Evaluating the Digital Classroom in Mooresville, North Carolina
[caption id="attachment_1091" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of Clare Bloomfield"][/caption] In the 21st century, digital learning, through laptops, tablets and personal computers has taken over a lot of the “standards” most educators were accustomed to as students themselves. As a college educator, I have focused exclusively on the integration of online interaction and technology into my classroom for the past several years, which have given me some great perspective regarding the benefits and drawbacks of computerized learning. My community college students, who range in age from 16 to their 40s and 50s, come into my classroom with varying expectations regarding the digital landscape and the role that it will play in both their education and future career. That is why I find the Mooresville Graded School District in Mooresville, NC so fascinating. For the past three years, this school has issued MacBook laptop computers to each of its students. Each class is conducted almost exclusively by utilizing these computers, which has revolutionized the learning experience for these students, and has had some serious impact on the district’s test scores. Preparing for the Future Mark Edwards is the superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District and a much-sought-after consultant regarding the benefits of integrating digital media into the K-12 classroom. Edwards recently participated on a White House and Department of Education panel regarding the programs in his schools and their results. He explained to The New York Times that the utilization of technology in the classroom is “not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past.” One of the benefits of the digitally-integrated classroom is found in this coexistence between the student and the machine, but also, as Edwards indicates, the control that individualized learning allows each student to exhibit. Teachers no longer lecture in Mooresville, but instead run classrooms in a webbed structure that combines group work and individual skill-building with collaborative writing and discussion boards. This allows even the shyest students an equal chance at participation and helps to mainstream many special needs students. Teachers in Mooresville classrooms are then able to monitor each student’s progress individually and periodically check in on the standards that they have achieved through digital printouts and tallies. These printouts, which Edwards himself reviews, allow educators to pinpoint those students who are just a “question or two” shy of meeting testing proficiency requirements and subsequently focus on getting them to meet that benchmark. The results? Though it is ranked 100 of115 school districts in North Carolina for its per-pupil expenditures, it ranks third in test scores state-wide. Its graduation rates have improved as well, up 11% since the program began in 2008, leading Mooresville to rank second in the state. The Costs of Digital Learning The costs of programs such as the one in Mooresville are not as high as one might imagine. Remember, the district is on the low-end of expenditure. However, in order to allocate money for the computers, which the district rents from Apple for $215 per year, cuts needed to be made, and they included teaching staff. The district laid off 65 employees in 2008, including 37 teachers in order to free up the $1 million yearly fund for its digital enterprise. Many of the teachers who left were those who were hostile to the integration of digital learning into their classrooms. These cuts, in turn, led to an increase in class size, particularly at the junior high and high school level. And finally, families were required to pay a $50 yearly fee for computer maintenance, though that fee is waived for 18% of families who meet income requirements. There is also the cost of focusing the evaluations of this program on test scores alone. Edwards himself admits that, “We look at scholarships, A.P. courses taken, honors courses, SAT scores. But the measure that we use is what the state posts, and what parents look at when they’re comparing schools moving here.” The Future of Education? The ultimate assessment seems to be that what Mooresville has created is in the right vein for the 21st century student. Despite the hiccups that will be caused initially, the view of technology as the great equalizer has most educators optimistic. In the coming years, as low income students from Mooresville make strides in the college classroom and workplace, Edwards and those in his camp believe that the ends will justify the means.