The hallways at Westlake High School in Maryland are just like thousands of other school hallways around the country: kids milling around, laughing and chatting on their way to class.
On a recent morning, about 30 kids took their seats in a classroom that initially seems like any other. The major difference here is that instead of a chalkboard and a lectern at the head of the class, there are two enormous flat-panel screens and thin, white microphones hanging in four rows across the ceiling.
Greeting the students via Skype this morning is a dapper, bearded man in a brown vest. But it's not their history teacher, it's Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don't Know Much About History, who was invited to talk to the students about America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This type of teaching is a novel approach, but it can be an expensive one. That has some asking whether the billions being spent on educational technology is worth the cost.
'Not A Panacea'
Davis encourages the students at Westlake to ask questions. The students remain attentive for the hourlong lecture, but they could be getting a similar lecture from their AP history teacher. And while Davis doesn't charge for his time, the tele-presence room cost the school tens of thousands of dollars.
James Mascia, who teaches English at Westlake, tells Celeste Headlee, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that it's worth it because he's been able to bring in all kinds of interesting people, digitally, to engage with the students.
"We teleconferenced with [author] Dave Barry, which was a lot of fun," Mascia says.
Senior Jayla Briscoe was there when the comedian and author Skyped in to talk to kids. Briscoe acknowledges she didn't know who Barry was at the time.
"I didn't really know much about him at all," Briscoe says, "[but] he actually got me more interested in writing."
Mascia's class also spoke over Skype with poet Nikki Giovanni. And next week, students in another class will watch the live dissection of a cadaver, safely and at a distance through the big, flat screens and the digital microphones.
Historian Davis has given many of these lectures for schools all over the world. And though these are only "virtual appearances," he says he doesn't feel removed from the students.
"I've been amazed by how really truly immediate it is," Davis says. "And, obviously, this does enable me, as a writer based in New York, to get to places I'd otherwise never be able to get to."
Davis says that this isn't just about Skype in the classrooms, but about teachers using this technology to open up their classroom to a much wider world that he calls the "connected classroom."
But technology is just a tool, Davis says, and it has its limits.
"I've seen teachers completely dedicated to making their students interested, enthusiastic, energetic learners, and using this technology is just one of the tools to do that," he says. "This is not the panacea, and I don't want to present it that way."
That sentiment is echoed by Mascia, the English teacher at Westlake. He says Skype lectures work because the teacher still has control, and it's still a communal learning experience.
"I probably wouldn't want to give every kid a laptop in class, because it's not as controllable ... as something like our tele-presence center," Mascia says. "You would have to monitor the kids a lot more."
Schools across the country are spending billions on various kinds of technology for the classroom. Kristen Purcell of the the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project recently co-authored a new study on technology in the classroom. She says schools aren't just investing in computer stations and keyboards.
"What did surprise us though was the extent to which mobile tools have become part of the learning process," Purcell says. "[We found that] 73 percent of teachers that we surveyed told us that cell phones are now either part of their classroom experience, or their students' classroom experience. Tablets and e-readers are being used by more than four in 10 of these teachers."
So far, there hasn't been a way to measure how effective all this technology is and whether or not it's actually helping kids learn. In some districts where schools have invested heavily in computers and e-readers, test scores have remained the same or fallen.
Howard Pitler, a former high school principal and now the chief program officer at McREL, an education research and development group, says there are challenges in measuring the changes in student engagement while learning with tech in the classroom.
"It is a matter of engagement, and standardized tests as we know them today don't measure engagement," Pitler told Headlee.
Despite the cost of some of the setup at Westlake, Pitler says the technology has changed enough that putting together a Skype lecture is within the realm of any teacher with a smartphone and a cord to a projector. What's important, he says, is just not putting Skype, tablets or e-readers in the classroom, but how the teachers are using the technology.
"Doing what you've always done and just putting electricity behind it isn't going to change things," he says. "But if what they're really doing is investigating, using simulations and going out and participating in real-world projects, then we see a real change."
The digital divide between school districts with greater access to funds, and those with less, is still a major issue. Purcell, of Pew Research, points out that low-income schools are lagging behind.
"Teachers who were teaching the lowest-income students were more likely to tell us that they do not receive formal training in the use of digital tools in the classroom," she says. "They also express less satisfaction with the support and resources provided by schools.
"And they're three times as likely to say their school is behind the curve when it comes to using the newest digital tools."
That, Purcell says, makes a real difference in the classroom experience. Having both the technology available and training the teachers in how to use it, so it becomes a learning experience and not just an expensive distraction.