In some classrooms, iBooks have replaced textbooks. In others, students prepare video yearbooks that can be delivered to their classmates’ cell phones. In still others, teachers ask students a question, and they punch in their answers with clickers that look like TV remote controls.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent getting computers into U.S. classrooms, and teachers and students around the country are using technology in new ways. That raises two important questions for parents: How is technology improving learning? Are students developing the skills they’ll need to understand and use techology in the future?

Pointers for parents

It can be tough to assess a school’s use of technology. There is little research to go on since many of the tools and techniques are new.

Here are three pointers to help assess how technology is being implemented:

1. Ask the teacher or principal how technology is aligned with grade-level goals.

Parents might be wowed by an 8-year-old’s ability to produce a PowerPoint presentation without looking closely at the thinking that went into it. While students need to develop technological skills, it should be in the context of thinking and learning to solve problems. That means the technology needs to be aligned with learning goals, says Shelley Pasnik, senior researcher for the New York-based Center for Children and Technology.

“There needs to be a vision on the part of the instructional leaders at the school,” she says. “The content should lead; the tool should follow.”

2. Ask your child how he or she uses technology when doing assignments.

If, for example, your child worked on a multimedia presentation about the Lewis and Clark expedition, ask why he or she chose certain elements. You’ll find out pretty quickly if technology was used for its own sake or because there was thought behind it.

Pasnik explains, “If your child says, ‘I was able to use not only my words to describe Lewis and Clark’s journey, but also a picture’ or ‘I chose this font because it looked like something Lewis and Clark might have used in the 1800s,’ you’ll see that technology was used to give deeper meaning to learning.”

3. Volunteer in the computer lab.

Pasnik also encourages parents to help out in the school’s computer lab to see how technology is used. When you’re visiting the school, ask the teacher why the computer was used in a particular lesson. If he or she says, for example, that students posed questions to experts in the field via the Internet, that’s a sign that technology serves a valuable purpose.

Using technology in inspired ways

Headlines about innovations in school technology disguise a key fact: The way technology is used varies widely from classroom to classroom. While many computers sit unused much of the day, some schools are harnessing technology in creative ways to engage students and teachers.

Bill Carey, a Tennessee author and history buff, is a case in point. Working with the state Department of Education and teachers, Carey created Tennessee History for Kids, which came about because there are so few textbooks available on Tennessee history. The site includes grade-by-grade curriculum on state history, geography, and civics, and Carey hopes its interactive games will inspire students to challenge each other in a game of Tennessee trivia.

Elsewhere teachers are experimenting with classroom blogs that introduce multimedia skills to children and help them polish their writing skills. Mr. Roemer’s Fifth-Grade Polar Bears in Tampa, Fla., also keeps parents informed about what’s going on in the classroom.

A few districts, such as the one in Vail, Ariz., are giving students laptops instead of textbooks in a step toward an all-digital curriculum. It’s a solution that addresses the problem of outdated textbooks and bulging backpacks. But, as critics have been quick to point out, it’s expensive.

First used in college classrooms in the late ’90s, classroom clickers have become less expensive and more common in public school classrooms. Teachers use these devices to find out if their students are understanding — or paying attention to — the material being covered in a lesson. Here’s how they work:

  • Using a computer keyboard, the teacher displays a question on a large screen in front of the class.
  • Students point to the screen with their clickers and punch in an answer.
  • The answers are sent to a receiver either through radio or infrared signals, then fed into a computer.
  • A summary of the results is displayed on the screen instantly, giving teachers real-time feedback.
  • The answers of individual students can also be tracked by the teacher.

There is no solid research yet that indicates whether clickers improve teacher or student performance, and they are costly tools because every student needs a laptop to use the technology.

More tech tools

Educational service providers, schools, districts, and entire states are experimenting with ways to use the Internet and gadgets to teach students:

  • Help by cell phone or iPod. Teachers in New Hampshire post class assignments and homework on, and students check the site with their cell phones. For those wanting to gear up for the SAT, test-preparation company Kaplan offers tutorials in mathematics, reading, and writing for the iPod.
  • Online assistance. All students in 4th through 12th grade in Alabama can now get free online homework help from 3 p.m. to midnight, seven days a week. Tutors are chosen by the company, which screens and trains current and retired teachers, grad students, and professors. In Georgia, every high school student has free access to online SAT preparation.
  • Online courses. More districts are offering Web-based classes, from basic requirements for graduation to Advanced Placement. Even PE — yes, PE — is offered online in Minneapolis. Students fulfill the requirement by documenting their heart rates and workouts online. While these can be cost-effective ways for schools to add extra classes and for students to fit classes into crowded schedules, some critics say video dissection of a frog is just not as effective as the hands-on version.
  • Testing technology literacy. A group of colleges has been working with the Educational Testing Service to test technological literacy. The test is designed to measure whether students can use technology as a tool to find, evaluate, organize, and communicate information. An online demo is available at The Information and Technology Communication Literacy Assessment.