Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.

Voice 1: It doesn't help a child to just keep saying, "Try harder, try harder, try harder."

If a student is struggling or bored, a tutor can help.

Voice 2: That's what the kings of old used to educate their progeny.

But tutors are expensive. Now, computers may help kids work at their own pace.

Voice 3: I can have 30 different assignments if I wanted to.

Computers don't necessarily lead to better learning though.

Voice 4: We're talking about something that is potentially beneficial but also potentially harmful.

Coming up, "One Child at a Time: Custom Learning in the Digital Age" from American RadioWorks. First, this news.

Part One

Kam is 13. He lives in New York City with his mom in an elegant Tribeca loft, decorated with art and Persian carpets. He's sitting down at the kitchen counter to do science homework.

[Sound of opening science textbook]

Kam opens the textbook and begins to read.

Kam: The sailboat in figure 9 moves in a straight line, constant direction, at a constant speed. The sailboat can be described as moving with uniform motion, which is another way of saying it has a constant velocity.

This is introductory physics. Kam reads through the text with a slightly puzzled look on his face. A lot of students struggle when first trying to understand physics, but Kam's got someone sitting next to him who can help.

Evan Joiner: Does that make sense?
Kam: I guess?
Joiner: So you could drive around in a car...

Kam has a tutor. His name is Evan Joiner.

Joiner: This white vector is the addition of these two...
Kam: Yeah.
Joiner: So we're getting some velocity going towards the bank...

Joiner also tutors Kam in math and English.

Kam: Act 2, Scene 4. "Where the devil should Romeo be? Came he not home tonight?" All right, he's not there currently.
Evan: Good, good, where is he? Good.
Kam: Not to his father's; I spoke with his man. So, his Dad doesn't know. Umm...

Kam says working with a tutor helps him learn stuff like this better. Joiner says that is what tutoring is all about.

Joiner: I think a careful tutor is constantly monitoring whether or not the thing he or she is saying is landing. If you have a classroom of, I don't know, 20 or 30 people, like, you can't do that. You can't be like: Did you understand what I said? Did that make sense to you? Did you understand what I said? We can't expect classroom teachers to be as tuned in to every kid, like, it's fundamentally impossible.

Tutoring is common among wealthy families in New York City. Some companies charge $400 an hour or more.

Kurt VanLehn: That's what the kings of old used to educate their progeny.

Kurt VanLehn is a professor at Arizona State University. He says tutoring is one of the oldest forms of education, and one of the best. A famous study published in 1984 tested whether people learn better from tutors or in a classroom. It was conducted by Benjamin Bloom, a towering figure in the world of education research. Bloom randomly assigned one group of kids to traditional classrooms with 30 students per teacher. VanLehn says another group didn't go to class at all, they just got personal tutoring.

VanLehn: What he found was that when you tested these students using some good tests, the students who were tutored were much more competent.

In Bloom's study, the average student who got tutoring did better than 98 percent of the students in the classroom. That's obviously a dramatic result. Kids who had been getting Cs were doing as well or better than the top students in the traditional class. Why is tutoring so effective? Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham says it has to do with how people learn.

Willingham: All of us have had that feeling, like, you're working on a problem and you feel like you're chipping away at it and you're making progress and then you finally get the answer and you know that it's right. That feels good, right? You get this sort of snap of satisfaction [snap sound] where you know you've got it.

But we've all had the opposite feeling, too. We're working on a problem and it's too hard. We don't have enough skill or background knowledge to solve it, we get frustrated and we give up. Research shows that successful learning occurs in the first state, where a problem is easy enough to be solved yet difficult enough to take some mental effort. Willingham calls this the "sweet spot" of difficulty. Tutors are good at getting students to this "sweet spot." Conventional schools are not.

[Sound from "Leave it to Beaver": Judy: Mother and Father went to the picnic. Alice and I went with mother and father to the picnic..."]

Here's a scene in black and white from a 1957 episode of "Leave it to Beaver." A student is reading from a book. The teacher is at the front of the room. The other students are seated in rows, all with the same book on their desks.

["Leave It to Beaver": Judy: We all had the picnic (laugh track). Teacher: That's very good, Judy. Now, can anyone tell us what a picnic is? Harold?]

This is a classic portrayal of the American classroom -- everyone learning the same thing at the same time in a routine and boring way. Good teachers will tell you this is not what school should be like. But the idea that all kids learn the same way and at the same pace is deeply embedded in the structure of American schools says Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and a former schoolteacher herself.

Tomlinson: Most of our time is to be spent making sure kids cover a prescribed set of standards, without regard to where they start and without regard to how far they might be able to go. And really everything has become about marching students to that specified end.

School hasn't always been this way.

Tomlinson: We used to, in this country and in many other places of course, have one-room schoolhouses.

Not everything was perfect in the American one-room school, but if you were ten and needed to learn addition, that's what the teacher taught you. If you were five and already knew how to write your name, you'd move on with the older kids. But as the nation grew in the late 1800s and people moved from farms to cities, the one-room school was replaced by larger buildings with lots of classrooms. Angeline Lillard has written about the history of education.

Lillard: Instead of the same teacher trying to teach children of different ages at different levels, just go ahead and put all the four-year-olds in one room and all the five-year-olds in another, all the six-year-olds in another and so on, and then the teacher could just gear the learning to that one age group and really specialize in it.

This was seen as a more efficient way to educate children, but it's not a good way to get each kid to that "sweet spot" where learning is just hard enough to be challenging but not so hard that it's frustrating. Most teachers end up teaching to the middle and kids who are behind as well as kids who are ahead don't necessarily get what they need. Teachers know that this is a problem, but what can be done about it?


