It wasn’t that long ago when children operating computers was an unthinkable concept –– at least until the 1980s, when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs revealed a then-ambitious vision to put computers in every classroom. Since then, schools have seen a shift toward technology-based resources that have changed education.

From SmartBoards and Blackboard to potentially never being bored by dry lessons again, going to school no longer means sitting in a chair while a teacher lectures for hours on end. For many students, it means playing educational online games, watching YouTube videos during class and even hearing from experts from different parts of the world. And for some students, a textbook is optional.

“When you think about things like TEDTalks, it’s a different expertise in areas and opinions where the actual access of the geographic location of a particular expert would not have lent itself to a physical, public informant class, so different access is pretty interesting in terms of global [reach],” said Linda Wah, a trustee at Pasadena City College and an information technology expert.

Wah has been encouraging colleges to look into implementing more classes that are like interactive webinars, noting that not all students will succeed in fully online classes. However, some schools, like PCC, do offer an alternative called hybrid classes, where students work from home with an online class but still attend lab hours.

“I don’t think online classes are necessarily the right fit for every student, but certainly a number of our students in this generation are used to technology,” she said.

In a more progressive move, PCC also offers classes that use Open Education Resources (OER) in place of textbooks when possible, said Ross Selvidge, president of the Board of Trustees at PCC. OERs are digital learning resources, like text and media, that are free to use and helps cut down the cost of attending college. It is a trend that is rising in schools across the country, with the US Department of Education creating a #GoOpen campaign in 2015 to encourage districts to adopt OER.

The rise of YouTube has benefitted education in unexpected ways as well, with channels dedicated to providing educational videos, like the popular CrashCourse, which covers a variety of topics from literature to science and more.

Students can watch these videos on their own time, but some teachers are implementing them in their class lessons. One Reddit thread created last year asked how teachers use the videos, with many of them saying they use them for review.

“Teachers are asked to do so much, and they can’t be good at every single thing,” said one of the channel’s founders, Hank Green, in an interview with the Washington Post. “My goal is to be good at one thing so teachers can be good at other things.”

All of this begs the question whether textbooks will become obsolete in the near future. Even now, many college-level students wait to buy them until after classes have started to see whether they will truly need them. The website ratemyprofessor.com, where college students write reviews of professors and classes, also includes information on whether the textbook was needed for the class.

However, there are still a lot of hurdles to overcome before textbooks get fully replaced with online resources.

Benjamin Herold wrote for Education Week that the transition to digital content has been slow for reasons that include financial issues, like districts not being able to buy devices for every student, and technical issues where districts don’t have the infrastructure to handle so much online activity. 

Wah and Cassandra Volpe Horii, founding director of the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach, agree that textbooks probably will not be completely replaced, citing differences in learning styles.

Beyond online resources, technology has also opened a new door to how classes are conducted. At Caltech, some professors use a technique called “flipping the classroom,” which involves having students complete online assignments or watch specific videos before class starts.

“For years now, Caltech professors have been making increasing use of online tools to help students engage with material and each other before coming to class, so that when they’re together in the classroom, they can spend more time working together, tackling challenging problems and pushing their understanding further than they otherwise could,” Horii said.

Not only has technology increased access to education, it has increased the ability to collaborate, as well.

Bethany Ehlmann, professor of planetary science and JPL research scientist, recently provided  Caltech students and other students and professors at six institutions around the world the opportunity to interact and collaborate with each other in a seminar class to analyze future Mars mission landing sites by using real-time teleconferencing and online tools.

Another Caltech professor, Richard Flagan, an Irma and Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran professor of chemical engineering and environmental science and engineering, had students share and collaborate on computer coding using small projectors around the room. Horii said this really let him see and correct students’ thinking more effectively.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about technology as a distraction from learning, but what we’re seeing is that when the technology is well matched to the kind of learning that’s most important, and when it’s incorporated meaningfully and seamlessly into learning experiences, it can be a great way to enhance and deepen learning,” Horii said.