Budget cuts and inefficiencies are just a few of the problems U.S. schools have faced for some time, however some educational institutions are coping with these issues by integrating technology into their learning goals, and one online educational specialist takes notice.

Classrooms have greatly evolved in recent years, thanks to the rise of digital technology, increased emphasis on diversity, and widespread use of social media. While some schools have slowly adapted to these trends, others have embraced the changes and essentially redefined the educational experience—not just in terms of learning, but also the way students interact with teachers and one another.

Going Digital
Earlier this year, Education News noted the emphasis on computer science education in American schools. President Obama has demanded “greater technological literacy” for modern students, and one way to build on this is widespread utilization of digital textbooks. According to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genochowski, textbooks cost roughly $7 billion per year to manufacture—and despite their high cost, many are considered to be outdated and obsolete after just one or two years in the classroom. E-textbooks, most of which can be dynamically updated, do not face this problem. In most cases, they have other benefits as well. For instance, online materials allow students to learn more efficiently, which in turn enables classrooms to grow without fears that individual attention will be diminished. Another perk is a more accurate evaluation system—using online programs, teachers can monitor and assess each student’s progress in a real-time format.

However, financial planning is a growing concern associated with the widespread implementation of online learning modules. According to Education News contributor B.A. Birch, a typical school computer lab that accommodates 20 to 40 students will cost the district between $30,000 and $50,000, and these expenses do not include software or infrastructure. For this reason, more than 1,000 American schools have adopted an innovative strategy: iPad-based education. The tablet devices afford the same educational payoff for a fraction of the cost of new desktop computers, and the mobility of these devices enables students to use them at school or at home. One school in Corpus Christi has instituted an “iPad leasing” program, whereby parents can rent their child an iPad for $22 per month—a price that covers usage, insurance expenses, and e-Waste fees.

This movement has been bolstered by the Apple Company, which encourages iPad users to donate their old devices when they upgrade to newer models. So far, more than 10,000 perfectly usable iPads have been collected and distributed to needy schools, where instructors sponsored by Teach for Americas can use them in the classroom. While every TFA graduate currently uses one, the goal of Apple’s initiative is to supply each student with his or her own iPad device.

Emphasizing Understanding
In recent years, educational experts have pointed to the need for curricula that showcases cultural diversity and demonstrates how students can foster respect toward one another, regardless of superficial differences. Assistant Professor of Education Matthew Lynch recently wrote in The Huffington Post that the ultimate goal of this approach is to prepare students for the multitude of people they will encounter in the real world once their education is finished. All across the country, teachers are incorporating diversity into their lesson plans in a variety of ways.

Lynch notes a number of culturally friendly activities that teachers can employ. By exposing children to photographs or videos of everyday people in foreign countries with “exotic” customs and “strange” attire, teachers can show their students that the world is populated with people who are just like them. He also recommends lesson plans that highlight positive role models from various racial and ethnic backgrounds; these figures and their contributions to a wide range of fields (such as politics, science and peace) enable students to “value diverse cultural backgrounds as a whole.” He notes that educators should strive to create a “culturally responsive learning environment” by showing equal appreciation for all backgrounds, as well as encourage students to foster an appreciation for their own culture and upbringing. These steps will effectively counteract the negative cultural stereotypes that are pervasive in movies and television to which children are generally exposed.

Lynch writes that cultural diversity has applications in virtually every school subject, from math and science to writing and art. “Providing diverse students with examples of diverse contributors to these fields and using culture-specific subject matter when teaching core topics will help them perform better in these highly scrutinized and important domains,” he notes. “Placing ethnically diverse students in a situation that emphasizes the strong points of their culture’s preferred means of learning may help provide them with a greater sense of self-efficacy and achievement.”

Social Media
According to The Lantern, 1.43 billion people will use social media in 2012 and some college professors are capitalizing on the ubiquity of online technology by incorporating it into their lesson plans. Ohio State University Chemistry Professor Matthew Stoltzfus, for example, uses a “flipped” class model, whereby students watch lecture videos on their own time, and designated course hours are devoted to group discussions and problem solving. “This model is a great way for any class that wants to facilitate discussion. How well they do in class helps determine their homework,” Stoltzfus said, adding that the discussions indicate problem areas for him to address with subsequent assignments.

Other instructors have created class models that directly incorporate popular social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter—sites still considered by many to be strictly recreational. While many colleges and universities expressly forbid smartphones and social media activity during classroom hours, other programs have embraced this form of technology as a valuable tool for connecting students. Professors that assign students to create Twitter handles and visit each other on Facebook are not only creating additional academic resources, but are also facilitating interaction that greatly adds to the higher education experience.

By utilizing a technological channel that is popular with users, professors are increasing participation among students and seeing the results. Due to the real-time format of these outlets, students can contact peers, faculty and other authorities anywhere in the world, and usually elicit a prompt response. Despite its reputation, social media platforms allow professors to approach curricula in ways that are more creative and engaging to students. The College Bound Network has said of social learning, “Despite what you may have thought, technology doesn’t hinder learning—it fuels it.”

Rachel Higgins is a freelance writer who is currently working with Accredited Online Colleges and an avid science fiction reader. A recent graduate, she is currently considering a PhD program at the University of Michigan where she intends to study research methods. Connect with Rachel at [email protected].