From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, "One Child at a Time: Custom Learning in the Digital Age." I'm Stephen Smith. Back in the 1980s, when Benjamin Bloom was comparing students who were tutored to students in traditional classrooms, he knew that a personal tutor for everyone was impossible, too expensive. But he believed schools could do more to mimic the effects of good tutoring. He briefly mentioned the possibility that computers might help and his paper caught the eye of computer scientists. In the years since, there has been an explosion in the research and development of computer tutors and online learning systems. Arizona State professor Kurt VanLehn says these systems are now quite sophisticated and effective.

VanLehn: You learn by experience, you learn by doing. And a computer tutor just helps a person do. It helps them move forward. It helps them stop getting frustrated and stuck, gives them hints when they need it, gives them prompts, gives them encouragement. That's pretty much what a human tutor does, too.

The best computer tutors are not as good as the best human tutors. But research shows that computers can do a lot to help students get to that "sweet spot" where successful learning happens. So a question for schools is: What role could computers play? What role should they play? Over the next hour we're going to explore those questions. We begin with the story of a man who had a vision for a new kind of school where computers would help teachers personalize education for each student. Here's American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford.

Emily Hanford: In 2003 Rick Ogston was running a charter school in Yuma, Arizona. He describes it as a traditional school.

Ogston: With traditional teachers, in traditional classrooms doing traditional things.

It was an average school, test scores were fine, but something didn't feel right.

Ogston: I was walking the campus one day and I noticed various levels of disengagement on the part of the students and some teachers.

He was peering into classrooms and for the most part teachers were standing at the front of the room lecturing, and students were looking bored.

Ogston: Went back to my office and kind of banged my head on the desk as is my custom to do when I find myself a little bit frustrated by the circumstances, and I literally said, "God, there's got to be a better way to do this."

Ogston had been a Christian pastor before getting into education. After saying his prayer, he opened his eyes and the first thing he noticed was the cell phone clipped to his waist. Then he lifted his head...

Ogston: And I looked on my desk and saw the computer, and I looked in my office and saw other various forms of technology and realized that though we had some of it in classrooms then, it wasn't nearly being leveraged or used like it could be.

Technology had changed so much about the way he worked. It suddenly seemed absurd that students were learning basically the same way they had learned a hundred years ago. And why put kids in classes based on how old they were, rather than what they needed to learn? He started thinking about a school where computers would help individualize education for each child. Students would be tested when they enrolled...

Ogston: And regardless of the grade level that they present as, they would be placed in courses that would start where they are and then move them to where they need to be, and beyond, hopefully.

Each student would have an individualized education plan. And a lot of the learning would take place in a big room full of desks and computers a one-room schoolhouse for the 21st century.

Principal Mark Forner: So let's get started. Everyone off the wall, please, hats off, hoodies off, thank you. Hand over your heart. Say the pledge.
Students and Forner: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic..."

This is how the day begins at the Carpe Diem public charter school in Indianapolis, Indiana. Carpe Diem is Latin for "seize the day." This is the school Rick Ogston imagined a decade ago.

[Sound of bell and students walking upstairs.]

Carpe Diem is in a brand new two-story building across the street from a Wendy's and a liquor store. The ground floor is an open space surrounded by four classrooms. Upstairs is the "learning center." It looks more like a call center than a school. Each student has a cubicle with photos, knick-knacks and their own computer.

[Sound of typing]

This is a student named Aaron logging on to his computer. He's 17.

Aaron: Every day it shows where I should be at and where I am at.

Aaron is pointing at his computer screen. It shows what courses he's in and how much of each course he's completed. He's ahead in English and audio engineering, but he's behind in pre-calculus. So, he loads up the next video lecture.

Instructor on video: And welcome back. Today we're going to look at the binomial theorem. But before we do, let's do the warm up problems.

Carpe Diem uses an online curriculum called Edgenuity.

Instructor on video: ...And the next one. Express the series using sigma notation...

Aaron calls the guy giving the video lecture "the math wizard."

Aaron: I have to say he really is a wizard, he is a wizard, 'cause this makes no sense, but he knows exactly what he's talkin' about.

Aaron says he's been feeling kind of lost in this class. He put it aside for a while to work on an English paper. But he hit a wall with the paper, so now he's back to math. He's going to try the review problems and see if he's ready to take the next unit test. He pulls out his iPod and loads up some music.

[Music : "Money Trees"- Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock - good kid, m.A.A.d city - Top Dawg Records, Aftermath Records and Interscope Records]

There are lots of things students can do at this school that would be forbidden at others, like listening to music while you work, chewing gum, even putting your head down on your desk when you need a break. It's more like being at work than at school says Josh McKinney. He's what's called an "instructional coach," and he works here in the learning center.

McKinney: If you are performing and it's 2 o'clock and you've been working your tail off all morning, if you want to take a little nap, your performance indicates that that's fine.

McKinney is a bear of a man with a bushy beard. The students call him coach. His job is part tutor...

Student: I don't get what G.C.F. means.
McKinney: Greatest common factor.

...And part enforcer.

McKinney: What are you doing?

Coach McKinney has noticed a student wandering around the learning center. The kid says he's taking a break because he finished a biology test.

McKinney: I'm aware, I was looking at it this morning.
Student: Yeah...
McKinney: Yep, 44 percent.
Student: Yeah.
McKinney: Not so hot.
Student: [Laughter] No...
McKinney: Do you need to go over the lessons again?

