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Imagine these scenarios:

A struggling ninth grader is having trouble writing an essay. Her teacher asks her to go online and start writing in a Google document. The teacher follows along remotely as the student starts and erases sentences, and then identifies some strategies to help.

A middle schooler doesn’t understand a math assignment about finding volume. So his teacher shows him an app where he can virtually take apart and put together 3D shapes, allowing him to visualize the process. He suddenly gets it.

An elementary school teacher wants to know whether her students understand what they’re reading. So she asks them to read a book loaded onto a tablet and record their reactions as they go. She listens in afterwards and decides which students need more help, and which can move ahead.

A teacher assigns a class of students a research project on space travel. The students use the Internet to look for sources, including NASA’s Twitter account, Wikipedia, and other websites, which they compile in a group document online. The class then discusses which sources seem reliable, and which don’t.

To technology advocates, these scenes are a vision of how technology could transform American classrooms. With a computer — or a laptop, or tablet, or even a smart phone — in every student and every teacher’s hand, the idea is that school will be better tailored to students’ needs and also better able to prepare them for the sorts of high-skilled, technology-centric jobs that will dominate in the future. It could even help close the achievement gap for disadvantaged students.

Digital divide
Photo: Sarah Garland

“If a teacher has class of 30 students and they don’t have technology, the very best teachers are bouncing from student to student,” said Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise, a nonprofit that’s working with school districts that are going high tech. “When students have technology they can be helping themselves in some sense, and the teacher can come in when they’re most needed.”

The promise of technology is paired with a threat: Without access to computers, the Internet, and these new types of learning, advocates argue American students will be left behind. In a recent report, the Broadband Commission, an international coalition of government officials and nonprofit advocates, argued that, “in the twenty-first century, education cannot be separated from technology.”

Digital Divide

Digital education may be the future, but most American schools are far from ready. Our series examines the national effort to close the digital divide by connecting all American schools to high-speed Internet, and why so many schools still lag so far behind.

The Promise: Digital education is supposed to transform public education, but many schools can’t even get online

The Problem: Instead of getting ready for the tech revolution, schools are scaling back

The Solution: How can schools close the technology gap and how much will it cost?

“They’re going to be expected to thrive in a world where they’re being expected to work across language and across cultures,” said Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. “Should we be worried? Yes, we absolutely should. There are a number of countries where they have put a priority on making sure this infrastructure is in place in a way that we haven’t.”

The urgency is not just about competing internationally. Most school districts face an even more pressing deadline: Next year, states are launching new online tests linked to the Common Core State Standards, meaning that millions of students are scheduled to log on to computers to take standardized tests in the spring in place of the old paper-and-pencil versions.

Many American schools are already there: students type away all day on laptops, and teachers seamlessly incorporate YouTube videos, iPad apps, and primary sources found on the Internet into their lesson plans. But many schools in America – the vast majority – are not.

To reach the goal of giving every student access to technology, the Obama administration launched a new initiative, called ConnectEd, meant to increase broadband access, train teachers in how to better use technology and use model districts to demonstrate what works. But there are still major obstacles in the way of realizing its promise, including the enormous costs of bringing more students, especially those in the most disadvantaged schools, online.

“We have some amazing schools and we have a lot of places where you can see this happening now. But we have a tremendous lack of equity,” said Cator. “We have a lot of work to do on this.”

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