The trend: They already help teach kids the alphabet, sentence construction and how to graph equations. Now, iPads are being studied as a tool for students with autism and physical disabilities. University of Toronto professor Rhonda McEwen is researching how students at Toronto's Beverley School – which teaches special needs kids from kindergarten to Grade 8 – learn with iPad apps and games that require touch. Stacie Carroll, a teacher at the school, says students with autism respond better to the tablet apps that always speak in a consistent tone and voice, and also have a consistent layout.
The grade: B. Using iPads for students with special needs is an idea slowly gaining traction in the U.S. and Canada. But there's still not a lot of data on how tablets improve learning – either in these classrooms or with other students – which makes it tough to justify the cost.
The trend: It started as a classroom distraction. Then teachers realized it was a handy way to remind students to do their homework. Now, one teacher is using Twitter as homework. At the University of Calgary, English professor Michael Ullyot has his students respond to their Shakespeare texts with tweets. And he can see if they're actually engaging with the rest of the class by watching whether his hashtag ( #engl205) is a trending Twitter topic among his students. It's more than an add-on to what he usually teaches, says Prof. Ullyot: It helps his students focus their questions and edit their comments for brevity.
The grade: B. Using Twitter in the classroom is free – and it's a space students already inhabit. But a large faction of teachers worry about crossing boundaries by tweeting or "friending" students on Facebook.
The trend: Smartboards and other interactive whiteboards are used in classrooms across the country to show videos, work on the Internet and permanently store chalkboard scribbles for future use. The problem is the price: as high as $6,000. Enter Johnny Lee, a U.S. computer expert who created a video showing teachers how to make their own Smartboards – for less than $100. With the video to help him, Canadian David Wees, a specialist in integrated technology at the private school Stratford Hall in Vancouver, took a bit of cable and wire to connect an overhead projector to a Wii remote control. He then hooked them up to Bluetooth and an infrared pen. It's clunkier than the pricier Smartboards but can do everything a regular model can.
The grade: A. DIY Smartboards let teachers experiment with new technology for less.
The trend: In the U.S., a majority of states have stopped teaching cursive writing in favour of basic typing skills. But a paper by researchers in Norway and France argues that handwriting of any kind plays a role in how the brain learns and remembers. Writing by hand, the researchers say, activates different parts of the brain, meaning the way we learn things may depend to some degree on how we write them down. So far Canada is sticking to tradition: Even with the rapid influx of computers in classrooms, cursive remains a part of the curriculum starting around Grade 3.
The grade: C. Opinion on the usefulness of cursive writing is sharply divided. An increasing number of educators seem to agree it is an aesthetic skill, not a practical one.
The trend: Conrad Wolfram, the director of a leading mathematics research lab in Britain and a proponent of math education reform, can't do long division. And he says school children shouldn't have to either. "I think long division is a waste of time," he says. "Does anyone ever do long division outside education? I think the answer is no, not really." Mr. Wolfram argues that students can do basic calculations with computers – leaving educators more time to coach them on setting up math questions and interpreting results. In fact, Mr. Wolfram says, once students learn that, kids as young as seven can start tackling the basic principles of calculus.
The grade: B. Mr. Wolfram gets a higher grade because no one like long division, but he hasn't tested his theories in the classroom. But his ideas have won a following ( even his TED talk on math education reform drew nearly 500,000 viewers).
The trend: Dedicated computer labs should be a thing of the past, says Colin Harris, a curriculum consultant at York Region District School Board in Ontario. Instead, school boards should encourage students to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to every class, integrating technology with everyday lessons. "It's not about learning how the technology works, but how the technology can help students learn," he says. That's a radical shift for many school boards in Canada, which currently ban devices such as cellphones. But Mr. Harris argues that since consumer technology is always ahead of whatever schools can afford, as long as teachers use mobile devices with pedagogy in mind, BYOD can keep students on the cutting edge.
The grade: C. BYOD puts the onus of purchasing technology on students, which can be a challenge for low-income families. Having easy access to computers in regular classes is increasingly valuable, but until schools have the budgets to equip every student, a computer lab is better than leaving some kids with no computers at all.
With reports from James Bradshaw and Kate Hammer