McKinney is one of two coaches in the learning center. They carry tablet computers that give them real-time information about what each kid is working on and how they're doing. McKinney tells the biology student he needs to watch the video lessons again.

Student: OK.
McKinney: Then we'll re-go-over the topic test and see where you are. OK?
Student: OK.
McKinney: OK.

McKinney says some students need to be pushed. Others do fine on their own. And it can vary, depending on the kid and what they're learning.

McKinney: We'll have some kids who excel at one thing and then the deficits in another are mind-boggling.

LaNier Echols: We had a student that tested in 5th-grade level math, but eleventh-grade reading, so where do you put him?

LaNier Echols is the dean of students.

Echols: With Carpe Diem you're able to put him and place him accurately based on his ability level.

Some students came in way behind -- there's a 9th grader who started at a kindergarten level in math. Echols says kids like that often misbehave because they're frustrated and kids who are ahead do the same because they're bored. But she says there aren't many discipline issues at Carpe Diem. When kids are doing work at the right level, they're more engaged and there's less tension among the students.

Echols: No one knows where you're at. You are at your computer doing what you need to do.

Elijah: Oh, I know what I can do. I'll do a statistics project on fast food. Aaron: Is McDonald's killing America? [Laughter]

Students at Carpe Diem don't spend their entire day on the computer. They also go to classes, which they call "workshops." Aaron and his friend Elijah are in their social studies workshop.

Aaron: Look at some of these facts. Look. Hyperactivity symptoms of...well this is a type of ADHD. Symptoms: "Leaves seat when remaining in seat is expected." So, that just shows a failure to meet expectations and not so much a problem with the child themselves.

The assignment is to gather information about a controversial topic and use that information to make opposing claims about the topic. The point is to get students to think critically about how information gets used. Aaron is thinking about how to make the case that ADHD is not a mental disorder. He's not sure how to do that. His friend Elijah has an idea.

Elijah: Just compare children who are not diagnosed but might have some of the quote unquote symptoms versus those that are diagnosed and you could just compare and contrast the patients with regular children.
Aaron: I feel like I want to do a study on this but I don't have that kind of time...

Both Aaron and Elijah have finished what they call the "direct instruction" part of this class. That's the work they do upstairs on the computer. Down here they do projects and discuss what they've learned. Their teacher Alyssa Starinsky says this is where the critical thinking happens and in the conventional school where she used to teach, there was little time for that.

Alyssa Starinsky: If there could have been a cartoon of what it looked like I always pictured, like, opening a student's head and pouring in and jamming in as many names and dates as possible so when they took that standardized test, that they would be prepared.

Starinsky [In class]: Alright, 6th graders, start your engines. Jeffery, you ready for this play?

Ms. Starinsky has dismissed her high school students. Now she's welcoming sixth graders who are getting ready to perform a play. Students at Carpe Diem range from 6th to 12th grade. This is the school's first year and so far there are about 90 students. Eventually there will be 300. But the school has and will continue to have just five teachers -- one for physical education, one for social studies, one for language arts, one for science and one for math.

Josh Woodward: I am responsible for all of the math in this school. Whether they are in 6th grade or pre-calculus honors. I'm it.

Josh Woodward is the math teacher at Carpe Diem. He started his career in finance and international business and switched to teaching.

Woodward: And then I got into the schools and I couldn't believe what the kids didn't know.

He taught in a traditional public school and says his students had all kinds of gaps in their knowledge. For example, they never really learned fractions that well, so they struggle when it's time to do functions that have fractions in them. Some experts refer to this as "Swiss cheese" learning -- students pass with a C or a D but they never really master the content, so they end up with holes in their knowledge. Woodward says it's a big problem.

Woodward: In a traditional school you have so much you need to cover with all of these kids, so if a student fails a test, maybe you give him a make-up, but, is it the exact same test, is it different? I mean, if they fail a quiz, what do you do?

At Carpe Diem there are answers to that question. When students don't get something they can watch the video lecture again. They can ask a coach in the learning center or use an online help system. They can also meet with a teacher during office hours. Teachers here have more time to meet with students one-on-one because they're not spending their time writing tests and quizzes, or grading them. The online system does that and it also does basic instruction.

Woodward: I don't need to teach every student in this school how to calculate the slope of a line. If every student in this school needs me to teach them how to calculate the slope of a line, I'll be happy to. But I don't need to.

Mr. Woodward gets to do what he calls the "fun stuff."

Woodward: OK, when I was 15 and 16, what do I wish I knew and how does that relate to math and how can I build a project or build an experiment around that?

Woodward: So for each of your position players you'll have one of these, so we're going to their track their stat by game. Aaron: All right.

Mr. Woodward is describing an assignment to Aaron, who is one of the students in his 11th grade math workshop. The assignment uses baseball to teach statistics and mathematical analysis. Each student is drafting a dream team.

Aaron: We'll see how good of a gambling man I am. First baseman, Albert Pujols and Billy Butler.
Woodward: That's fine, they're both good. [Typing]
Aaron: Shortstop...
Woodward: Hold on, hold on... [Typing]

Aaron actually missed Mr. Woodward's class today. He was working on math upstairs in the learning center, decided he was ready to take the unit test, and lost track of time. It's the first math class he's missed all year, so Mr. Woodward's OK with it.

Woodward: Hey, what test was it, was it the pre-cal?
Aaron: Yeah.
Woodward: You just did it?
Aaron: 92.
Woodward: Nice work.

