BOSTON, Massachusetts (Reuters) - From online courses to kid-friendly laptops and virtual teachers, technology is spreading in America's classrooms, reducing the need for textbooks, notepads, paper and in some cases even the schools themselves.
Just ask 11-year-old Jemella Chambers.
She is one of 650 students who receive an Apple Inc laptop each day at a state-funded school in Boston. From the second row of her classroom, she taps out math assignments on animated education software that she likens to a video game.
"It's comfortable," she said of Scholastic Corp's FASTT Math software in which she and other students compete for high scores by completing mathematical equations. "This makes me learn better. It's like playing a game," she said.
Education experts say her school, the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Boston, offers a glimpse into the future.
It has no textbooks. Students receive laptops at the start of each day, returning them at the end. Teachers and students maintain blogs. Staff and parents chat on instant messaging software. Assignments are submitted through electronic "drop boxes" on the school's Web site.
"The dog ate my homework" is no excuse here.
The experiment at Frederick began two years ago at cost of about $2 million, but last year was the first in which all 7th and 8th grade students received laptops. Classwork is done in Google Inc's free applications like Google Docs, or Apple's iMovie and specialized educational software like FASTT Math.
"Why would we ever buy a book when we can buy a computer? Textbooks are often obsolete before they are even printed," said Debra Socia, principal of the school in Dorchester, a tough Boston district prone to crime and poor schools.
There is, however, one concession to the past: a library stocked with novels.
"It's a powerful, powerful experience," added Socia. Average attendance climbed to 94 percent from 92 percent; discipline referrals fell 30 percent. And parents are more engaged, she said. "Any family can chat online with teacher and say 'hey, we're having this problem'."
Unlike traditional schools, Frederick's students work at vastly different levels in the same classroom. Children with special needs rub shoulders with high performers. Computers track a range of aptitude levels, allowing teachers to tailor their teaching to their students' weakest areas, Socia said.
SURGE IN ONLINE COURSES
The Internet is also a catalyst for change. U.S. enrollment in online virtual classes reached the 1 million mark last year, 22 times the level seen in 2000, according to the North American Council for Online Learning, an industry body.
That's only the beginning, said Michael Horn, co-author of "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns".
"Our projections show that 50 percent of high school courses will be taught online by 2019. It's about one percent right now," said Horn, executive director of education at Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Massachusetts.
K12 Inc, which provides online curriculum and educational services in 17 U.S. states, has seen student enrollment rise 57 percent from last year to 41,000 full-time students, said its chief executive, Ron Packard.
Much of the growth is in publicly funded virtual charter schools.
"Because it is a public school, the state funds the education similar to what they would in a brick and mortar school, but we get on average about 70 percent of the dollars," Packard told Reuters.
"We don't usually get capital dollars, or bond issue dollars. Sometimes we don't get local dollars. So on average it works out 70 percent of the per pupil spending that an average school in the state would receive," he said.
"We're getting the kids who the local school is not working for. And the spectrum goes from extreme special education to extremely gifted kids," he said.
U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley says K12 and similar companies look set to capture an increasing share of the $550 billion publicly funded U.S. education market for children aged from about 5 to 18 as more U.S. states adopt virtual schools.
Virginia-based K12 recently opened an office in Dubai to expand overseas. Packard says he expects strong offshore demand for American primary and secondary education tailored for foreign nationals who want to enter U.S. universities.
Apex Learning Inc, based in Bellevue, Washington, is seeing a similar surge in demand. It started in 1997 by offering online advanced-placement courses to parents and individual schools but now sells an array of online classes for entire school districts and state departments of education.
"Over the last two years in particular we have seen very, very significant growth in the interest and demand for our type of digital curriculum," Apex chief executive Cheryl Vedoe said in a telephone interview.
Apex enrollments rose 50 percent to 300,000 in 2006-2007, and likely grew at the same pace last year, she said.
"Where we see the greatest growth today is actually in brick and mortar high schools for programs for students who are not succeeding in the existing programs," she added.
Online tutoring is also expanding rapidly. Bangalore-based TutorVista, which launched online U.S. services in 2005, estimates its average global growth in active students at 22 percent a month -- all taught by "e-tutors" mostly in India.
Horn expects demand for teachers to fall and virtual schools to boost achievement in a U.S. education system where only two-thirds of teenagers graduate from high school -- a proportion that slides to 50 percent for black Americans and Hispanics, according to government statistics.
"You deliver education at lower cost, but you will actually improve the amount of time that a teacher can spend with each student because they are no longer delivering one-size-fits-all lesson plans," he said. "They can actually roam around."
(Reporting by Jason Szep; Editing by Eddie Evans)