What’s Happening in North Carolina With Statewide Support for Digital Learning
The Haw River runs through the town of Saxapahaw, N.C.—past farms, past the old cotton mill that has been renovated into an arts and music center. And as the Haw burbled in the background last Friday and Saturday, school administrators, teachers and edtech entrepreneurs gathered for thoughtful conversations and exchanges around how to use digital technology to support learning at the 30th EdSurge Tech for Schools Summit. The Summit was co-hosted by P21 and Participate.
We spoke with a number of educators during the Summit to get a peek into how North Carolina’s schools are working. Here’s what we learned.
North Carolina has been supporting digital learning for decades. It drafted a comprehensive Digital Learning Plan in 2015. “We spent a lot of time planning,” recalls Verna Lalbeharie, director of digital teaching and learning in North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction.
With support from former Governor Bev Perdue, North Carolina’s schools got access to broadband internet through a statewide education network that connected public schools, universities and community colleges. DigiLEARN, a nonprofit started by Perdue, has continued to help drive that work. Eventually small changes in legal language spurred big changes. For instance, one piece of legislation declared that by 2017, North Carolina will transition to “digital learning competencies” and digital materials (from textbooks). Figuring out to live up to that mandate can be challenging, Lalbeharie notes. “None of our processes had changed; we needed a big overhaul,” she says.
A Vision for Digital Learning
“Our vision is still the same vision—to put tech in hands of every learner so they can take charge of their own learning,” says Myra Best, DigiLEARN’s project director and a 14-year veteran of the public schools.
Strong leadership is critical to steering the course, says Dennis Frye, chief technology officer of the Alamance-Burlington School System. “Technology works when leadership works. Look across our districts. Where technology is working well is where we have principals with a vision for doing more and doing a different kind of learning that they can’t do without the tech.”
In 2006, North Carolina education leaders were intrigued by how virtual learning could help all its students. Yet state leaders soon realized they had to lay the literal groundwork first by ensuring that schools had enough connectivity to support digital learning.
In some cases, state policy literally had to change to support digital learning. Led by Gov. Perdue, North Carolina forged public-private partnerships to catalyze the growth in bandwidth across all schools. “We’ve learned how to build a collaborative partnership with the legislature and the governor’s office,” Best says. “It’s got to be both a top-down and bottom-up” effort.
These days, DigiLEARN, which got started in 2014, is helping nudge educators and entrepreneurs to work together through testbed sites. Best says that she hopes what’s learned at these sites will spread throughout the state.
“There are two philosophies” around implementing tech, Frye adds: One approach is to let teachers and principals “self select”—in other words, support those who want to adopt new tools. But that can lead to significant inequity from students’ vantage, he notes, if some teachers opt out of using tech altogether. By contrast, Frye observes, administrators can try to nudge all educators to try tech. “Our students need these tools in their hands,” he says. So it’s up to the districts to use professional development to support teachers.
“There used to be nay-sayers,” Frye recalls. Now, “I don’t have that many. I think all teachers recognize there’s inherent value in digital learning. They’ve seen enough examples of students surprising them.”
Melissa Thibault is all about collaborative learning. What’s working in North Carolina, she says: “We’ve got a lot of organizations committed to open, sharing collaborative work in digital content.”
That’s been great for the North Carolina School of Science and Math, where Thibault is the vice chancellor for distance education and extended programs. Her schools draws on a host of resources—starting with STEM materials from the North Carolina Science, Math and Technology Education Center, to UNC-TV and hundreds of education videos on YouTube. Such materials provide a rich set of resources for NCSSM, as well as the 17-campus community college network.
And teachers are remixing just about everything. “Teachers are like a chef in kitchen—they take the content and repurpose. They’re extremely innovative and proactive,” adds Thibault. “They’re professionals. I have a whole lot of faith in teachers and their ability to meet the needs of the children in front of them.”
Even so, she concedes, not everyone knows the resources even exist. “It can be frustrating when a school says, ‘I have a kid who doesn’t have any courses left to take.’” She met with one such student recently and pointed out that through NCSSM, the world of multivariate calculus was completely available. “But what if I hadn’t walked in the door that day,” she muses. “I still struggle because people don’t know where to point their students or just haven’t yet heard about what we do.”
Student learning: Yes!
“Student learning is changing and accelerating and improving!” exudes Pam Blizzard, assistant superintendent at Research Triangle High School. Two years ago, RTHS embraced the personalized learning approach pioneered by Summit Public Schools, a charter network based in California. Last year, the math proficiency score of RTHS’s lowest performing students more than doubled, she reports—a big step up from the state average where they had typically hovered.
Blizzard credits the Summit approach—and a shift in attitude to helping students take charge of their own learning paths: “Our approach had been: We’ll do whatever it takes to move you [students] along. Now it’s shifted to: We’ll do whatever it takes to support you, as you move yourself along. It’s on them.”
Some families initially pushed back when Blizzard’s school adopted the Summit model but that’s changed. “This is the second and half year that we’re using the Summit approach—and we’re getting fewer and fewer questions, less pushback. Ultimately your child’s results speak for themselves,” Blizzard says.
Editor’s note: DigiLEARN and DPI were partners in the recent EdSurge Summit.
Correction: We've updated details about North Carolina's Digital Learning Plan.