NEW YORK -- Anastacia Brie, a science teacher at New York City's Hudson High School of Learning Technologies, recently realized why she wasn't tripping over backpacks in her classroom anymore. Her students' bags no longer hold textbooks.
This seemingly insignificant detail belies a new approach to learning that's changing the look and feel of classrooms nationwide. There are no textbooks at Hudson High School because the content is entirely digital. The school (originally called Homepage High School) opened in the fall with a vision of combining online courses with face-to-face instruction, a method known as blended learning.
"My hope is that we're going to change the way education looks in this little place, in this little school," said Principal Nancy Amling, who created the school with the city's Education Department, "and that ultimately we will impact all of New York City."
Hudson High School is one of 41 schools in a New York City program called iLearnNYC, which is piloting three types of digital learning courses: blended learning, Advanced Placement and credit recovery. The experiment is the largest in scale in the country, according to the New York City Education Department.
After 15 years working in the commodities exchange on Wall Street, Amling made a career move to education. She saw how technology changed her former industry and marvels that it hasn't had the same effect in schools.
"To be educating kids with a blackboard and chalk in an age where you don't have to memorize the 50 capitals of the 50 states because you can Google it really quickly?" Amling said.
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In some ways, American education is caught in the past. The school year was originally planned around an agrarian calendar so children could work in the fields during the summer. One-room schoolhouses were run by a single teacher who taught everyone at the same pace, regardless of their varied ages. Today, schools have evolved from that model, and technology has entered the classroom, but not in a transformative way.
"We've taken a 300-year-old education system -- actually it's older than that -- and we're trying to do the same things with technology," said Richard E. Ferdig, professor of instructional technology at Kent State University. "We're trying to fit the technology into our system."
Historically, technological advances have always elicited predictions of impending educational revolution, according to Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history and education at NYU. But those revolutions never panned out. The teaching model we're familiar with is an entrenched part of society.
"It might be deeply unrealistic to think that any technology can change it," Zimmerman said.
At Hudson High School, each student has a laptop. The kids take a face-to-face class and an online class for each subject. Every teacher has a website outlining the semester plan and housing an archive of lessons. Parents can log on to the school's grading system at any time to track their children's progress. And the textbooks are all online, making for less cluttered classrooms.
"My experience with students has always been in the last 10 years that you watch kids turn off and tune out when they walk in the door at any school," Amling said.
But with digital learning, proponents say, students can move through their courses at their own pace and focus on the topics that interest them. Teachers spend less time at the front of the class teaching and more time working one on one with students, because the lessons come from the computers. Students are presented with multiple ways to learn a concept -- through text, videos or hands-on labs, for example.
In Brie's science class this fall, students learned about projectiles by building catapults. But they used online simulations to manipulate the experiment, changing the weight of projectiles to alter distance in a way their basement classroom couldn't accommodate.
Racheal belongs to a generation of so-called "digital natives" -- children who have always known the world to be filled with computers and cell phones and iPods. But while they may be digital natives, they're not digital learners, Amling is quick to point out. A teenager's facility with technology has generally been used for entertainment, not learning.
"The first few weeks kids were saying, 'I just want the teacher to stand in the front of the room and tell me what I need to know,' " Amling recalled. "They're coming into ninth grade; they've spent the eight years in the school system pretty much in that model."
Read Part 2 of This Series: ELLIS Prep: Computer Subs for AP Teacher