Not long ago, students were routinely told to turn off their electronic devices and put them away before class started. Today, teachers are increasingly prompting students to retrieve and unlock their tablets so class can begin. Technology in the classroom is not a new development, nor a particularly surprising one. What has changed, though, is the degree to which tablets, smart boards, and educational software are seamlessly integrated into lessons and curriculum.

Federal and state agencies have made a concerted push over the past decade to encourage school districts to incorporate more and more collaborative technology into the classroom. Late last year, the White House unveiled a federally backed nonprofit called Digital Promise that promised to help new and younger tech and software companies make inroads into the education market. Classroom software has long been dominated by a few big names, including Scholastic, Pearson Digital Learning, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Digital Promise offered incentives to outside-of-the-box development companies like Valve Corp.

The Bellevue, Washington-based company is best known for video games, especially the Half-Life series of sci-fi shoot-‘em-ups. But Valve Corp. is being touted as the type of tech company that could help educators make their classrooms more interactive. The company developed popular puzzle-platform game Portal several years ago, and a version of that game is already being used in classrooms to teach physics.

Digital Promise is also behind what’s being dubbed a “League of Innovative Schools.” These campuses will test-drive some of the new technologies and help administrators gauge their applicability. In the long run, these schools will be able to use their collective purchasing power to drive down costs for the best available software.

Some educators say they welcome the shift toward visual and collaborative learning processes.

“These kids are growing up in a digital age,” says educator Chris Pal-Freeman. “Most kids would rather pick up a digital device than pick up a book.”

Pal-Freeman is a technology teacher and technical administrator at St. Cecilia School in Beaverton, Oregon. From his perspective, embracing technology in the classroom is a no-brainer. He’s leading a push to make his school textbook-free. Not only do students respond well to digital devices, but by using open-source software and tools such as Microsoft Office 365 to share public folders or Prezi, a presentation editor akin to PowerPoint, the kids become better prepared for how information is managed in the real world.

Pal-Freeman also stressed that it’s important for students to be cross-platform literate. Too many schools, he says, get bogged down using either Macs or PCs. Students need to be “platform agnostic,” he argues, able to work across a variety of operating systems and intuitively interface with new software.

By next year, Pal-Freeman plans to go completely digital and phase out textbooks altogether for 7th and 8th grades. He’s testing the waters this year by going completely digital with his eighth graders, and he’s seen a marked improvement in their grades.

Digital Promise, then, appears to be entering the scene at the right moment, when schools are desperate for a streamlined and collaborative approach to learning, and private developers are eager to tap into the market.

Pal-Freeman hopes to continue the digital growth next year, when both 7th and 8th graders will use only tablet devices—it doesn’t matter what kind—to do their work, manage their schedules and receive lesson plans. He’s already in talks with developers to deliver proprietary software to make this happen.

Developers are also taking initiative on their own. SMART Technologies announced in early May that it was rolling out the SMART Notebook app for the iPad. It will allow students to use the company’s collaborative learning software from their tablets.

From Pal-Freeman’s perspective as a teacher, it’s about time. For too long, he said, school administrators and teachers were afraid to allow too much technology into the classroom, believing it would prove to be a distraction.

Today, educators recognize that tech literacy is as much a fundamental educational component as reading, writing, and arithmetic. While many students develop these skills on their own, the truth is that not every household can afford Internet access and home computers, let alone iPads and Kindles. But all students will need a high degree of computer acumen to compete in the global economy and keep pace with future developments.

Do you think that a tech-based curriculum can potentially distract from learning fundamentals? Or can technology only enhance the learning process? Are your children using tablets at schools? Do you still play Oregon Trail on your iPhone? Let us know.