A Superintendent’s View

Digital Conversion - A Foundation for Tomorrow

04/01/2012  |  Dr. Mark Edwards with Tanae McLean

It started as a collective vision from parents, school leaders and community members. Not a vision to put a laptop in the hands of every student but to get back to the foundation of what our public education system was meant to be: A learning environment where every child, every day has the opportunity to reach his or her fullest potential. While working toward this goal, we understood the importance of giving students the necessary skills to survive in a world where global interaction, whether business, education, or personal, is the norm. We also understood by doing all of this, education would become relevant to students who use 21st century skills everyday outside of the classroom. What began as a vision is now a very successful transformation in how the teachers and students teach and learn in the Mooresville Graded School District (MGSD). We call it our Digital Conversion.
By not suppressing different types of learning and thinking styles with a “one size fits all” mentality, all students win.

MGSD began its Digital Conversion in 2007 when the school board adopted a new six-year strategic plan that set clear goals around utilizing 21st century resources in all classrooms with a focus on academic achievement, engagement, opportunity, and equity. This new strategic plan’s defining mission and vision embodied the philosophy that was to become the district’s motto: every child, every day. What would this digital conversion look like? Physically, it would look like every child in grades four through 12 receiving a MacBook filled with digital resources and content for their use 24/7 and grades K through three classrooms being equipped with interactive white boards and laptops on carts. Intellectually, it would — and does — look like teachers collaborating with other teachers, students collaborating with other students, and teachers and students collaborating together. It is students “leaning forward” into their work because they are engaged and find it relevant to their future. It is teachers having the means to efficiently differentiate between learning levels and styles all within one classroom.

Imagine this example. A teacher uses an online math program that allows children to take assessments depending on the standard they are working on. She navigates from table to table kneeling down by children to give direction and words of encouragement or clarification. You may say, “How is that different than handing them a worksheet?” With this program, the child gets instant feedback on whether she answered the question correctly with in depth explanation if she did not. Because it is right on the screen with each problem they do, the students know and understand what areas they “get” and what areas they need to continue working on. The teacher is also receiving these results in real time allowing her to instantly know which standards each individual student may need additional remediation on or has mastered. Is this possible with a worksheet? Perhaps.

We would offer for contemplation, however, the fact that most teachers do not have the time to hand out 30 potentially different worksheets in the same classroom depending on the individual need of the student, get all of them graded within the hour, and remediate for those students who need it. A highly regarded retired teacher who stayed late every night to ensure that that day’s papers were graded recently said, “It was always a struggle to meet the individual needs of my students as thoroughly as I wanted to. By the time papers were graded and I had time to sit down with the student to go over them, it was time to move on to the next standard. I worried that those students not ready to move on to the next standard were getting left behind, and those who could have been three standards ahead were bored and kept from reaching their full potential.”

With a Digital Conversion, success is also realized due to elevated student engagement. When students have the liberty to do an assignment in a manner that complements their learning style, they are going to enjoy completing it and actually learn something while doing it. Yes, this means teachers have to learn to give up a considerable amount of control in the classroom; however, it also means students gain control over their learning and take ownership.

When properly implemented, a Digital Conversion causes teachers to become facilitators in the classroom. Consider a freshman honors English class where students are required to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The assignment is to do a “book report” on the sometimes loved, sometimes hated classic. There is a rubric to follow: thesis statement, support for thesis, character development, theme analysis, etcetera. The students, however, are not told how to do the report. In fact, many students in MGSD would no longer immediately associate a book report with a typed paper. For the student who prefers to write a report in the traditional sense, that is her choice. However, for the student who tends to be more expressive through verbal communication, she may decide with the help of classmates to act out a modern day interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and submit her report as an iMovie. By not suppressing different types of learning and thinking styles with a “one size fits all” mentality, all students win.

How does a district know if students are winning? It looks at a variety of factors. Since implementation of its Digital Conversion at Mooresville Graded School District, the percentage of students scoring proficient on the North Carolina end-of-grade exams has increased by 15 points from 73 percent in 2007–08 to 88 percent in 2010-11. This increase has pushed us to third in the state in academic achievement despite being ranked 100 out of 115 in per pupil expenditure. MGSD has also realized huge gains in its graduation rate. In May of 2008 the MGSD four-year cohort graduation rate was 77 percent. Last May it was at 91 percent, second in North Carolina. But perhaps our most encouraging data is derived from last year’s third grade disaggregated math scores from the NC EOG test. Over 95 percent of all MGSD third graders tested proficient for 2010-11. All subgroups (Asian, African-American, Hispanic, White, Economically Disadvantaged, LEP, Students with Disabilities) tested at least 92 percent proficient. The results have been so impressive that Thomas Greaves, CEO of the Greaves Group, was quoted in The Journal (January 2012) as saying about Mooresville Graded School District, “...you can go into every classroom in every school and see personalized learning in action.” Furthermore, thousands of visitors from districts across the nation considering going digital have come to MGSD to see the Digital Conversion in action.

Many people point to districts that have implemented a 1:1 initiative without any measurable success. In fact, there are few districts with data to show proven positive results. What has MGSD done differently? MGSD made the decision to do what was right for students. Then we began meticulously planning. We held a community forum to make sure the community understood the changes that would take place in our schools. We studied infrastructure to make sure we had proper wireless broadband to handle 5000 machines logging in. We looked at security filters to make sure our students would be safe when on the Internet. We implemented ongoing professional development trainings so our teachers would be supported when undergoing this new way of teaching. These are just a few of the details that we considered when implementing our Digital Conversion and continue to revisit on a daily basis. But perhaps the most important aspect of implementing a 1:1 that MGSD did differently, and with success, is that we understood from day one that it isn’t about the machine. It is about the student. It is about how the teacher teaches that student. It is personal and it works.

Tanae McLean is MGSD Director of Public Information.Dr. Mark Edwards currently serves as Superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District (MGSD) in Mooresville NC. As a pioneer of 1:1 computing in public schools, he was named eSchool News Magazine’s 2002 Tech Savvy Superintendent and received the Harold W. McGraw Prize In Education in 2003.
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