With textbook funding continuously on the decrease and a world operating on computers and mobile devices of all sorts, digital learning continues to be a focus of area school systems, including Elkin City Schools.
During a recent retreat of the Elkin Board of Education, digital education leaders from the state Department of Public Instruction updated local school officials on techniques and initiatives being focused on statewide.
The initial focus for the state came in a study done by the Friday Institute on what time of digital learning and teaching was happening in all of the school systems, explained Verna Lalbehareie, director of digital teaching and learning for DPI.
“We spent a good amount of time with the Friday Institute to come up with a definition of what good digital age teaching looks like, how they are advancing or moving forward, mastery and looking at competency-based learning,” she said. “Another key thing is anywhere anytime learning, blended learning, online learning and where devices come in to play.
“At the heart of teaching and learning is students. We want to make sure we stay true to student-centered instruction,” said Lalbehareie. “Get away from the notion of teachers being center stage, and making teachers facilitators and guides.”
She said digital content, the resources used in the classroom, many times can be found free and easily accessible because more of that is being licensed under creative commons, which is available to any educators. “Folk could use them across the state and the nation,” she said.
Another focus should be getting parents involved in digital learning, Lalbehareie said. “But ultimately it is about good teaching and learning.”
North Carolina is leading the nation in connectivity, she explained. “We have other states looking at North Carolina for our success.”
One of the piece of the digital puzzle Lalbehareie pointed out was the North Carolina Virtual Public School, which she reported in the second largest of its kind in the nation, with Florida having the only one larger.
“All of that is to say North Carolina is in a good place, but it doesn’t mean we get complacent,” she said. “We want to stay current.”
Every school system is in a different place as to how digitally focused it has become, Lalbehareie said, saying, “That’s absolutely fine. There is no ‘one size fits all.’”
A new tool being used to keep up with where school systems are with technology is a progress rubric, with each system answering questions which are then charted showing their progress in the digital world.
Also, she said schools of higher learning which are training future teachers need to be sure the education students are being taught the programs being used in public schools, so her staff is reaching out and working with them.
Some of the key areas the state is working on include developing learning competencies to assess where students are, training for teachers on content instruction and how to utilize devices in the classroom, the need for instructional technology facilitators who can support and teach the teachers.
But she recognized that funding can be a hindrance for some of those things to happen.
ECS Superintendent Dr. Randy Bledsoe reiterated that, noting that textbook funds are “almost nonexistent and digital resources are going to out cost a textbook in the long run. What can our board and leadership team do to help our legislators understand we aren’t even getting texts, but there is no funding to move to digital?”
“Textbook dollars are the lowest they’ve ever been,” said Lalbehareie. “I would say invite them to your schools, invite them to meetings like this. Conversations like this are helpful, because I can tell them what educators are telling me.”
One place schools should be looking at funding is first, professional development for digital resources and devices, and then second, funding for devices, she said. Part of that includes a refresh cycle for technology, so that every five years or so things are being replaced and upgraded.
Another concern for educators is access students have to online resources at home and how to tackle that issue, she said.
One way to tackle that is through a Lifeline project, said Nathan Craver, digital teaching and learning consultant for DPI’s Region 5. He said anyone who qualifies as low income can get phone services through AT&T where it services the area for $9.25, but soon that will include broadband services.
Lalbehareie said it also would be advantageous to work with service providers’ philanthropic divisions to see how wifi and internet service can be provided in communities to those who can’t afford it.
Also, she said one thing DPI has learned is that teachers need a year of professional development before devices are used in the classroom, and they need to have access to their own devices so they can learn to use them.
Bledsoe said another thing systems have to look at is the sustainability of whatever program is implemented, whether that be devices or one-to-one computers where each student gets his or her own laptop or device. “It takes millions of dollars to sustain it. We might can afford it right now, but what are we going to do in three years when we have to replace double what we put in this year,” he said, explaining typically one-to-one programs start with one grade getting computers the first year and then adding students each year they get to that grade level.
Lalbehareie said stakeholder engagement will be key to making digital learning and digital initiatives successful in school systems. “You really need to look outside the school board and look to how the board can engage others in the community, so you can make it a community-based initiative and not just an educational initiative.”
She said digital learning is an economic development tool, because companies are looking for employees with those skills.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.