- The Washington Times - Monday, July 18, 2011

By 2015, the nation’s schools will abandon traditional textbooks in favor of digital learning. Over the next four years, the nation’s government will spend more than $2 billion to provide every student with a tablet and, in the process, become the first country in the world to go paperless in its schools.

No, not the United States. It is South Korea that is leading the way in classroom technology.

The Seoul-based Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported recently that the format will include “the contents of ordinary textbooks,” but the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology plans to build a cloud-computing system in all schools so students can access a wealth of information with their handheld devices.

Although some districts in the U.S. have moved from paper texts to online or digital curricula, the chances of implementing a federally run program like the one in South Korea are slim, said Keith R. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, an association of school technology leaders.

“I don’t think we’ll see something like that,” he told The Washington Times.

With America’s tradition of state and local control over schools, he said, the transition from books, pencils and paper to 21st-century tools such as iPads, Kindles and smartphones must come from the ground up.

Mr. Krueger did say the federal government could use its “bully pulpit” to push change. It is a strategy the Education Department began last year with the National Education Technology Plan, which encourages states and districts to expand Internet access, provide more computers and other devices for students and use those devices for instruction and assessment.

“Our theory is that, really, we want to be tight on goals and set the stage,” said Karen Cator, director of the department’s office of educational technology. “We need every student in this country to have the best possible opportunity … to do that. We need to leverage the best possible technologies.”

Although the plan can serve as a blueprint, Ms. Cator said, state governments ultimately must take the lead.

Maine and other states have relied for several years on cutting-edge technology, rather than textbooks, to educate their children. The Florida Legislature this year passed a bill requiring all school districts to go digital by the 2015-16 school year. The West Virginia Department of Education told its counties last week to begin preparing for electronic textbooks, according to the education website eschoolnews.com.

Not all states, however, are taking the top-down approach. Instead, the digital revolution has begun in individual school systems such as Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, with 5,600 students just north of Charlotte.

Four years ago, the school district undertook the mammoth project of providing each student in grades four through 12 with a laptop and began the transition away from textbooks. The results have been better academic performance, higher graduation rates and happier teachers, said Superintendent Mark Edwards.

“The idea of having bound materials in the 21st century doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “We stopped buying textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, globes and maps. Students have shown a keen interest in an environment where they’re using 21st-century technology.”

The school district now uses digital resources for 90 percent of its classes. Within a year, he said, it will be 100 percent.

Even in tough economic times, he said, district leaders made a simple choice: Technology in the classroom became their “21st-century plumbing,” not viewed as a luxury but an absolute necessity like a working cafeteria.

Story Continues →