Back-to-school night this year in Mr. G’s sixth-grade classroom felt a bit like an inquisition. Teacher Matthew Gudenius, a boyish, 36-year-old computer whiz who runs his class like a preteen tech startup, had prepared 26 PowerPoint slides filled with facts and footnotes to deflect the concerns of parents. But time was short, the worries were many, and it didn’t take long for the venting to begin.
“I like a paper book. I don’t like an e-book,” one father told him, as about 30 adults squeezed into a room for 22 students. Another dad said he could no longer help his son with homework because all the assignments were online. “I’m now kind of taken out of the routine,” he complained. Rushing to finish, Gudenius passed a slide about the debate over teaching cursive, mumbling, “We don’t care about handwriting.” In a flash, a mother objected: “Yeah, we do.”
At issue was far more than penmanship. The future of K-12 education is arriving fast, and it looks a lot like Mr. G’s classroom in the northern foothills of California’s wine country. Last year, President Obama announced a federal effort to get a laptop, tablet or smartphone into the hands of every student in every school in the U.S. and to pipe in enough bandwidth to get all 49.8 million American kids online simultaneously by 2017. Bulky textbooks will be replaced by flat screens. Worksheets will be stored in the cloud, not clunky Trapper Keepers. The Dewey decimal system will give way to Google. “This one is a big, big deal,” says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
It’s a deal Gudenius has been working to realize for years. He doesn’t just teach with a computer on every student’s desk; he also tries to do it without any paper at all, saving, by his own estimate, 46,800 sheets a year, or about four trees. The paperless learning environment, while not the goal of most fledgling programs, represents the ultimate result of technology transforming the classroom.
Gudenius started teaching as a computer-lab instructor, seeing students for just a few hours each month. That much time is still the norm for most kids. American schools have about 3.6 students for every classroom computing device, according to Education Market Research, and only 1 in 5 school buildings has the wiring to get all students online at once. But Gudenius always saw computers as a tool, not a subject. “We don’t have a paper-and-pencil lab,” he says. “When you are learning to be a mechanic, you don’t go to a wrench lab.”
Ask his students if they prefer the digital to the tree-based technology and every one will say yes. It is not unusual for kids to groan when the bell rings because they don’t want to leave their work, which is often done in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. Instead of telling his students to show their work when they do an algebra equation, Gudenius asks them to create and narrate a video about the process, which can then be shown in class. History lessons are enlivened by brief videos that run on individual tablets. And spelling, grammar and vocabulary exercises have the feel of a game, with each student working at his own speed, until Gudenius–who tracks the kids’ progress on a smartphone–gives commands like “Spin it” to let the kids know to flip the screens of their devices around so that he can see their work and begin the next lesson.
Overcoming the Glitches
Like just about everything else in education, computers in the classroom work only when used correctly. The costly missteps of earlier digital-learning initiatives are famous in certain school corridors. A $500 million plan to buy an iPad for every student in the Los Angeles Unified School District imploded this year after questions were raised by members of the school board about both the technology plan and the bidding process. Other districts have found themselves with devices that don’t work, teachers who don’t know what to do with them and outdated school infrastructure that makes it hard to get online.
“We do see a lot of districts that say, If we just buy a lot of technology, something will happen,” says Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville, N.C., Graded School District, which has seen large gains in student retention and test scores after implementing a computer-based learning model. “Something will happen. But not really what they want to happen.”
While kids may take to new technology naturally, the learning curve for parents and other educators can be steep. And even in communities where the rollout has gone relatively well, there’s still plenty of friction. In Calistoga, Calif., where Gudenius teaches, the first classroom computers were iPads for kindergartners, which led to an initial rebellion from some teachers and even a member of the school board. The Association of Pediatrics has been warning parents for years to limit screen time for their children, but now the screens were filling up the school day. Skeptical parents and teachers wondered how a 5-year-old tracing his letters with a finger on a tablet would deliver a better outcome, without negative side effects, than using a marker with a piece of paper.
Indeed, emerging research suggests that there may be reason for concern. Optometrists warn that a steep increase in blue-light exposure from screens could lead to eye problems later in life. Early studies have also shown an increase in physical ailments–sore backs, dry eyes, painful necks–among kids who are asked to work most of the day on computers while using desks designed for pencil and paper. “A lot of money is going into the technology without looking at where you put the technology,” says Karen Jacob, an occupational therapist and board-certified ergonomist who teaches at Boston University. “It’s more demanding physically on a child than just having a piece of paper on a desk.”
It will take years before the science is conclusive, and in the meantime, educators may have been beguiled by the promise. The next generation of middle-school curriculum software, for example, can correct students as they make mistakes as well as suggest improvements to grammar and paragraph structure in real time. Work can be automatically tailored to the abilities of each student. Word processing has also been shown to improve the quality of student writing over longhand, even in the early grades. “From first grade to 12th grade, we have the same effects,” says Steve Graham, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, of these types of programs. “It’s basically a 20-percentile jump.”
Cool new gadgets tend also to help motivate easily distracted students, at least initially. “The problem we have in K-12 is we are not engaging the kids because we are not using the things they use outside the classroom inside the classroom,” says Lenny Schad, who is overseeing the purchase of 65,000 devices for Houston-area high school students. The best teachers, meanwhile, are able to integrate the computers into an active lesson, rather than plugging them in for six hours a day.
Back at Calistoga, Gudenius works the crowd on back-to-school night, mixing in funny YouTube videos with examples of work his students have completed. He explains that state tests will all be administered online anyway and that no college will accept handwritten papers, so typing must be learned. Toward the end, one of his critics, Tony McBeardsley, a parent who voiced his support for paper books, offers an olive branch. “I love your enthusiasm,” he says. The parental concerns may not be resolved, but the revolt seems quelled for now. And the transformation goes on.
This appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of TIME.