Students get their scores back within seconds of finishing a test or quiz. Since Aaron got a 92 percent, he can start the next unit. Students must get at least an 80 to move ahead. The goal is to prevent the "Swiss cheese" learning problem, something Aaron is familiar with. He took pre-calculus last year at the Indianapolis magnet school he attended, but says the class was boring. He skipped a lot and didn't do well on the tests. The teacher gave him an A anyway.

Aaron: Yeah, he gave me an A. He said, "Aaron, I know you know this."

But Aaron knew he didn't. So when he got to Carpe Diem he asked to take pre-calculus again. His friend Elijah went to the same magnet school last year, and he wasn't doing well either.

Elijah: Ah, yeah, Indianapolis Public Schools, I was kind of wavering away.

Elijah was spending a lot of his time writing music instead of doing schoolwork. Classes at the magnet school were big and he says the teachers didn't pay much attention to him. He was bored. Elijah heard about Carpe Diem, and asked his mom if he could come. He says this school is even better than he thought it would be.

Elijah: I didn't know how hands-on the teachers could truly be with each student, how much attention I'd really get.

The only drawback for him, there's no music teacher. But there is a music appreciation class.

McKinney: Without further ado, Mr. Dick Dale...

[Music: "Let's Go Trippin"- Dick Dale and the Del-Tones - Surfer's Choice - Deltone Records]

The music appreciation class is taught by Josh McKinney, one of the learning center coaches. Today, coach McKinney is sharing his love for the music of surf rocker Dick Dale.

McKinney: He did stuff, well he still does, things with a guitar that makes your mouth drop and your ears perk up, and then you realize that he is the Lord of Loud....

[Music: "Mr. Eliminator" - Dick Dale and the Del-Tones - Mr. Eliminator - Capitol Records]

Carpe Diem doesn't offer the wide range of activities you'd find at a traditional high school. There's no art teacher here either -- and no sports teams. But founder Rick Ogston believes the Carpe Diem approach educates students more deeply and it's a school that works for students who are ahead as well as students who are behind. That's significant, because education reform has focused almost exclusively on low-performing students.

Ogston: Most of philanthropy is directed in that same way as, let's help the urban schools, and help those... But the middle class student, the higher performing students, tend to be, I think, lost.

Ogston believes all students could be learning more and learning better.

Woodward: All right, to make the top ten it took 6.75 percent, goes to Tyrone Chandler. [Cheers] Number 9, 6.78 percent, Jalah Weir! [Cheers]

This is a daily ritual at Carpe Diem. The students who have made the most progress in their online curriculum are celebrated. It's a way to reinforce the idea that hard work is a key to success.

Woodward: And number one, 24.8 percent, Kayla Mayhew. [Cheers]

Every student at Carpe Diem has a different educational plan, but all students must complete the courses required by the state for high school graduation. And they must take the state standardized tests, called ISTEP. Math teacher Josh Woodward has no problem with that, but he does find it frustrating that students are required to take certain tests in certain grades, rather than when they've mastered the material.

Woodward: I would love for all my students who are at an 8th-grade math instructional level, even if they're in 6th or 7th grade, to have them take the 8th-grade math ISTEP. Unfortunately, that's not a reality that we currently live in. Maybe we will.

Some states are starting to bend the rules. Maine, New Hampshire and Oregon have adopted policies that allow students to progress when they demonstrate mastery of a subject, instead of moving ahead based on their age or grade level. That's a better way to do it, says Carpe Diem student Aaron. For him, the best thing about being a student here is the freedom.

Aaron: The freedom to learn in a way that's comfortable for you. I mean it's not comfortable for everybody. Like, I've been here since the school started. I've seen people that just, you know, the system doesn't work for them.

Ogston: They're used to being told what to do and when to do it.

Carpe Diem founder Rick Ogston.

Ogston: So when they come to us they're a sense of, "Oh my God, what do I do?"

About 20 percent of the students who started the year here have left. Ogston says students have to be self-motivated and independent to make it here. Some kids come in with those skills, but some say they learned them here.

Forner: Carpe Diem!
Students: Seize the day!
Forner: Seize the day!
Students: Carpe Diem!
Forner: Carpe Diem!
Students: Out!

Every school day ends with this exchange between students and the school principal. Some kids are heading to after-school clubs, others have to work. Elijah goes home, where he has his computer set up as a recording studio in his bedroom.

Elijah: Um, so, for the sake of hip-hop I do a lot of sample-based stuff. Got my vinyl down here...

Elijah borrowed a Peruvian funk record from coach McKinney and he's been sampling it to make something new.

Elijah: Would you like me to play it for you or...? OK.

Elijah says before Carpe Diem, school was monotonous and tiring. His mom, Charlene Mark, was worried.

Charlene Mark: I could see that I was losing him.

Mark is a home health care nurse who is raising Elijah on her own. When he told her he wanted to switch schools, she agreed pretty quickly.

Mark: I wish I had a school like that because, quite frankly, some of my subjects were so boring I don't think I retained as much as I should have.

She says her son's attitude about school has changed. He likes it now. He's focused on going to college, and says he knows what he wants to study.

Elijah: I actually want to be a psychology major. I'm interested in the human mind. I've read quite a few books on it. Actually there's one sitting over there. I'm studying how pleasure works and why humans respond to things that bring us joy, so, music, food, things of that nature.

When the school year began, all the students at Carpe Diem in Indianapolis took standardized tests that measured their grade level in math, science and language arts. They took the tests again at the end of the year and the results show that, on average, students went up three grade levels in science and language arts, and four grade levels in math. Ogston's original charter school in Yuma, Arizona has been using a similar digital learning model since 2005. At first the growth in student performance was high there too. But test results have gone down in recent years. It's not clear why. Critics say Carpe Diem relies too much on computers. Math teacher Josh Woodward responds that Carpe Diem is about more than just computers, it's a new approach to education and teachers are an essential part.

Woodward: The curriculum is one piece. And it's a good piece. But it covers the basics. And then it's up to us to cover everything else.

Still, there are only five teachers for what will eventually be a school of 300 students. That's far fewer teachers per student than traditional schools.

Woodward: True, yeah you're right. So, it is replacing a large number of teachers. But it requires very strong teachers.

And because the school has fewer teachers, it can pay them more. And because Carpe Diem is a charter school, it's exempt from much of the regulation and bureaucracy that other schools face. That makes a difference, says Carpe Diem principal Mark Forner.

Forner: We don't go through advisory committees. We don't go through curriculum committees. We do what we think is best for that kid that particular day. If it works, great, if it doesn't work, we change it.

But this kind of approach raises red flags for Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. Welner wants to see more data that shows computers actually help kids learn.

Welner: We're still talking about what's essentially an experiment. We're talking about something that is potentially beneficial, potentially efficient, but also very potentially harmful, and we don't know yet.

Most of the research about learning on computers has been with college students. The results there show that when online learning is combined with face-to-face instruction, students learn as well or even better than they do in traditional classes. But much less is known about the effectiveness of digital technology with younger learners. Welner says blending online learning with face-to-face instruction may well be the direction schools should be going.

Welner: But I also fear that a movement toward blended learning that's driven by excitement about technology, rather than by evidence or by sound learning science, can really just sort of entice us with a magical shortcut instead of give us an improvement in our schools.

One of Welner's concerns is that politicians will see technology as a way to cut costs. He says the key question when it comes to computers in the classroom has to be this: Do they help students learn better?


Stephen Smith: You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "One Child at a Time: Custom Learning in the Digital Age". I'm Stephen Smith. Schools have been experimenting with technology for a long time. TV was supposed to revolutionize education back in the '60s. People have been talking since the '70s about how computers are going to change things. But having a computer doesn't necessarily result in better learning.

Voice 1: It might just replace a text book and the text book is not what leads to higher achievement, it's the method of teaching and how the students learn and the level of engagement that they have.

Coming up, we travel to North Carolina to visit a school district that's getting good results by giving every student a laptop. To learn more about the research on tutoring and to read about Carpe Diem's plans to expand across the country, you can visit our website, While you're there, you can download other American RadioWorks programs about how people learn and ways that education is changing. You can also sign up for our weekly education podcast. That's Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. "One Child at a Time" returns in just a moment from APM, American Public Media.

Part Two

Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, "One Child at a Time: Custom Learning in the Digital Age". I'm Stephen Smith. So, where would you look if you wanted to know who Crazy Horse was, or who shot President Lincoln?

Voice 1: I would use Google.
Voice 2: Google.
Voice 3: Probably Safari on my iPhone.
Voice 4: I would look it up online.
Voice 5: Internet.
Voice 6: Wikipedia.
Voice 7: Google.

That's what grownups say, but when I asked some kids how they would do it in school...

Student 1: I would try to find a book.
Student 2: Probably look in a book.
Student 3: Um, I would look it up in a dictionary.
Student 4: Hmm, they usually give us a textbook or a worksheet.
Student 5: Ask a classmate or look at your notes or ask the teacher.

Of course, learning from a book is great. But the point here is, while the Internet and mobile devices have radically changed the way people have learned in everyday life, technology still has not changed the way most kids learn in school.

Sarah Schapiro: There are districts across the country that have one computer for 30 kids. Or a computer lab they have access to three times a month.

Sarah Schapiro is with Digital Promise, a group that promotes using technology to customize education for each student. Schapiro says the first step is making sure students have technology, but even then, research shows that technology often fails to help students learn better. Digital Promise is trying to change that by bringing together school districts that are getting good results so they can learn from each other and spread the word. One of those districts is the Mooresville Grade Schools in Mooresville, North Carolina. We went there to find out what's happening and why it's working. American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford picks up the story.

Carrie Tulbert: Good morning, how ya doing?

Students arriving at Mooresville Middle School are all wearing backpacks with both straps over their shoulders. That's the rule. Inside those backpacks each kid has precious school-owned cargo -- a MacBook Air laptop.

Tulbert: Good morning gentlemen, how you all doing?

Mooresville is a working class community of just over 30,000 people, perhaps best known for its NASCAR teams. The town is about 30 miles north of Charlotte.

Mark Edwards: It was a mill town, with textile mills, very traditional southern town.

Mark Edwards became superintendent of the school district in 2007. The textile mills had closed and times were tough. It was Edwards' idea to give every student a laptop. He'd done it before, back in 2000 as superintendent of a school system in Virginia.

Edwards: And at that time we felt a real urgency around addressing a digital divide, an opportunity divide, and saw haves and have-nots and really felt that that was a pathway for equity.

Edwards could see that computers were changing the way people got information, and he didn't want kids from poor families to be left behind. But it wasn't until he started the laptop program in Mooresville that he began to see how computers could change school, and personalize learning for each student.

Bethany Smith: So you first need to do the pre-test and however many questions you have to do for the pre-test is individualized for you. So don't look at anyone else's computer, what they have to do, this is to help you...

In 8th-grade language arts class at Mooresville Middle School, students are using a program called Study Island. They take a test on their laptop. The program analyzes the results. And the teacher gets a report that tells her what each student needs to work on.

Smith: OK, so your first assignment will be adjectives and adverbs.
Kassie: OK.

Teacher Bethany Smith is giving a student named Kassie a set of assignments based on her test results.

Smith: Your second will be subject-verb agreement.
Kassie: OK.

Kassie will do these assignments online, and her next test will be customized based on how she does. Teacher Bethany Smith says this program is really useful for students who are behind.

Smith: Because it doesn't help a child to just keep saying, "Try harder, try harder, try harder." If they really don't know what they need to try harder on, or what they need to practice, then how is their overall score going to improve?

Smith says the program also helps students who are ahead, because they can keep moving along instead of waiting for their classmates to catch up.

Smith: So, starting with the characters, are we all good with the characters? Any questions on the characters for the class?

Language arts class is not all about computer programs and skills practice. There's also a discussion about the book "The Outsiders."

Smith: Who is Paul? Who can tell me who Paul is? D'Aja?
D'Aja: Paul, he was at the rumble he used to be good friends with Darry.
Smith: Good.

Students use their laptops for this part of their school work, too. They collaborate on study guides using shared documents and contribute to online discussion forums. Teacher Bethany Smith says computers change the work of teaching, too.

Smith: Before you would spend a lot of time grading papers or grading tests. Now it's, we are in communication with kids in the evenings. We are giving them feedback. We are involved on their discussion forums.

Smith started her teaching career at a school in New Hampshire that had a "one-to-one" program -- that's what it's called when each kid gets their own computer. But Smith came to Mooresville before the laptop program started here.

Smith: Coming here I felt like I was going back in time. It was like, we had had the one-to-one for three years and coming down here doing everything with paper and pencil again, scared me.

So when new superintendent Mark Edwards announced in a speech that Mooresville would be starting a laptop program, Smith was thrilled.

Smith: While I was clapping, I'm not sure many people were.

Fitzsimmons: No, I was not clapping.

Maureen Fitzsimmons had been a math teacher for more than a decade when she heard superintendent Mark Edwards lay out his laptop plan. She had her way of doing things in the classroom and she didn't want to change. Teacher Mark Buda says the idea of students having computers kind of scared him.

Buda: The fear is, will the laptops give them more information or make them smarter than you in a sense?

Teachers are trained to think they should know more than their students, says superintendent Mark Edwards. Having the Internet in class changes the dynamic.

Edwards: There's a sense of loss of control, because students have a portal to the world.

Before the laptops, Mooresville schools were pretty traditional.

Edwards: For years we had a standard, set curriculum and the teachers were the founts of all knowledge and wisdom.

Stephen Mauney describes it like this.

Stephen Mauney: It was a lot of, for lack of a better term, "sit and git" type instruction.

Mauney started as a teacher in the Mooresville schools 20 years ago.

Mauney: You might stand in front of the room. You might lecture for a significant portion of the class. Students took notes.

Not everyone did it this way of course. But most did, says Mooresville Middle School principal Carrie Tulbert, and it's hard to get teachers to change.

Tulbert: A lot of people choose education because it's predictable. You know what you're going to get when you become a teacher, because you just think about the teachers you had and the classrooms you had.

The school district made it clear that teachers should use the laptops to change their approach to teaching. No more long lectures says Stephen Mauney, now the executive director for secondary instruction.

Mauney: Here in Mooresville, this is the way we're going to do business. This is what we think is best for kids. These are the resources that we have, this is how we're going to use those resources, and if you want to teach here, then, this is what you need to do.

Scott Smith: We had some blessed subtractions.

Some teachers left.

Smith: So we had some folks move on. Some folks we helped move on.

Scott Smith is the district's chief technology officer. He estimates about 20 percent of teachers didn't want to have anything to do with the laptops. About 20 percent got on board right away. The rest were waiting it out, expecting the laptop program to be a fad that would pass like so many other fads in education says middle school principal Carrie Tulbert.

Tulbert: It was hard to convince teachers. And you had to get passionate and say, "Well, why are you here?" You know, is it because you want everything to be standardized and you want it all to be the same? No, it's because you want to do what's right for kids.

She says many reluctant teachers were eventually convinced, including Maureen Fitzsimmons, the teacher who said she wasn't happy about the laptops.

Student: Miss Fitz, we're having a problem with number three.
Fitzsimmons: With number three? What are you looking for?

Today students in Ms. Fitzsimmons' 8th grade math class are divided into groups, working on a project that combines math, geography and learning about colleges.

Kassie: You are visiting state colleges. You will be starting in Mooresville and heading... OK, so let's find Mooresville...
Student: We are right up in here, hold on...
Kassie: There's Statesville, OK, there's Mooresville, right here.

This is Kassie, the student you met in language arts class. Her group is measuring the distance between locations and using a scale to convert inches to miles. They have a red ruler, a large map, and their laptops.

Student 1: We have to look it up. We have to get on Google Earth.
Kassie: On Google?
Student 2: I think so, yeah.

Ms. Fitzsimmons loves the laptops now. She says they give her students access to so much material. It's easier for them to collaborate on projects. And she doesn't have to lecture in class anymore. Instead, she uses a document camera to record herself doing problems and the students watch the videos at home.

Fitzsimmons: And so the nice thing is that it helps the kids that struggle with going as fast as I do. They can pause and rewind and pause and rewind me.

And as in language arts, students do online math practice that is customized to their skill level. Ms. Fitzsimmons says the laptops make teaching more efficient. Students always have something to do, so she has more time to work with students one-on-one.

