Successes and Speed Bumps on the Road to Wired Classrooms

Linda Roberts is a visiting scholar, AAAS Education and Human Resources.

Linda Roberts remembers well how, as a student, she struggled with geometry. Today’s interactive software makes it far easier to see and understand the concepts that challenged her, and although students today may now take such tools for granted, they represent an historic transformation in teaching and learning.

But to Roberts, one of the nation’s most influential thinkers on the policy and use of technology in the classroom, the revolution has arrived at a challenging juncture. While technology is creating exciting new ways to engage students in science-related subjects, there are wide disparities in technology usage from district to district, and many schools are cutting technology investments in response to budget pressures.

“If all you have is the chemistry textbook and, if you’re lucky, a laboratory experience once a week that may be pretty outdated, then you’re probably going to think chemistry is pretty awful,” Roberts said in a recent interview. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Ever since personal computers went mainstream a quarter-century ago, educators have explored how they can support learning. Now more powerful, portable computers and high-speed wireless Internet connections are giving students and teachers access to vibrant online classes and course materials, distant laboratories, and libraries around the world.

Roberts is a visiting scholar at AAAS, and in her view, the advancing technology has broad implications: It will allow for education plans tailored to the needs and interests of individual elementary and high school students. It could encourage new partnerships between universities and high schools. And it creates opportunities for informal science education and public engagement.

Roberts’ career has tracked the evolution of educational technology: As an elementary school teacher, her duties included teaching science to third-graders. She was an early adviser to the pioneering Sesame Street television program. She served as director of the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President Bill Clinton. She has served as a consultant to Apple and as a director and trustee with other companies, nonprofits, and foundations.

After serving as a senior advisor on the National Education Technology Plan released last year by the Department of Education, she joined AAAS this year to work with the Education and Human Resources division on resources for learning and teachers’ professional development.

The timing is auspicious: Educators are honing their understanding of technology as an educational tool, but economic stresses are forcing a close evaluation of the costs and effectiveness. A June report by the Center on Education Policy found that 79% of school districts reduced spending on instructional materials or technology and equipment in 2010—2011, and 64% expect funding decreases in the next year.

“When we have cost-cutting pressures,” Roberts said, “technology is often the first thing to go, which is a really poor decision.”


Roberts and many colleagues envision a future classroom that has evolved dramatically based on advances in technology and the psychology of learning. Teachers will no longer be the all-knowing “sage on the stage”; instead, they’ll be expert guides and mentors, gauging the learning styles and interests of each student and drawing from the universe of software and digital libraries to support them. Online demonstrations might supplement hands-on learning by illustrating basic concepts. More advanced high school students might be turned loose to take challenging online courses from institutions like MIT or to network with students and scientists who share their interests.

That sort of information-sharing is already showing powerful appeal in higher education, she said. When Stanford University announced recently that computer science professors would offer online, not-for-credit courses in machine-learning, artificial intelligence, and databases, the response went viral.

“One course—the one on AI—has gotten over 58,000 inquires,” Roberts said. “That’s wild. It’s very exciting... Now there are some universities that are saying: ‘Maybe we can have our students watch these lectures, and then we should use the classroom time we have in a different way.’”

While the current pressures on school technology spending are a worry, it seems likely that the investments will accelerate as the economy recovers. Meanwhile, educators are refining ideas for the best uses of technology and improving ways to assess its impact on learning.

Over the decades ahead, smart phones and digital tablets will evolve, and education will have to continually evolve, too. “It’s going to be more and more embedded,” Roberts believes. “You won’t be thinking about it the way you do now. There will be more video, more multimedia ... simultaneous translations. I don’t know where all the breakthroughs will come—but I know we’ll see more breakthroughs.”

Listen to a AAAS podcast with Linda G. Roberts.