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With Subtext, teachers can create a class reading group and leave notes for their students directly inside any text. These notes can range from a simple question, like “What does this passage mean?,” to a more involved assignment that incorporates other web content or multimedia. Teachers can control how students respond to their notes, such as by asking students to submit replies directly to the instructor, requiring students to submit a reply before seeing each other’s responses, or allowing everyone to see responses as they’re added.

“I loaded the [Emancipation Proclamation] onto Subtext, selected the quote, and asked kids to interpret it,” LaBelle says. “I found that 80 percent of my students had no idea what that [passage] meant.”

This led to a much richer discussion “about the masterful public persuader that was Abraham Lincoln,” she says, “and students might have missed that point otherwise.”

New resources abound—but so do challenges

Apps like Subtext and Socrative, another free tool for checking students’ comprehension during class, are powerful vehicles for “ensuring that every student demonstrates learning,” LaBelle notes. “You can make sure every kid answers, and that’s pretty cool—nobody gets off.”

Other teachers are using digital apps to create highly engaging games that can help personalize instruction, or to have students create videos, animations, and other projects to demonstrate their knowledge—while learning valuable 21st-century skills.

The explosion of educational and creativity tools in the Apple and Google app stores has given educators an abundance of free or low-cost digital resources to make lessons come alive and foster collaboration—and for schools without smart phones or tablets, a number of web-based tools offer similar services.

But even though many of these resources are free, they still come with a host of challenges for educators.

For one thing, students need devices to access these resources. According to the 2012-13 Speak Up survey on ed-tech use by the nonprofit organization Project Tomorrow, 55 percent of teachers say they don’t have enough devices for students to use in class. That’s up from 31 percent of teachers in 2008—a result that reflects a growing reliance on digital media for instruction.

Maynard is lucky: Recognizing the need for students to be digitally literate, the board of this middle-class district with only 1,300 students last year approved a pilot program that put iPads into the hands of every ninth and 10th grader, with plans to expand the program into the upper grades this year.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bella Vista Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., which has 480 students in kindergarten through fifth grade—a significant portion of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Bella Vista has one computer lab consisting of 29 iMacs, and some classrooms have computers, too—though many have just one computer for the teacher. But the school still gives all students the chance to work with digital media: Each class goes to the computer lab at least once a week to work with technology lead teacher David Braden for 50 minutes at a time.