Fitzsimmons: So you're trying to find Lake Lure. Is that where you're stuck?
Students: Hmm...
Fitzsimmons: So why don't you search on your search tab? Open up another window and search and see what county it's in. Does that make sense?
Student: Yes, ma'am.
Fitzsimmons: OK.

Fitzsimmons says the computer is like a teaching assistant. She's no longer bogged down by busywork like grading tests and worksheets. The computer does that.

Fitzsimmons: I think now we spend our time more on finding things that will hook them. What will engage them? How will they learn the concepts I want them to learn by applying it into something that is relevant to them? Like, why would they want to learn this? What can they use this for? So, that they're going to want to continue to keep on learning.

Student: Thank you Ms. Fitz...

Mooresville teachers say they collaborate more than they used to. They share lesson ideas and links to cool websites. Having the Internet makes school more fun for teachers and for students, says science teacher Mark Buda.

Mark Buda: I don't hear as much anymore, "Well why do I have to learn this?", or, "How am I going to use this?"

And here's Maureen Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons: It just makes teaching so much better, 'cause kids actually like to do things now. So, the excitement and the engagement I think has just completely changed school. I mean it's just completely changed, like, kids come because they want to be here.

There's another group of people who want to be here too, teachers and school leaders from around the country and the world who want to see what Mooresville is doing.

Tour Guide: OK, so in this hallway we're going to just kinda let you guys go. We'll let you know what classrooms are which. On the left hand side, if you look in this direction, on the left hand side are English classrooms...

The laptop program has created a bit of an education tourism industry in Mooresville. The school system hosts six tours a year and there's a six-month waiting list to get in. Today there are 70 visitors here from as far away as Ontario and Oregon.

Ed Sharp: Well I'm here because I think like all of us I'm interested in how you do better teaching with technology.

Ed Sharp is a science teacher at a private school in Virginia. He's been experimenting with technology in his classroom, but he's a bit skeptical about the idea of every student having a laptop. He's worried kids will spend too much time working alone in front of a screen. Sharp walks into a 7th grade social studies class at Mooresville Middle School that shows him that doesn't have to be the case.

Teacher: This is the Israeli side, this is the Palestinian side. Once they get their borders together, they're going to come to an agreement, and then we're going to see if peace can be attained. Wish us luck!

The students in this class have been using the Internet to do research about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but no one's looking at their laptops now. Students are huddled over maps that they drew with paper and pencil. They're discussing how land and resources should be divided up. Visitor Ed Sharp approaches the group representing Palestinians.

Sharp: So you're thinking about it from the Palestinian point of view, but how are you avoiding saying, "We want all of this and too bad for you?"
Student 1: Well that's the thing, that's why we split it in half.
Student 2: Because they both have water, fresh water and then...
Student 1: ...They get the West Bank, we get the Gaza Strip. It's not, like, uneven.
Sharp: So you're trying to be fair?
Students: Yes.

Gradually the kids realize that achieving Middle East peace is a little more complicated -- one student sighs and says -- social studies is hard. The teacher laughs and says he's challenging them.

Student 3: School can be challenging at times, but other times fun.
Student 4: Always fun.
Student 3: Unless you're learning about the reproductive system.
Student 4: Shut up about that.
Teacher: I need the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli leadership to come back to my desk. Everybody else, get on your laptops...

Visitor Ed Sharp says he's impressed by how lively and interactive the class is. But another concern is whether the students get distracted by their laptops. One of the visitors asks some students about that.

Visitor: Can you get on Facebook?
Student: No, not at school or at home.
Visitor: So, research web sites are available to you?
Students: Yes...

There are filters in place to keep kids off inappropriate web sites. Federal law requires it. But of course...

Mauney: For every intelligence there's counter intelligence.

Kids can always find a way around the rules, says the district's Stephen Mauney. It hasn't been a big issue, though. In fact, discipline problems have gone down since the laptop program was introduced. And test scores and graduation rates have gone up. Eighty-nine percent of students scored proficient on recent state tests, compared to 73 percent before the laptop program began. But the program isn't working for every child says middle school principal Carrie Tulbert.

Tulbert: It's not working for every child because nothing works for every child.

Students do sometimes get distracted by all the stuff on their laptops. She's especially concerned about kids with ADHD.

Tulbert: Because their attention is all over the place and when you give them a computer it's like they can't control themselves. But that's when you teach them the coping mechanisms. And that's our responsibility as teachers. We're not just teaching them content, we're teaching them skills that will help them in real life. I have to have coping mechanisms now when I sit at a meeting that I'm not on six different programs at one time. I think a lot of people are figuring that out.

Tulbert says having computers in school is a way of preparing students for the real world. And the laptops have helped even the playing field between higher- and lower-income kids according to teacher Maureen Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons: I think in the past when we assigned projects and stuff kids came in with these wonderful poster boards and these, you know, bedazzled, wonderful things, whereas other kids could not afford that. Now, you send them home with a project and it's on iMovie, they all have the same capabilities on there. It's depending on how much effort you want to put forth.

Probably one of the most startling changes since the laptop program began in Mooresville is the increase in the percentage of African-American students graduating from high school. Before the laptops, only 67 percent of African-American students were graduating. Five years later, the graduation rate was 95 percent. Black students in Mooresville are more likely to graduate than white students. There are few if any other school districts in America where that is true. But there's no way to know what the laptops have to do with that, or exactly what role technology has played in the district's success. Here's Principal Carrie Tulbert.

Tulbert: We did mess up the research, like, we didn't do it on purpose obviously, we weren't researching ourselves. But it would not be accurate to say it's one or two things. And for everybody that's been to Mooresville, we've been very honest about that.

