologies be introduced when they provide an educational benefit.
- Blended learning involves both traditional in-person instruction and the use of digital technologies. Distance learning allows students to receive instruction remotely.
- The federal government provides funds to help public schools provide students with access to education technology. However, stark disparities in resources and access persist, especially among rural and low-income students.
- Advances in telecommunications have allowed for more schools to offer online courses. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to school closures across the country, many schools adapted to online instruction.
- Several technologies have been developed to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities. Commonly referred to as assistive technology (AT), these products and services can greatly enhance the educational experience.
Proponents contend that applying technology to education expands teacher and student access to resources, prepares students to join a technologically driven economy, and improves learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Critics caution against applying technology as a solution for every issue within the education system.
They warn that technology must be used with forethought and planning to maximize its benefits and minimize the potential for disruption and distraction. Advocates for equity voice warn that technology can widen the achievement gap by creating a digital divide that disadvantages some students.
Technology in the Classroom
Digital tools are increasingly seen as an integral part of learning. School districts in the United States spend an estimated $13.2 billion combined each year on education technology. According to a Cambridge International Global Education Census, by 2018, most US students reported they had access to desktop computers within their classrooms.
Some US schools issue personal laptop computers and portable electronic devices to students and teachers, though most schools cannot afford it. For example, Puyallup School District in Washington State spent $12.5 million over four years to provide a computer to every student from fourth grade through high school for use in the classroom and, beginning in seventh grade, for home use.
Teachers felt that students showed greater engagement and willingness to participate in lessons, and they turned in more assignments on time. A 2019 analysis of 126 studies published by a think tank based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) revealed that providing students with greater access to computers and the internet will increase their skill level and comfort with these technologies, but that this intervention alone does not improve educational outcomes leading to better grades and test scores.
Education policymakers warn that while many school districts move to integrate technology in the classroom, a lack of rigorous review of best practices and effective applications can lead to wasted investments without students’ educational benefit.
The MIT analysis concluded that blended learning was the best approach for incorporating technology into K12 education programs in terms of cost-effectiveness and learning outcomes. Blended learning combines online technology within a traditional classroom where teachers can interact face-to-face with students. The analysis found that education software designed to allow students to personalize their experience and progress at their own rate could help students improve math scores as in-person tutoring programs.
Researchers cautioned that there was not enough data or rigorous review to understand why some programs proved effective. Though the internet can be a useful learning tool, lack of regulation means that students risk being exposed to inappropriate material and misinformation. Teaching students how to verify the authenticity of information found on the internet is becoming an increasingly important role for educators.
The availability of educational resources online makes connectivity an important goal for many schools, but this can be difficult for some schools to attain. According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of households with school-age children do not have access to a fast and reliable internet connection at home, but this ranges from 6 to 35 percent depending on the household.
Students from low-income households, students of color, and students in rural areas disproportionately face greater barriers to access than their peers. In 2010 Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona, turned school buses into mobile wireless hotspots, allowing students internet access while riding to and from school.
In 2020, during the coronavirus crisis that shut down many schools in early 2020, they could place the buses around neighboring areas for internet access to help students with distance learning while school classrooms were closed. School districts in South Carolina provided similar vehicles to communities affected by school closures.
Another program outfitted vans with wireless internet and parked them on Native American reservations where many of their students live without internet access.
The federal government plays a significant role in funding public schools and providing access to technology in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides federal funds for telecommunications and digital information services and equipment through the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), established as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The initiative, commonly referred to as E-Rate, provides discounts that cover up to 90 percent of the cost of services and equipment. The discounts are determined based on poverty levels of the school or in the community where the library is located. Special consideration is given to rural institutions. By 2019, about 99 percent of K12 schools the United States had high-speed broadband internet access, though work was ongoing to make sure bandwidth could be increased. The budget allocated to E-Rate was capped at $4.2 billion for 2019.
Online Classes and Distance Learning
The proliferation of telecommunications services allows students to participate in educational opportunities that were previously inaccessible due to geography or cost. Distance learning lets students take courses online without having to attend classes physically. Several states operate virtual full-time public schools as of 2020. Florida offered full-time programs for K12 students.
