(Tribune News Service) -- As with the rest of society, technology is a growing force in the education world.

From online projects to interactive projector displays, the use of digital applications and computers is becoming more and more prevalent in classrooms.

Along with that infusion, though, comes concern over the effects on student learning, especially as hard-copy textbooks are replaced with digital materials.

“This is the world that kids are growing up in,” said Eric Payne, Houston County’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. “We’re teaching the kids and preparing them for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.”

That digital effort is key to a more “learner-centered environment,” according to a 2012 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education.

The report was written by Mary Ann Wolf, director of digital learning programs for North Carolina State University’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation.

“This new culture is critical for real change to happen and to raise the achievement and graduation rates so that U.S. students are prepared for the global economy; it will, however, be nearly impossible to enact at scale without the integration of technology and digital learning,” the report said.

A MIXED APPROACH

While Payne recognized the advantages of digital learning, he said Houston County has invested in a “little bit of both” when it comes to hard-copy books and digital resources.

On top of acquiring Smart interactive technology for boards and projectors in a recent sales tax initiative, the school system put a little more than $1 million into textbook purchases last year. That’s far from a full textbook purchase, which would cost up to $9 million, but it reflects a commitment to tangible classroom resources.

“We recognize the future, but we still see that there’s a need for textbooks in some content and some classrooms,” he said.

One such content area is math, according to Peach County school Superintendent Daryl Fineran.

At a recent school board study session, Fineran spoke with staff members about plans to buy textbooks. While a full commitment won’t be possible in the upcoming budget, he requested at least enough “consumables,” or workbooks, for each student to take home for math assignments.

“I do know that, at a minimum, we’ve got to offer a visual in math to take home,” he said, noting that he’d like to see that done for the first day of the 2015-16 school year.

In Monroe County, school officials have found a way to embrace the digital conversion for the district’s alternative school. Using an online program called Edgenuity, students are able to recover credits in a way that meets their individual academic needs.

The program uses a data-driven approach to achieve “differentiated instruction” for users.

“They actually access that curriculum and work at their pace,” said Mike Hickman, one of Monroe County’s assistant superintendents of teaching and learning.

OBSTACLES TO CLEAR

One issue with a more widespread conversion to digital learning, though, is students’ access to the Internet when they’re away from school.

To account for that, Hickman and his staff made sure to find out how many of the county’s students would be able to keep up with any pending digital commitment.

“We did surveys before we did that,” he said. “I want to say it was around 80 percent or more that said they had Internet access at home.”

Even if most students have access to digital content at home, school officials have to plan for those who don’t. As a result, both Monroe and Houston counties have made efforts to purchase classroom sets of textbooks and extras to check out.

That way, lower-income students or those from rural communities without reliable Internet access aren’t hindered from learning.

“That’s why it’s good to have a textbook in place,” Payne said.

Internet access can also be a problem for schools. Unless a building has been built more recently, handling any concerted digital push requires infrastructure upgrades.

Hickman used a plumbing metaphor to describe the bandwidth concern that school systems must deal with before considering a major online commitment. (An Internet connection with a larger bandwidth can move data faster than an Internet connection with a lower bandwidth.)

“Those are some hurdles that districts are dealing with too. ... There’s only so much a pipe can hold,” he said.

As with anything, money is a huge factor in approaching those upgrades. Payne pointed to austerity reductions and other state funding shortfalls as deterrents to larger digital initiatives.

“Cuts are continuing, so it’s hard to do with less money,” he said.

COMES BACK TO THE TEACHER

Regardless of how much digital content is used compared to textbooks, both are tools for the educator.

While digital content may keep better track of changes in geography or scientific thinking, Payne added that “there’s something to be said for having a book in your hand.”

And regardless of the resource being used, he stressed that the end result comes back to who’s at the front of the classroom.

“The teacher has more impact on learning than any book or Internet site they’re ever going to go to,” Payne said. “And we’re fortunate we’ve got good teachers.”

©2015 The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC