At a middle school in Mooresville, Obama announced he was directing federal regulators to turn the nation's classrooms into digital learning centers by equipping schools with broadband and high-speed Internet connections - at a cost of several billion dollars.
"In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn't we have it in our schools?" Obama said.
Citing competition from other nations that are working feverishly to out-educate the U.S., Obama said American schools, where only 20 percent of students are connected to high-speed Internet, is falling behind nations like South Korea, where he said 100 percent of students are wired. He portrayed the move to prepare Americans for the jobs of the future as part of a broader strategy to foster economic growth.
"We can't be stuck in the 19th century when we're living in a 21st century economy," the president said.
Earlier, eighth graders flanked Obama in the school's media center, showing him a math project on a laptop. "So this is eighth grade math," Obama said, stooping down between two students. Other students showed the president how they used the video software iMovie in their studies and how they take notes on a projection screen that get transferred automatically to their laptops.
"Some people ask if technology is going to replace teachers," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters aboard Air Force One. "That's not ever going to happen. The answer is always great teachers."
Forty percent of the kids in the Mooresville district receive free or reduced-price lunch - a key indicator of poverty - but all the students use laptops, as part of a program initiated by the district's superintendent. Despite ranking near the bottom of the state in funding per pupil, the school now has the second-best test scores and third-best graduation rates, the American Association of School Administrators said.
Obama came to Mooresville, just north of Charlotte in the heart of North Carolina's NASCAR country, to push an initiative that calls on the Federal Communications Commission to use an existing program that funds Internet access in schools and libraries through a surcharge on telephone bills to meet his goal. He also directed the government to do a better job of using existing funds to get Internet connections and educational technology into classrooms, and into the hands of teachers who know how to use it.
"Here's the best news: None of this requires an act of Congress," Obama said, alluding to the roadblocks Republicans on Capitol Hill have thrown in front of many of his other efforts.
One option for raising the several billion dollars needed for the program would be for the agency to impose a new, temporary surcharge on phone bills, administration officials said.
Thursday's event is part of a broader White House effort to recalibrate a second term that so far has seen more controversies than legislative victories. The strategy centers on casting the president as focused on expanding the middle class and portraying Republicans, who haven't embraced his calls for new spending, as mired in politically motivated investigations.
Obama made no mention Thursday of the latest storm swirling around his administration: the revelation that the government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order.
This week, Obama has held or will hold events on mental health and gun control, education and health care. Next week he'll make a rare public push for overhauling the nation's immigration laws, an issue he has largely ceded to Congress.
Obama's stop in North Carolina, his first this year in the state where he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination at his party's convention in Charlotte last September, marks the start of an excursion that will keep the president out of the White House - and away from Washington controversies - through the weekend.
After North Carolina, Obama was flying to Northern California to headline a pair of fundraisers in San Jose for Democratic Senate candidates.
On Friday, he's scheduled to discuss what his health care law means for Californians before heading to Los Angeles for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. The trip ends after private meetings Friday night and Saturday with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Sunnylands, a sprawling desert estate in Rancho Mirage that boasts sweeping mountain views and a lush golf course. It was built by billionaire philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace and AP writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.