It could be that people in Mooresville got behind something new and by all pulling in the same direction, they improved their schools. Technology does not change education, people do, says Mooresville Middle School assistant principal Angelo DelliSanti.

DelliSanti: If you take laptops and you put them in a school where there are low expectations and no instructional leadership, what you're going to have are students who essentially are doing worksheets on the laptop, now they're just using a text-edit tool to fill in their answers. You'll have teachers during their planning that are looking at softball equipment or

He watched this happen at a school where he used to work. Teachers were not thinking about how technology could change their teaching. And when the grant that paid for the laptops ran out, there was no money to buy new software or replace old computers. Superintendent Mark Edwards says you have to have a sustainable financial plan and that's why Mooresville has written the laptop program into its annual budget.

Edwards: Comes down to about $200 per year, per student to buy the hardware, all the software, and all the maintenance.

That's $1.3 million a year, and it's a stretch for Mooresville. When it comes to school funding the district ranks 108 out of 115 districts in North Carolina.

Edwards: Now we did have to stop buying textbooks and stop buying other materials and said, you know, this is a trade-off.

The district has remained committed to the laptop program even though the school system budget has been cut nine percent since the recession. Teachers have been laid off and class sizes have gone up. At Mooresville Middle School classes have gone from an average of 18 students per class to 30 students per class. But Superintendent Edwards says teachers can manage larger class sizes better when every student has a laptop. Indeed, proponents of digital learning say technology not only helps personalize learning, it can also help schools do more with less and that concerns Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center.

Kevin Welner: Personalized learning is when your teacher knows you as a person, knows your interests, your strengths, your weaknesses.

Research shows there's something about interacting with other human beings that's really important when it comes to learning. Computers can't motivate people the way teachers can says Adam Frankel, a former speechwriter for President Obama who now advocates for the use of technology in schools.

Adam Frankel: This has to be done in conjunction and in close coordination with outstanding teachers who understand how to use the technology and how not to use the technology.

He says Mooresville is a good model, but every school should figure out its own way to use technology well. And all schools need to proceed with caution.

Frankel: Digital tools are one set of tools among many. And that's the way we need to use them. And like any tool they need to be used well and responsibly and there's a lot of hype. It's a new frontier, and like any frontier there are pioneers and there are hucksters and it's often very difficult to tell the difference when it comes to education technology.

Kassie: OK.
Tracy Williams: You ready? Can you see, Honey, you need more light?
Kassie: No.
Tracy: OK. "Homogeneous."

This is Mooresville 8th-grade student Kassie, studying for a spelling test at home with her mom, Tracy Williams. Kassie is sitting on the couch, writing each word twice in pencil. It's the same way Tracy studied spelling words with her mom.

Tracy: "Pendulum," is that how you say it?
Kassie: Yeah, I think...

Kassie lives with her parents in a one-bedroom house. She used to go to the library to get on the Internet, but her parents just got a high-speed connection for her at home. Kassie's mom says she likes the laptop program. Her dad Audie is skeptical.

Audie: I don't know, it's like cheating, to me. They punch the question up, it gives them the answer.
Tracy: It doesn't give them the answer, they still have to read it.
Audie: She types what it is...
Kassie: [Sigh] Well, it's not all like that, Dad.
Audie: Well, that's what I think.

Audie says it was better when kids had to memorize stuff, the way he did. But when asked if he can recall the stuff he memorized, Audie laughs and says, "Not really." As far as Kassie's mom is concerned, looking something up on the Internet is the same as looking it up in a book, but the Internet has so much more says Kassie.

Kassie: Every now and then when I'm bored I look up like animals and stuff, like, find pictures and just information on stuff that...
Tracy: Oh, she's taught me a whole bunch of stuff. She'll be like, "Oh Mom, check this out." Well I didn't know that, until she pulled it up and got interested in it herself on it 'cause I don't have a computer, I'm old school.

Tracy Williams says she doesn't really need a computer, but someday, if she and her husband can afford it, she might like to get one. And she says Kassie will be the one to help her figure out how to use it.


Stephen Smith: It's been 30 years since Benjamin Bloom did his research, comparing students in traditional classrooms with students who got personal tutoring instead. The fact that kids who got tutoring did so much better did not cause Bloom to despair, instead it gave him hope. He believed that teachers and researchers could come up with a form of group instruction that mimicked the benefits of a good tutor. Bloom died in 1999, just about the time that computer tutoring programs were becoming more sophisticated, more effective and increasingly affordable. Today, a lot of companies are selling technology that promises to deliver a personalized education for each child. Some of it is hype. But some high-tech tools offer hope that schools can do a better job at meeting kids where they are and helping them learn. Research shows that even then, teachers need to know how to use those tools and no matter how good the software, a computer alone is not enough. The key to reaching each child is still a smart, creative, compassionate, human teacher.

You've been listening to "One Child at a Time: Custom Learning in the Digital Age." It was produced by Emily Hanford and me, Stephen Smith, and edited by Catherine Winter. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Laurie Stern, Ellen Guettler, Craig Thorson, Manda Lillie, Hans Buetow, Peter Clowney, Samara Freemark, Frankie Barnhill and Harry Backlund. Special thanks to Kohnstamm Communications.

You can find out more about custom learning and the digital age on our web site, where you can see photographs of students and teachers in the Mooresville schools and find links to resources about digital learning. That's While you're there, let us know what you think of the program and sign up for our weekly podcast.

Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This is APM, American Public Media.

American Public Media © |   Terms and Conditions   |   Privacy Policy