Is digital technology a force for good in the classroom, or do these flat screens simply add bells and whistles to the material? If the promise is genuine, when might it come to pass?
Most important, can it help bridge the longstanding achievement gap between students with socioeconomic advantages — such as family wealth, great teachers and educated and involved parents — and those students, often students of color, who lack such advantages in their homes and communities?
The gap is real in the Sequoia Union High School District, which includes Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high schools. For the Class of 2011, the demographics are stark, according to a recent presentation by Brandon Lee of the district's research and evaluation office.
For example, an assessment of who did and who did not complete the coursework needed for college admission showed 75 percent and 69 percent, respectively, of students of Asian and Caucasian ethnicity had completed the work versus 25 percent of students of Hispanic and African American ethnicity and 19 percent of students of Pacific Islander heritage.
A similar pattern appeared among students taking at least one higher level course, commonly called advanced-placement (AP) classes. Organized by ethnicity, students of Asian descent led with 77 percent, followed by 62 percent for Caucasian students, 37 percent for Hispanic students, 13 percent for African American students, and 12 percent for Pacific Islander students.
Among kids whose socioeconomic situation includes low family income and parents who have no post-secondary education, 18 percent took at least one AP class. Among students whose first language is not English, 5 percent took a class.
Is technology of significant value in addressing this problem? About 100 people, including many teachers and entrepreneurs, gathered on a rainy night on March 27 at the Woodside High School Performing Arts Center to hear four professionals discuss the issue and take questions.
On stage for the discussion were:
• Karen Cator, who directs the U.S. Office of Educational Technology. Ms. Cator's career includes corporate and public-sector advocacy for technology in education, according to a bio that also notes that she has "devoted her career to creating the best possible learning environments for this generation of students."
• Alan Louie, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a focus on K-12 education and deep roots in high technology. His current activity is funding small-scale innovation teams of an educator and one or two programmers. Some examples: classdojo.com reinforces positive behaviors in the classroom; goalbookapp.com allows a student's personal learning plan to be shared with the student and involved adults; and remind101.com allows teachers to send text messages to students via their parents.
• Woodside High Principal David Reilly, a champion of innovation in education techniques at traditional high schools. He established Woodside High's later start to the school day in response to research showing its benefits; he is an advocate of "flipping school," in which students listen to lectures at home on a computer and do problem-solving and homework at school; and he is currently exploring year-round school, in part to give teachers extended time to collaborate and develop professionally.
• Asking the questions was Elizabeth "Betsy" Corcoran, a former journalist who has written for Forbes magazine and the Washington Post. She is a co-founder of EdSurge, a newsletter on entrepreneurship in education technology.
The event's host was the nonprofit Peninsula College Fund, which helps low-income students get to, and graduate from, college despite having come from families with no history of post-secondary education. Kepler's Books in Menlo Park and Woodside High sponsored the discussion.
Technology already perks up classrooms in the form of electronic whiteboards and networked computers, not to mention students with smart phones. Ms. Corcoran asked whether a divide exists between kids who are entertained by smart phones and kids who can program them.
"This is a worry for me," Mr. Louie of Imagine K12 said. "We're very concerned about education for everybody. I'd like to see solid citizens with an awareness of math, science, literature."
It is "really key" to help teachers on how to use applications so they can help their students figure out how to use them, Ms. Cator added.
People used to learn from other people, she noted. With the invention of the printing press, the opportunities to learn came from people and books. Now the opportunities come from people and books and technology.
"There are lots of ways to learn today, often through technology ... the kinds of things that power up an opportunity to learn," Ms. Cator said. "This is a very, very cool time."
"I'd take a teacher in a cave over 1,000 Smart Boards in 1,000 classrooms," Mr. Reilly said. Teaching students to think critically is "hard to do on a flat screen," he said. "This is sort of like the Wild West. We are still in the early stages of settling cyberspace. We need to get out in front of the kids and be there waiting. We have to be there waiting to engage students."
One of his proposals to get teachers out in front would not require much technology: switching to a year-round schedule of four nine-week instruction periods punctuated by four three-week breaks. During the breaks, teachers could collaborate on ideas and advance their understanding of their profession.
But this discussion was about technology. "Are we experimenting on our kids?" Ms. Corcoran asked the panel.
"We're experimenting with our kids," Mr. Louie replied.
"We don't really have a whole lot of time to experiment," Mr. Reilly said. Invitations to experiment with new software are constant, he added. "We're just inundated and surrounded. It takes a mountain (of effort) to move (students) away from Facebook."
Referring to Mr. Louie's funding of small-scale teams of innovators, Mr. Reilly wondered aloud if such funding could be directed to small teams of students to let them develop their own learning tools.
Teaching, he said, used to be about "filling the vessel with knowledge," with the application of that knowledge coming later in life. Today, with education built around real-time projects in which students interact with the real world, they create their own realities, Mr. Reilly said.