iPads for everyone: accelerating our digital learning initiative

One of the odd things about the game the Baltimore Orioles played Wednesday, other than the fact that the Camden Yards park was completely empty of spectators, was how sharp the crack of the bat sounded and how the home run that followed it was met with absolute silence. There’s a vague similarity between that rupture in the cause-effect continuum and the game-changing announcement made at Monday night’s meeting of the Lenoir County Board of Education. Like a well-hit ball, the news that LCPS plans to accelerate its digital learning initiative certainly deserves an enthusiastic roar from the crowd, instead of falling into metaphorically empty seats.

As you may know — as you should know or as you surely know if you’re a reader of this blog — LCPS embarked on a digital learning initiative early this school year when it equipped all teachers in the system with iPads and MacBooks and distributed iPads to all 4,300 students in our elementary schools. Of course, the prep work began many months before with planning, budgeting and professional development for teachers; but the most easily identifiable sign of its progress came when K-5 students proudly and happily received their iPads.

We’re about to do it again, only faster.

The second year of what we call iLCPS — for Individualized Learning Creates Personal Success — was originally scheduled for expansion into middle schools. That’s still going to happen next school year. But the big news, the news announced Monday night, concerns what else is going to happen in the fall. We’ve developed a plan for taking iPads and digital learning not only into all our middle schools, but into all our high schools, as well.

That’s a full year ahead of schedule for our high schools. And that’s big. If things go according to plan, next fall all 9,200 students in this school district will be in classes where iPads are the principle learning tool and where teachers are employing the benefits of the digital world to make learning a process of discovery. Few school systems in North Carolina have any sort of K-12 technology program and none has a program as fully realized as the LCPS program can be in 2015-2016.

What made this possible? Aggressive negotiations with Apple produced some excellent pricing, and rethinking equipment requirements — some fewer MacBooks to share among classes in exchange for iPad keyboards — has nearly halved the original estimated cost for full K-12 implementation. Rochelle Middle School’s selection for a national grant, which will provide it with iPads and an impressive array of digital goodies directly from Apple, saves LCPS about $100,000 annually.

LCPS budgeted about $1 million for this year’s program in elementary schools — all state and federal money repurposed from other programs significantly altered by the introduction of iPads, like technology funds previously spent on school computer labs. Months ago, we identified the $1.4 million needed to fund digital learning in elementary and middle schools. For another $300,000 LCPS can take the program into our high schools.

In approving its planning budget Monday night, the district asked Lenoir County — more specifically, the county’s board of commissioners — to increase local funding to the district to include this $300,000. (See these news reports: http://tinyurl.com/opptulk and http://tinyurl.com/mhxfa2c)

As we said, no local money has yet gone into iLCPS and — now that the program has gotten off to such an excellent start in our elementary schools, now that people in this school district have proved capable of planning and implementing something so ambitious — it makes sense for Lenoir County to sign on as partner in this progress, to become a participant rather than a spectator in a program that shines a light not only on the school district but on the county at large.

What else in Lenoir County appears so future-oriented, so forward-thinking, so full of promise for our young residents? LCPS’s place in the forefront of digital learning is already being recognized among educators elsewhere and among technology providers. Visitors from other school districts come to Lenoir County to learn how we did it. Apple wants to help us keep doing it. As Dr. Steve Mazingo, LCPS superintendent, told the school board:

“We’re very excited about the possibility of finishing the project this year. We received some very aggressive pricing from Apple. They would like to see us finish it, too. They’ve been very impressed with what we’ve done with K-5 and are already starting to use us as a kind of showplace for how you do this.”

In Lenoir County, $300,000 is hardly chump change. It’s not easy to come by, but it’s also an investment in a program that works and in young people who deserve the best Lenoir County can give them. In terms of education, iLCPS is it. The quicker LCPS and Lenoir County’s commissioners can bring digital learning to more than 2,800 high school students, the quicker they take their place among their 21st-century peers.