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Digital classrooms [Editorial]

Baltimore County schools are set to move ahead with a five-year, $150 million plan to put a laptop or tablet computer in the hands of every student, even though the effectiveness of such devices as learning tools is far from proven. School officials say they need to keep up with technology that allows students to become "24/7 learners" who can compete successfully in the 21st-century global marketplace. Yet the experience of school systems elsewhere suggests the initiative is also fraught with risk and uncertainty, and we wonder whether it's wise for county officials to rush into such an expensive project.

The issue involves more than just making sure students don't break or lose the equipment or whether they use the devices appropriately. While such considerations are important, they don't address the larger question of how digital devices actually improve the quality of classroom instruction or what educators can do with them that they can't do with traditional blackboards, paper and pencils. Moreover, it's still unclear whether access to laptops and tablets has any real relationship to improved test scores, graduation rates or readiness for college and career.

County officials say they are purchasing the devices in the context of an ongoing, long-term transformation of the curriculum, teaching strategies and instructional materials. The goal is to redefine how schools deliver instruction in a blended learning environment — one that encompasses both traditional and digital platforms — to allow students to pursue multiple pathways toward mastering their subjects. School officials say they envision a networked classroom environment in which teachers plan and distribute assignments tailored to the ability level of each individual student.

That possibility is tantalizing, but it also puts tremendous new demands on teachers, who will be expected to closely monitor the every single one of their students on virtually a minute-to-minute basis in order to make the most out of the technology's potential. The system Baltimore County is developing aims to allow every student to learn at his or her own pace, with the teacher's guidance, assistance and support, and it would be different from today's blackboard (or whiteboard) model of group instruction.

In theory, the result would be a far more sophisticated and effective learning environment for students. The difficulty, of course, is that teachers and students will have to start flying this airplane while they're still building it, to borrow county Superintendent Dallas Dance's metaphor for the roll-out of curriculum tied to the Common Core standards. Teachers in Baltimore County and elsewhere are already struggling with that transition. Seeking to make this transformation at the same time seems like a tall order.

It could take a decade before educators know how much the devices actually contribute toward improving student outcomes. The first group of county second-graders to get them, in August, won't graduate high school until 2024. No wonder school officials in Howard County and elsewhere around the state have opted to take a more cautious approach until more is known of the devices' effectiveness.

Baltimore County school officials are undoubtedly right that hand-held personal computers are destined to play a much greater role in the classroom of the future and that schools need to start preparing for that day now. But they also need to make sure they are ready to make full use of such a large investment — and that the money might not be better spent on other projects, such as an extended school day, after-school mentoring and tutoring programs or enhanced art and music instruction. On that point the jury is still out.

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