Students at Archibishop Mitty H.S. in San Jose, Calif. use iPads in the classroom.
Matt Rivera / NBC News
Students at Archibishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif. use iPads in the classroom in this September 2011 photo.
By NBC News
updated 8/20/2012 5:18:35 PM ET 2012-08-20T21:18:35

Across America, the latest technologies are being stuffed into backpacks, propped up in classrooms and enabling learning across vast distances. While mobile and Internet technologies are often used to build classroom engagement at the grade school and high school levels, technology and educational experts say that things at the university level are quite different. In fact, technology may well eliminate the need for campuses altogether.

What does e-education look like?

  • Top universities to offer online courses — for free.
  • Virtual field trips for thousands of elementary school children in rural Minnesota.
  • iMac computers for Chicago-area high school students and iPads for their counterparts in Indianapolis.

"It's a significant change," Karen Cator, the director of educational technology for the U.S. Education Department in Washington, D.C., told NBC News. "While we might feel like the Internet has been for around for a long time, which it has been, we just have to remember that it's fairly new to us — and the opportunity to learn has exponentially grown."

PBS / VeraQuest

Studies show educators are ready for a major change, particularly in accepting new technology into the classroom — or replacing the classroom entirely. K-12 teachers are striving to get their administrators on board with tablets and Web-based learning. Meanwhile, higher education sees the campus itself transitioning from an institution where students live for four years to a more familiar site they log into every day from home.

"We were ready to move ahead," Rolly Landeros, chief information officer with Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, told NBC News. "We wanted our students become a part of the learning process for teachers."

More than 900 Cathedral High School underclassman were required to purchase iPads for the 2012-2013 school year as part of the school's upgrades to its wireless networks and classroom technology, he said. Students who couldn't afford the $500 for an iPad were able to get discounts and scholarships to help pay for them, he said.

"When students use an iPad, they use it recreationally and socially, but teachers use iPads for their educational and professional use. We wanted both sides to use it in all worlds. Instead of teachers being afraid to ask for help, we now have students helping teachers be successful in the classroom," he said.

Students at Archibishop Mitty H.S. in San Jose, Calif. use iPads in the classroom.
Matt Rivera / NBC News
Students at Archibishop Mitty H.S. in San Jose, Calif. use iPads in the classroom in this Sept. 2011 photo.

Last September, NBC News paid a visit to the Archibishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif., which is also piloting a one-iPad-per-child program. (See video below.) As the 2012-2013 school year kicks off, it too will be issuing iPads to its 1,600 students for use at school and at home.

But while change is happening in pockets across America, don't expect an iPad revolution to occur occur overnight.

A PBS-funded VeraQuest survey of K-12 teachers found widespread agreement that technology was helpful in the classroom, making the teacher's job easier and improving the students' experience. But despite a prevalence of PCs, only 21 percent felt they had the right level of technology in the classroom. New and helpful technologies like electronic whiteboards and tablets are highly desired. And while teachers themselves often have access to helpful technology, the students rarely do.

PBS / VeraQuest

Naturally, cost was identified as the primary limiting factor, more than learning to use the new tools or any shortcomings in the tools themselves. And not surprisingly, teachers who taught in high-income areas found the administration, board and parents more supportive of technology.

In northern Minnesota, new technology will help level the playing field for schools in remote areas, said Matt Grose, chair of the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative and superintendent for the Deer River School District in Deer River, Minn.

The collaborative, which includes 20 schools and 6,000 students, is relying on new video technology to link classrooms with others throughout the region, he said. A $1 million federal grant helped pay for the distance-learning initiative, he said. The telepresence classrooms will be used for foreign language classes and field trips.

"Our kids are going to have opportunities to take higher level courses that we can't offer here, or at least that we don't have the enrollment to justify a teacher for," he said.

He said the collaborative wants to expand the telepresence to the community, offering college courses for adults during the evenings.

Students at Archibishop Mitty H.S. in San Jose, Calif. use iPads in the classroom.
Matt Rivera / NBC News
Students at Archibishop Mitty H.S. in San Jose, Calif. use iPads in the classroom in this Sept. 2011 photo.

