The Paperless Classroom is Coming

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by Michael Scherer,

from TIME Magazine,

A national push to get a computer into each student’s hands will upend the way American children are taught.

The future of K-12 education is arriving fast, and it looks a lot like Mr. G’s classroom in the northern foothills of California’s wine country. Last year, President Obama announced a federal effort to get a laptop, tablet or smartphone into the hands of every student in every school in the U.S. and to pipe in enough bandwidth to get all 49.8 million American kids online simultaneously by 2017. Bulky textbooks will be replaced by flat screens. Worksheets will be stored in the cloud, not clunky Trapper Keepers. The Dewey decimal system will give way to Google. “This one is a big, big deal,” says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Like just about everything else in education, computers in the classroom work only when used correctly. The costly missteps of earlier digital-learning initiatives are famous in certain school corridors. A $500 million plan to buy an iPad for every student in the Los Angeles Unified School District imploded this year after questions were raised by members of the school board about both the technology plan and the bidding process. Other districts have found themselves with devices that don’t work, teachers who don’t know what to do with them and outdated school infrastructure that makes it hard to get online.

While kids may take to new technology naturally, the learning curve for parents and other educators can be steep. And even in communities where the rollout has gone relatively well, there’s still plenty of friction. In Calistoga, Calif., where Gudenius teaches, the first classroom computers were iPads for kindergartners, which led to an initial rebellion from some teachers and even a member of the school board. The Association of Pediatrics has been warning parents for years to limit screen time for their children, but now the screens were filling up the school day. Skeptical parents and teachers wondered how a 5-year-old tracing his letters with a finger on a tablet would deliver a better outcome, without negative side effects, than using a marker with a piece of paper.

Indeed, emerging research suggests that there may be reason for concern. Optometrists warn that a steep increase in blue-light exposure from screens could lead to eye problems later in life.

It will take years before the science is conclusive, and in the meantime, educators may have been beguiled by the promise.

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