GROTON — Finding a textbook in Barbara McNulty’s communications class requires some sleuthing. That’s because the weighty volumes are stacked at the bottom of a dark closet and haven’t been used in 10 years.
Pens, notebooks, and lectures? Also scarce.
Instead, students in the Groton-Dunstable Regional High School class learn almost entirely through digital platforms. They use computers to research and create projects at their own pace, while McNulty serves as a guide, traversing the classroom and assessing students’ work in real-time from their laptops.
The veteran teacher is at the vanguard of a march in Massachusetts toward “paperless” classrooms. While technology has been changing classrooms for years, educators say it is growing — and altering the way students learn.
Across the state, elementary, middle and high school students are using everything from desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones to log on and link together with their classmates and teachers.
Educators say the online, collaborative learning model is more student-centered and instills critical thinking and creativity, frees up paper and books to keep backpacks lighter, and provides a trove of data about students’ strengths and weaknesses.
“To me, it is the way education should be. The old model is really outdated,” said Grace Magley, director of Online Learning for the Natick public schools, which has integrated some form of digital learning in every classroom. “Students need not only content knowledge, but they need 21st-century skills. And they need to be self-directed in their learning.”
Although there is no formal state mandate to implement digital learning, many teachers have successfully pitched their principals to transform the classroom into a digital storehouse, said Ken Klau, director of the Office of Digital Learning at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. But to date, he said, there’s been no conclusive evidence that it has increased student achievement.
“Nationally, the results are very, very mixed,” said Klau, who believes that a successful digital classroom combines good instruction with a school culture that has high expectations for students.
A 2015 DOE survey reported that at least half of the students in the state were enrolled in some form of digital learning. Klau called the shift a natural evolution.
“Just like chalkboards gave way to whiteboards and other kinds of media, I think that over time it’s safe to say that schools are going to look like the workplaces in the society of the future,” he said.
Heather Johnson, who teaches sixth grade in Mashpee, said today’s teachers need to be digitally literate to boost academic achievement. She also stopped handing out textbooks, has created her own online curriculum by pulling together open-source learning applications, and watched as students have become more excited about learning.
“This is their language,” Johnson said. “Most of the time it’s 100 percent student engagement.”
There is no uniform setup for each classroom. Some educators use old computer rooms with desktops in rows, while others push the desks together so students can work in small groups.
Kerry Gallagher, who ran a paperless classroom at Reading High School for three years before becoming the digital learning specialist at St. John’s Prep, expects the look and feel of the digital classroom to change in the next five years.
She envisions a room that will look more like a business startup, with flexible seating. Traditional school chairs and desks will be out; bean bags, more comfortable chairs, and group tables will be in. She also sees more projectors in the room, so that students can work on and view multiple projects at the same time.
Many classrooms are linked to a central online platform, Google Classroom. Student assessment data are passed along to students and parents.
The digital shift has also created more work for teachers. Beth Hughes, who teaches English in a paperless classroom at Wakefield High School, said she spends hours each night responding to student e-mails, while viewing their blogs, videos, and listening to their podcasts. And from 4 to 6 every morning, she catches up on any other curriculum or grading that’s necessary.
Teachers, like students, need to find a balance while using technology, she said.
“I can access the content — and the students, too — 24 hours a day. At some point you really need to say, ‘I need to turn this off.’ ”
On a recent day at Groton-Dunstable High, students straggled into McNulty’s class to tackle an assignment on copyright infringement.
On their homepage, they found more details and research links for their in-class assignment and could also click on a number of folders that held every homework assignment and document they’ve worked on since September.
From her laptop perch in front of the classroom’s whiteboard that projected the class assignment, McNulty could click on a folder and view a student’s work in real-time and even write a comment about their progress that they could see immediately. If she wanted to make a point, McNulty could project a student’s work on the whiteboard for the class to discuss.
“The lecture is close to being dead,” McNulty said. “We’re still needed but it’s more guiding than teaching.”
In the front row, Connor Griffiths, a junior, flipped through his programs and opened Google Slides — an app used to create portfolios and presentations. He had found an example of copyright infringement and quickly built a page that included the details of the legal proceedings, pictures of the people involved, and links to the case.
“This has helped me learn at my pace and in my own way,” Griffiths said, looking up from his computer. “No one is telling me how to learn something specifically, you can kind of explore on your own.”
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.