In the southwest suburb of Chicago, about 7,400 students returning to the Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 will get new computers and updated computer labs. The district leased 700 new computers to update its 25 computer labs within its four high schools, district spokeswoman Charla Brautigam told The Chicago Tribune. Also, students in the district’s music and art programs will get new iMacs to use this 2012-2013 school year, she said.

Even assuming the presence of technology will increase with time, how it is applied is an important issue as well, educators say. Some argue that it isn't helpful for children to have tablets if they're just going to be watching lectures and slides on them. Frank Noschese, a science teacher at John Jay High School in New York, described the weakness of using technology as just another way to make students memorize and regurgitate information.

"I'm not against technology in the classroom, I'm against using technology as away to dispense information to students, for them to consume it and then spit back out," he told NBC News in an earlier interview.

"I want to see students using technology to create knowledge for themselves. It's not technology versus not technology, it's about content delivery via lecture versus content delivery via exploration."

Higher education at the Internet crossroads
At universities, the situation is more complicated. Although higher education is widely seen as a positive experience, the immense and growing cost of attending a university has combined with questions about the relevance of a degree, producing skepticism around the current method employed by schools. In particular, it is increasingly considered wasteful for students to live on campus, and for professors to deliver the same lectures in person, semester after semester.

In a survey conducted by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, over a thousand experts weighed in on the topic of the future of higher learning. Pew asked them to side with one of two statements. One was a conservative view, saying higher education in 2020 would be largely the same, while integrating such technologies were a natural fit. The other was the more aggressive prediction that there would be major changes, a virtualization that puts distance learning and teleconferencing into widespread adoption.

The experts were split, but surprisingly there was little argument over whether universities would eventually change. Everyone seemed confident that education is in a period of transition. The disagreement was about the rate at which that change will occur.

According to the Pew report, P. F. Anderson, a librarian at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, put it as, "The very concept of what a university is, what academia is, what adult learning is, all of these are changing profoundly. If you think back to the original purposes of universities, what they have been doing recently has pivoted roughly 180 degrees."

Yet changing the institution of higher education is like "turning an aircraft carrier," another librarian, Richard Holeton of Stanford, told the research center. He said he believed eight or nine years will see some changes, but nothing like a revolution.

However, two computer science professors from California have set in motion online efforts to teach the world for free and have gained support from five of the nation's top universities.

Stanford professor website
Matt Rivera / NBC News
Professors such as Daphne Koller at Stanford are exploring ways make class time more valuable by putting lectures online.

Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, creators behind the online learning platform, dubbed Coursera, announced this spring their partnership with Stanford, Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan. The pair's project to be offered next year will offer dozens of online courses to students worldwide and at no cost.

The founders say professors will teach under their university's name and will adapt popular courses for the Web, embedding assignments and exams into video lectures through its website, coursera.org. The online program will allow questions from students on online forums, according to Coursera's statement.

The pair founded Coursera in 2011 after they hosted free online computer science classes at Stanford, gaining 350,000 enrollments from 172 countries, according to the company.

What, no more dorms?
If lessons move away from campus, what of the other aspects of higher education — for instance, the so-called dorm life? Many have argued that the act of throwing together thousands of young people to mix and learn from each other is as valuable as the education itself, but it increasingly tends to favor those with the financial backing to do so, technology experts maintain.

Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher at Microsoft in Redmond, noted in the Pew report, "Universities inevitably brought almost all students into forced contact with sets of people they might or might not have chosen to mix with, but they and society generally benefited from it happening."

The question is, what can replace this model? "Whether online social networking will provide mechanisms for youths to shed their high school personas and networks and try out new more mature personas and develop new more challenging and rewarding networks, I don't know," Grudin said.

Whatever their position on the timing of these changes, most of Pew's respondents agreed that the traditional lecture-and-test system is on its way out, and there will be more of a focus on students following specific tracks and receiving more personalized (but not necessarily personal) training. That may result in a college education that isn't as broad, but it will more efficiently bring students the skillsets they need for their careers, so that they get both their time and their money's worth.

Bob Frankston, a computer scientist told Pew: "Ideally, people will learn to educate themselves with teachers acting as mentors and guides."

Video: Inside the wired classroom: Learning with iPads

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