Latina student in McAllen, Texas where iPads are increasingly used in schools. (Getty Images)

Latina student in McAllen, Texas where iPads are increasingly used in schools. (Getty Images)

OP-ED: Digital learning is crucial to our children

While I don’t remember much from my seventh grade geometry class, I have fond memories of trips to my middle school’s computer lab to play the computer game Math Munchers. For those of you who don’t remember, Math Munchers was a game designed to teach basic math skills by requiring the player to solve math equations while avoiding “troggles” – virtual monsters that worked tirelessly to ensure users stayed mathematically unskilled.

While the game’s graphics left much to be desired, the concept itself was (and is) extremely innovative: leverage the latest technology to make intimidating educational content engaging and fun. Fast forward 15 years and the marketplace for educational games and technology is booming. According to the National Venture Capital Association, U.S. investments in education-technology companies tripled in the last decade, skyrocketing to $429-million in 2011 from $146-million in 2002. Digital learning has been transformed by the proliferation of broadband Internet and the availability of cutting-edge technology inside and outside the classroom – from interactive whiteboards to tablets. Further, powerful networks now connect schools in America to some of fastest Internet speeds in the world and more consumers have access to broadband in their homes than ever before. According to Broadband for America, adoption in the U.S. jumped from 3 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2010. Thanks to these network investments and technology innovations, students are no longer limited by floppy disks or dialup Internet speeds; now entire learning ecosystems are available at the touch of an icon on a tablet or smartphone.

Educational technology isn’t just more advanced; it also has the support of educators and students alike. According to a national survey of K-12 teachers conducted by PBS LearningMedia, 74 percent of teachers reported that educational technology benefits their classroom by reinforcing and expanding classroom content. Teachers also said that digital applications allowed them to customize lessons to meet the varied learning styles of their students. The survey found that technology empowers teachers to “do much more than ever before” for their students. Further, a study by youth research firm TRU found that of students who reported using tablets in the classroom, two in three agreed that the tablet made them want to learn more. Even less cutting-edge technology like laptops can make difference. The same study found that 67 percent of students who used laptops in the classroom felt that the technology helped them to better grasp science and math concepts.

Access

While technology is advancing and becoming a more effective learning tool, access to these technologies remains an issue for some of the nation’s neediest communities. In order to maximize the potential of digital learning tools, students and teachers need better access to technology, high-speed broadband, and digital literacy training. The aforementioned PBS LearningMedia survey found that 68 percent of teachers want more classroom technology, a number even higher for teachers in low-income schools (75 percent). Further, 65 percent of classrooms didn’t have access to tablets or e-readers despite one in two teachers saying tablets and e-readers were beneficial for classroom teaching.

Training is critical

Training poses an even greater challenge. My middle school math teacher didn’t know the first thing about computers and during our trips to the technology lab she sat back and left us to the “troggles”. According to the Verizon Foundation, without support or training only 15 percent of teachers use technology effectively, a number that spikes to 85 percent for those who receive continuous support.

At LNESC, the national education nonprofit I work for, we operate a network of programs for K-2nd graders called Young Readers that utilize classroom based technology and digital content to make reading fun and engaging for high-need students. We recently remodeled the program to include tablets and digital applications to help teachers more closely monitor student progress. In addition to tablets, we provide teachers with extensive on-site and virtual training throughout the year to ensure they feel supported using the technology. Given that the majority of our partners serve some of the nation’s most disadvantaged communities, it’s not unexpected that flashy tablets, interactive whiteboards, and additional training are not high priorities. However, given the tremendous potential digital learning and classroom technology has for increasing student achievement, it is essential we work to ensure all teachers, students, and parents benefit from the digital transformation happening in well-to-do classrooms across the nation.

Jason Resendez, Director, LULAC National Educational Service Centers, Inc. (LNESC)

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