No More Pencils, No More Books: A District Digital Conversion

Blended Learning

No More Pencils, No More Books: A District Digital Conversion

Pathways and results from Mooresville Graded School District’s six-year plan

By Frank Florence & Marianne L. Hamilton     Apr 30, 2014

No More Pencils, No More Books: A District Digital Conversion

In April of 2011, a detailed case study was published on the tiny school district of Mooresville Graded Schools in North Carolina. The story documented one of the U.S. K-12 segment’s examples of a successful digital transformation, with test scores and KPIs to back it up. Three years later, the Mooresville district continues to make progress. Here are the latest updates.

After spending a day documenting classes at Mooresville Graded School District (MGSD) in North Carolina, the crew from France’s Canal+ TV admitted that they were puzzled. Granted, they had witnessed an extraordinary amount of student engagement, and innovative, project-based learning. And yes, French viewers were sure to find what they were seeing highly intriguing.

But where, the crew members inquired, were all of the children’s pencils?

The answer has been six years in the making--and demonstrates what’s possible when vision is supported by an educational community eager for change. With Mooresville’s “digital conversion” now a reality, the once-struggling school district is now a beacon of success that has drawn acclaim (not to mention media visibility) from every corner of the globe, as well as a visit from President Barack Obama.

The Mooresville district is home to an ethnically diverse student population of 5,600, with some 40 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

MGSD’s shift to the digital domain has been shepherded by its superintendent, Dr. Mark Edwards. Lauded internationally as the architect of 2003’s landmark 1:1 laptop initiative in Henrico County, VA, Edwards has long been a champion of leveraging educational technologies to equip students with 21st-century skills.

Under his leadership, MGSD has executed a six-year strategic plan that set clear goals for the utilization of technology resources in all classrooms, and focused on academic achievement, engagement, opportunity and equity.

Six years ago

Prior to Edwards’ hiring and the implementation of the new plan, the 2006 graduation rate was only 64 percent. Moreover, at Mooresville High School, the 2006-2007 academic composite (a combination of all subject state standardized tests taken by HS students in North Carolina) was just 68 percent, with pronounced performance gaps in a number of student subgroups.

To address these challenges, Edwards proposed a plan that saw a complete departure from the traditional textbook-driven curriculum (where teachers are the sole providers of knowledge) to a new landscape in which learning is shared by all participants, and accessed from a variety of sources.

“Six years into our digital conversion, our culture has dramatically changed,” confirms Dr. Scott Smith, MGSD’s chief technology officer. “We now have a student-centered, digitally-rich environment where we can personalize learning for all students. The content and resources have opened up brand-new capabilities. We can reach students in the world in which they’re living, and we can look at real-time data to meet their needs so they can become successful.”

Making the digital conversion

The most visible aspect of the district’s conversion is the ubiquitous presence of laptop computers for each student in grades 3-12. What’s not visible? Or rather, what’s nowhere to be seen? Textbooks. Add pencils to that list of missing items, too.

“We have not purchased a textbook in six years,” Smith says. “The only exception is in our high school, where the advanced placement curriculum is set by the college board. Otherwise, we’re exclusively a using a wide range of digital resources.”

Smith adds that he and his colleagues refrain from using the term “digital textbooks,” saying that it carries a connotation that’s… well, old school.

“A digital textbook implies a static document, like a PDF. Instead, the digital resources that we use are updated and interactive, and meet different learning modalities,” Smith says.

For example, MGSD relies heavily on digital resources supplied by Discovery Education, whose content contains a heavy emphasis in science, social studies and math. Smith believes the Discovery Education products are uniquely suited for every type of learner:

“Discovery Education has...the ability to produce content that’s aligned with Common Core Standards; it’s pedagogically sound, it has lesson plan examples, and it meets all different learning modalities.”

The CTO also gives high marks to Google, for supporting the “4 Cs” (critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration) that underpin MGSD’s strategic vision:

“Google has embraced the collaboration space in the work environment, and it really works for education, too. [We use] Google Docs, Google Drive…we also use Google Mail for all Faculty and Staff and students grades 6-12. We utilize the whole Google suite of apps (drive, docs, spreadsheets, presentations, web sites, email, etc."

All of the best technology tools in the universe would be useless without the knowledge needed to unlock their potential. Here, too, the Mooresville district has demonstrated exceptional acuity in anticipating the needs of its educators.

At each of MGSD’s eight schools, a full-time instructional technology facilitator works with teachers to devise model lessons leveraging new technology tools, and to do whatever hand-holding is necessary to ensure comfort in uncharted waters. Additionally, teachers are given a half-day of professional development per month, along with a three-day summer institute where new, technology-infused curricula can be explored and mastered.

Financial restructuring

Of course, the implementation of such sweeping changes inevitably carries a hefty price-tag. In this era of steadily dwindling budgets in education, Edwards, Smith and their colleagues have once again demonstrated innovative thinking, as well as their commitment to the new teaching and learning paradigm: They now consider infrastructure purchases (including networking, hardware and software) as operational expenses, versus capital expenditures. Such an approach has guaranteed the sustainability of the digital conversion, which Smith pegs at roughly $1.80 per student per day, or $325 per student for all resources needed for a full school year.

“This is a philosophical change, as well as a financial change,” Smith says. “But moving our technology costs from CapEx to OpEx has been of paramount importance to us. We now look at funding for technology as a regular operating expense, just like our power bill.”


Where is Mooresville now, in terms of test scores?

From 2006 to 2011, Mooresville saw a steady increase in academic composite scores from the initial 68% in 2007 to 86% by the end of 2010 (see graph below).

The academic composite score continued to climb until 89% in 2012. And then, the shift to Common Core took place.

“We renormed in North Carolina this past year, so we didn’t receive any scores until November,” explains Tanae McLean, public information officer for MGSD.

Judging by the score comparison chart below, all of North Carolina is adjusting to the transition to Common Core assessments. “But in spite of that, and the fact that we had all new tests,” McLean adds, “we were still ranked third in the state, in terms of academic achievement.”

As far as attendance and graduation rates go, “our attendance rate is around 97 percent, our discipline rates are down, and last year, the graduation rate for our African-American students was the highest in the state,” says McLean.

However, despite success, McLean adds that there’s always room for improvement: “We’re currently changing our instruction to adapt to Common Core, and making sure our teachers know what to teach, and how to assess. But overall, we feel like we’re doing a pretty good job.”

And MGSD is doing just that, she adds, sans pencils.

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