It seems like computer technology has been a part of our schools forever, but in reality, it hasn’t been around for very long at all. It wasn’t until April Fool’s Day, 1976, that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs released the Apple I, marking the beginning of Apple Computers. The Apple I was a home-brew“build-your-own computer” consisting of a single circuit board, a video interface, 8k of RAM and a keyboard.

The Apple II, the hottest thing to hit schools since“modern math,” was released a year later. The most popular applications for student use were developed by MECC, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. Owned and funded by the state of Minnesota, MECC was created to help schools plan for the use of computers and to develop educational programs for students. Gen X and Y students will likely remember hours of playing their titles like Number Munchers and Spellevator, or traveling the Oregon Trail. Kids playing the ”games” didn’t notice that they were learning geography, math or decision-making skills.

There was no question that the stand-alone computer enhanced learning, but connecting these computers via the Internet would revolutionize learning. The Internet was already in existence in 1977, when companies like Apple introduced computers to the classroom, but it wasn’t until the public release of the World-Wide-Web in 1992, that schools realized its power. By 1994, 35 percent of public schools already had access to the Internet. By 1998, 89 percent were connected. Today, nearly 100 percent of public schools in the U.S. have some point of access.

The availability of these connected computers has changed how children learn. Students have become engaged in active learning rather than passive listening. They are encouraged to interact with other students and are learning to work collaboratively. Lessons become “real-life” with the addition of devices like a Web cam. The camera and an internet connection make it possible for students to study the effect of global warming on the ice caps by communicating with the research team on a trek to the South Pole. Additional in-depth research on the subject is only a click away and is no longer limited by the resources available in the local school library. Today’s student is more likely to develop a multi-media presentation on their findings than just write a two-page paper.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but the use of technology has made education more personal for many students. Software programs can be set up to assist individuals gain the knowledge necessary to meet state standards, while at the same time tailoring the lesson plan to take advantage of the student’s strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. Technology can also enhance a student’s confidence in his or her own ability. Students will learn even the basic skills — reading, writing and arithmetic — faster and better if they have a chance to practice those skills. Computers in the classroom can provide a non-threatening and motivating environment for these repetitious learning tasks.

The addition of polling devices, clicker buttons and personal response systems allow even the shyest student to provide feedback to their teachers without the fear of unfair judgment by their peers. For the more advanced student seeking specialized learning or those in rural areas where courses aren’t available, we can’t forget the advantages of e-learning or distance education. About 25 percent of all K-12 public schools now offer some form of e-learning or virtual school instruction, one-third have students enrolled in distance education courses — many at the college level.

As you can see, recent technological advances have certainly had an effect on education, but don’t give all the credit to the computer, the Internet or the World-Wide-Web. What has really made the difference is the ability we now have to create connections. Students can connect with their teachers, other students, endless resources or experts in the field, making education exciting and engaging. Teachers can connect to master teachers, mentors and other teachers to discuss best practices and find lesson plans. Schools can connect to busy parents through the widespread use of email or secure school Websites that provide parents with access to their child’s progress on a continual basis, allowing them to be proactive about their child’s development rather than waiting until the report card comes home. Technology is the tool, but creating connections is the key.