09/11/2011 03:59 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

Back to iSchool

Kids are loading up their backpacks and heading back to school. An increasing number are taking sophisticated digital devices with them.

iPhones are the most sought after and desired, followed by the many varieties of smart phones, iPads, iPods, digital cameras, laptops and old-fashioned cell phones. The reaction of individual schools to this digital invasion varies widely. Some ban these devices outright. Others hand out iPads or laptops on the first day and insist their students use them at school and at home. The vast majority of schools have a policy that fits somewhere in between these two ends of the continuum. What's a kid to do?

The debate over how best to integrate technology in schools, never mind the technology that kids bring to schools, will only intensify over the coming academic year. Just take one example: social networking. Most schools, even those that actively encourage the use of laptops in class, completely forbid Facebook and other social sites.

And yet, some are not just testing the waters, but actively encouraging kids to use Facebook in school. In Missouri, a law banning teacher/student contact on social networking sites has been overturned, citing First Amendment concerns. In Kuwait, there is a government proposal to offer financial incentives to teachers who use social networking sites in teaching their kids -- a kind of pay-per-tweet scheme. It is a confusing and constantly evolving situation made more interesting by the increased speed of technological change and the disruption that it brings.

It is not at all surprising that the educational-industrial complex is being sorely tested. The philosophical underpinnings of most of what we consider K-12 schooling dates back to the Victorians and their need to supply the new factories and offices with machine-ready young people. The didactic, one-way flow of information from teacher to student neatly matched the assembly line nature of work in the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries. School architecture, desks in rows, chalk-n-talk with testing (like quality control) at the end of the process, all reflect a Newtonian model of how things work and ought to be. The very nature of how we learn, what we should teach and how we should transfer knowledge, skills and abilities to the next generation are all up for grabs. It's an exciting and unnerving time to be in the learning business.

And there are plenty of skeptics about how well kids are doing with increased use of technology in class and at home. A recent New York Times article dug deep into the test results of one school district that has overwhelmingly adopted a digital approach to learning. The evidence is simply not there, suggests a number of voices, that computers improve the way kids learn. However, some suggest, Karen Cator of the Department of Education among them, that "In places where we've had a large implementing of technology and scores are flat, I see that as great," she said. "Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others."

A fascinating experiment in mixing traditional teaching styles with new technology can be found at the Khan Academy. The brainchild of MIT graduate, Salman Khan, the so-called academy is really a collection of over 2,500 micro-lectures captured on video, stored on YouTube that explain everything from simple addition to advanced calculus, from biology to government, finance and history. Linked to these ten-minute vignettes are short exercises that build on skills previously learned and can be returned to, tried again, paused to allow for more explanation from the video library and so on. After an electrifying TED talk by Khan, Bill Gates enthusiastically describes the Academy as the "future of education". Perhaps, or more likely a transition to where we need to go.

The author and educator, Marc Prensky, in a recent piece for Educational Technology praises Kahn for his genius in explaining concepts and ideas so well. Rather than the end goal, Prensky sees in Khan a true beginning: "All of us with faith in technology knew that someday the right elements would come together, and online learning would find a wide audience, and be really useful." He feels it is time for us to go even further.

So how will our kids be learning in three to five years' time? Will there be a backlash against the digital takeover of the classroom or will we learn how to harness technology to take teaching and intellectual exploration to a new level? Discuss.