Utah’s virtual school allowed students who are homeschooled and those unable to graduate from a traditional high school to receive high school diplomas. North Carolina’s program enhanced offerings for high school students, including online Advanced Placement and college courses, credit recovery programs, and test preparation. Forty-eight states offered supplemental classroom instruction and blended learning opportunities. In addition to states, some school districts and charter schools offer full-time or dual enrollment programs.
Schools without online learning infrastructure were compelled to adapt quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic starting in the United States in early 2020. Schools in all states shut down starting in March, and planned to remain closed at least until the end of the 2019–2020 school year and possibly into the following school year.
Closures affected more than 124,000 institutions and 55.1 million students in public and private schools. Many states, including Wisconsin, Colorado, and California, immediately transitioned to distance learning as an emergency measure. Some states and school districts could not offer this option immediately since they could not support all students through distance learning, including students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students without home internet access.
Many districts began programs to get laptops out to students and find ways to provide internet access to students without computers or internet access at home. However, some districts had to rely on paper packets of material, especially for younger students.
Higher education institutions began offering online courses starting in the late 1990s. Programs where students can earn credits or complete entire degree programs online rapidly increased in popularity. The percentage of undergraduate students enrolled in online courses increased from 15.6 percent during the 2003–2004 academic year to 42.1 percent during the 2015–2016 academic year.
The percentage of undergraduates completing their entire degree program online more than doubled during the same period, from 4.9 percent to 10.8 percent. Online learning carries on the tradition of correspondence schools, which allowed students to take classes through the mail.
Like these earlier correspondence schools, online universities can receive accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), a nonprofit organization founded as the National Home Study Council in 1926 and recognized by the US Department of Education as a legitimate accreditation body in 1959. Formal university degree programs that are offered online require students to complete the admissions process, enroll in courses, and pay to receive academic credit.
Universities and colleges may also provide select courses for free on their websites or allow faculty to post courses on platforms that offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs enroll thousands of students worldwide. Students can audit courses for free or pay to receive a certificate. There are no prerequisites for taking the courses, which makes access to subjects of all kinds available to interested learners.
Critics of remote learning argue that these programs are not as effective as traditional school settings in regard to student learning and academic outcomes. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) released research in 2019 revealing that despite the increased popularity of full-time online programs for K12 students, students performed worse than in blended or traditional programs. Graduation rates between 50 and 61 percent were far below the national average of 85 percent for traditional public schools.
Graduation rates were also lower than average for full-time online colleges and universities. Further criticisms have been leveled against online for-profit universities for engaging in questionable business practices, including misleading applicants about the quality of the education they provide. Proponents of distance learning in higher education contend that online learning provides opportunities to students who otherwise would face obstacles in continuing their education. The flexibility offered by online universities makes them attractive to people with disabilities as well as older college students, including students who work full-time, stay-at-home moms, and military personnel and veterans.
Technology Solutions for Special Students
Educational technology developers and manufacturers have created enormous software and hardware to facilitate students as well as teachers. The Text to Speech (TTS) readers and proofreading software benefit students with dyslexia and those who have difficulty with reading.
Hearing-impaired students can take advantage of assistive-listening systems, including personal FM radio signal systems and closed captioning for digital video. Software developers have created several smartphone speech-to-text (STT) applications that transcribe spoken language into text.
The artificial intelligence in some STT software can adapt to respond to a specific person’s voice, allowing the unique pronunciations of students with speech difficulties to be easily recognized. Sip-and-puff systems allow students with motor skill disabilities like paralysis to operate a controller with their mouth, which acts as a navigation tool to operate a digital device.
Advances in this technology have enabled students to draw and play video games without full use of their arms. Due to the high cost of some of these technologies, federal agencies like the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services offer grants to states to purchase AT.
As mandated by the Assistive Technology Act of 2004, state programs can receive funds to provide AT to individuals with disabilities through the Assistive Technology Act Programs (ATAP). Financial assistance for these resources can also come from community groups, charities, private donations, and corporate sponsorships.