ORINDA, Calif. -- “Go ahead and highlight that passage in green,” my teacher instructs the class, informing us it will link to an online explanation. My fingers slide across the screen. “Give me my Romeo,” declares Juliet, “And when I shall die/take him and cut him out in little stars.”
Our class has been struggling through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for several weeks now, and it’s a relief to be able to understand the story. Someday, I think, these little gadgets will do all the teaching.
Which is sort of the plan.
“Over the next few years,” declared U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday, “textbooks should be obsolete.” Pointing to countries like South Korea, which plans to go fully digital by 2015, Duncan stressed the role of technology in ensuring American students remain competitive. “This has to be where we go as a country,” he said.
My high school recently adopted a new pilot program, where incoming freshmen are handed their own iPad, containing textbooks, online materials, and interactive educational games. The reasoning is simple: backpacks become lighter and the school saves money on books and other supplies. The iPads are returned at the end of the year, any damage must be paid for, and the machine can then be handed over to the next bunch of students.
“You think I understand Shakespeare?” a classmate snorts. “I need these iPads! So yes, I may mess around and download apps and goof off. But when I need to focus, Romeo and Juliet is there, and so are all the educational apps to help me understand it.”
Online tools like “Sparknotes” and “No Fear Shakespeare” are there at your fingertips to help recount the story in simpler language, while Youtube videos offer varying interpretations of critical scenes, including new takes where Juliet loses cell phone service and can’t text Romeo about her plan.
But even with the aid of these online tools and videos, I’ve struggled with much of the text. And while they have made understanding more convenient for some, they’ve also made me less willing to invest time in studying the actual text before submitting to the will of “No Fear Shakespeare.”
“Fetch me my rapier, boy,” cries Tybalt as Romeo enters the scene. “What, dares the slave/come hither, covering with an antic face/to fleer and scorn at our solemnity?” After one read, I think I get the basics. Tybalt, a Capulet, is mad that Romeo, a Montigue, is at the celebration. But what is a rapier, why is Romeo covered with an “antic face,” what does “fleer” even mean, and why is the party called a “solemnity”?
No longer willing to struggle with the text, I Google “Romeo and Juliet Sparknotes,” which summarizes the scene in a couple of paragraphs. I learn that an “antic face” is in fact a mask, “fleer” means scorn, and the “solemnity” is indeed a party.
With technology, I don’t even have to try to read much of the original. I miss the lines that foreshadow Tybalt’s eventual death and give the reader a glimpse into his easily angered personality.
Ultimately, digital education is a part of our future. After all, we are the gadget generation, the ones who have been emailing and texting since elementary school. We are the emerging group of students for whom using Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube is practically second nature. To us, what question can’t be answered by Google?
Research by the National Academy of Sciences suggests technology encourages learning through, among other things, greater access to information. Several studies have even indicated that the student achievement gap is narrowed when a school adopts these new digital programs.
The response to the pilot program among teachers and students at my school has so far been positive. When a student doesn’t understand a math lecture, for example, she can click on an educational website or an interactive game that will explain the subject to her in a different way.
“Students use the iPads for note-taking, research, writing, and a host of other creative and productive tasks,” my teacher tells me. “We talk to the students about what it means to be a digital citizen and how technology is a great tool, but also how it must be used responsibly.”
He says he has seen a jump in student interest since the iPads have been put into use, but he adds that because this is a trial program, if the tools don’t improve performance the school will return to more tried-and-true methods.
I look around my classroom. The boy to my left is engaged in an intense battle of “Fruit Ninja,” his fingers deftly swiping across the glass screen. In front, one girl checks her email while another takes what must be the millionth “selfie” on her camera application.
To my teacher, our iPads are in full use. Students appear engaged, even mesmerized by the pages in front of them.
As I stare down at my own screen, I realize that I’ve developed a habit of submitting to my annoyances rather than accepting the challenge of trying to grasp what I can before turning to other sources. I have no lessons in patience, only a reliance on the here and now.
As we’ve become faster and more connected, in society and in the classroom, it’s only natural that our technological prowess be reflected in our education. But in our rush to digitize Shakespeare, it’s worth keeping in mind that how we learn is sometimes as important as what we learn.
Caie Kelley, 16, is a high school student in Orinda, California. She wrote this article under a New America Media youth-education reporting fellowship, a program supported by the California Education Policy Fund.