Digital deadline: keeping up with the change we’re ahead of

At LCPS, we like to think we’re ahead of the pack when it comes to digital learning. The district got off to a very fast start late last fall when it put iPads in the hands of 4,300 K-5 students, months after equipping all teachers with digital devices and beginning a professional development program that’s helping them adapt instruction to this cool new learning tool. We hope to increase our lead next school year by providing iPads to all middle and high school students; you can count on one hand — maybe just a couple of fingers — the number of school systems in the state that have committed as fully to the future as LCPS expects to do next year.

In truth, though, the pace of digitally-driven change requires running just to maintain your place. Developments in the wider world of digital learning reinforces LCPS’s conviction that the future is now. Here are a few that caught our eye recently:

Computer-based testing. Put away the bubble sheets and the No. 2 pencils. Testing by computer is about to begin. This year, North Carolina’s science end-of-grade test will be done for the first time on computer in grades five and eight. LCPS is already making sure the iPads of our fifth graders are test ready, as well as making sure we have sufficient resources in the middle schools.

That won’t be an issue next year when all our students have iPads, but it won’t be an issue a moment too soon. The people behind the ACT test the state requires students — usually juniors — to take has announced it will make computer-based testing available next year and the College Board has said it will make computer-based testing an option for its new SAT next year.

According to an ABC News story about these changes, “The move to online testing is a reflection of the evolving ways students learn in classrooms and the ease at which they use computers.” No surprise here. One of the goals of iLCPS is to align classroom instruction with the way today’s students acquire information and learn.

Digital textbooks. Here’s another reason every LCPS student needs his or her own digital device: In 2017, the General Assembly will switch to funding digital textbooks only. Digital textbooks make sense for both economic and educational reasons. They are frightfully expense, a problem exacerbated by the General Assembly’s habitual funding cuts for textbooks purchases. Consequently, textbooks are updated and distributed on a longer cycle than in years past, even though they become obsolete a lot quicker than they used to. It’s much easier to keep digital textbooks current, but they’re pretty useless — as in inaccessible — unless students have computers.

School systems around the state are scratching their heads over how to get digital devices into the hands of students and get them comfortable using them by the 2017 deadline. Not so in Lenoir County, not if we’re able to expand digital learning into middle schools and high schools next year.

State funding. You can bet that by the time our elected officials in Raleigh spot a trend it’s a bonafide trend. There seems to be more awareness — i.e., at least some acknowledgement — of the need for establishing a consistent funding stream for technology in North Carolina’s public schools. This early in the state budget process, though, it’s impossible to say what the final figure will look like. Another safe bet: it will be less than school districts need to proceed.

By taking a hard look at its own budget and shifting state and federal money from uses radically impacted by its 1:1 initiative, such as computer labs in schools, LCPS has put together a funding plan that promises sustainability for iLCPS. With Apple’s help, we’ve driven the cost down so that the projected annual cost for a K-12 program is almost half of what we estimated even a year ago — $1.7 million vs. $3 million.

District leaders have identified the $1.4 million it will take to keep this year’s K-5 program rolling and to move into middle school. We want to go ahead and get iPads into our four high schools, too. The reasons are obvious. LCPS has shown this year it knows how to operate this program. It has a sound implementation and training structure in place. Our 2,800 high school students are the students most affected by the changes we spelled out earlier.

That’s why LCPS is asking Lenoir County and its board of commissioners to increase the district’s funding by $300,000 — the amount we need to bring digital learning to our high schools. That’s an increase of county money to the county’s public schools of about 3 percent — or about $107 for each high school student. We say they’re worth it.