North Carolina’s Digital Success Story

column | School Infrastructure

North Carolina’s Digital Success Story

By Michael B. Horn (Columnist)     Aug 14, 2017

North Carolina’s Digital Success Story

For over a decade, North Carolina has been the site of one of the most sustained, successful initiatives in education: giving all students in all schools access to broadband internet with WiFi in every classroom by 2018.

Stakeholders—from educators and nonprofits to politicians and private companies—have all rowed in one direction to spur the strategic use of technology to ensure that all students have access to a great education.

What’s striking is that this success story has occurred against the backdrop of so many major high-profile education initiatives floundering across the nation—Common Core and accountability come to mind—and amidst significant political turbulence in the Tar Heel state.

It’s been successful because the leaders who put the educational initiative in place involved everyone across a broad swath of the educational system from the outset, from the grassroots to the grass tops. They made sure the initiative had clear benefits for each of them, from state politicians of all parties to the local leaders across the urban, suburban, and rural parts of the state, and from educators at all levels to private companies.

A new report, “Strategic Policy Playbook: Driving Innovation In Education for All Students” summarizes this important story. Published by digiLEARN, a non-profit led by some of the leaders that launched the broadband effort in North Carolina, the paper offers important lessons for policymakers undertaking any multi-year, complicated change process. (Full disclosure: Entangled Solutions, where I am a principal consultant, helped prepare the report.) So many of these efforts over the years have failed because they’ve focused solely on winning support from either the educators or politicians—but rarely both.

Former North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue, the chair and founder of digiLearn, played an instrumental role in kicking off the effort as the state’s Lieutenant Governor in the early 2000s. Seeing unequal access to educational opportunity across the state and wondering how to leverage technology in schools statewide, Perdue spurred the state general assembly to establish the Business Education Technology Alliance (BETA), a diverse team from the business, technology, government and education communities. These players joined together in 2002 with a shared mission to put technology in the hands of every learner in North Carolina and to prepare and empower teachers to be innovators in the classroom.

Among its several objectives, BETA decided in 2004 to launch a statewide school connectivity upgrade. Perdue lobbied the North Carolina General Assembly for money to conduct a feasibility study to create a plan and budget for the project. She enlisted Myra Best, executive director of BETA, to help secure legislative approval.

After the General Assembly granted the money for a feasibility study, it allocated $6 million in nonrecurring funds in 2006 to support implementation of the connectivity initiative.

Early on, the districts were skeptical. They had seen previous top-down initiatives fizzle with little progress to show in actual schools. But this time local leaders bought in as the team leading the deployment of the K–12 network infrastructure at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University delivered some early wins in the form of successful connectivity pilots. Doubt fell away as districts saw that the General Assembly was putting real resources (money) into supporting teaching and learning in schools across the state.

By 2009, all 115 public school districts in North Carolina voluntarily connected to the NC Research and Education network (NCREN), where they could access content and administrative applications from the state and gain access to a high-performing internet connection. This built considerable local support across party and geographic lines for the work.

To build buy-in across the state and not leave themselves open to a political backlash later, it was similarly important to gain the support of the private providers of broadband access, telecom companies like AT&T and Emarq (now called CenturyLink). Competing with them could create political headaches. Accordingly, the state worked out a mutually beneficial agreement with those providers. The state and MCNC, a nonprofit service provider, built out robust local networks with a fiber-optic infrastructure that had traditionally served many of the state’s higher-ed institutions. In turn, the telecom providers could connect to this network and then provide schools with last-mile service. This deal would greatly increase the telecom companies’ customer bases and give them the opportunity to reach areas that they had previously been unable to connect.

Finally, it was important that the initiative cut across party lines. BETA’s work in constantly educating all members of the General Assembly with frequent briefings that showed progress with real data played a significant role. When legislators went home on weekends, they continued to hear about the importance of the initiative from their constituents who had voted them into office.

Even as the political balance of power swung to Republicans in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction in the late 1800s, momentum continued. Before the turnover of power, in 2008 and 2009 the General Assembly allocated a total of $22 million in recurring funds to support the connectivity initiative. After the turnover, the initiative officially became a part of the state system in 2012 with the creation of the General Assembly’s Digital Learning Environments in Public Schools Committee, co-chaired by a newly elected Republican representative, Craig Horn (no relation), and the creation of the State Board of Education’s Special Committee on Digital Learning in 2013. Horn introduced legislation that continued the implementation of technology in education and secured an additional $12 million in recurring funds to the initiative. His early support also helped educate the newly-elected members in the General Assembly and allowed them to find a middle ground to continue the work that had begun.

To date, more than 70 percent of schools are equipped with a Wi-Fi network that enables digital learning in the classroom. By the summer of 2018, all schools in the state are expected to be digital ready, which will open the door for innovation in schools that reaches all students, regardless of their zip code.

The fundamental lesson from this story goes beyond digital learning. For any complex initiative, having buy-in from all stakeholders across the system is important. That lesson applies to elected leaders and political appointees who enact policy through regulation. Going around members of the opposite party and key stakeholder groups, or skipping the hard work of building buy-in from teachers and parents, invites backlash.

This lesson extends to funders and education technology entrepreneurs who often neglect the ultimate payer in K–12 public schools—the government—in building support for their work. The hard work of going through the policy process and gaining true buy-in at all levels, while slow by design and littered with compromises, is also more enduring.

North Carolina’s success amidst a discordant education and broader political environment offers hope for sustained change when leaders take the time to create collaborative public-private partnerships and win strategic support from both sides of the legislative aisle. That’s a lesson worth learning.

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