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North Carolina School Engages Tech Generation With Digital Learning Tools

April 8, 2011 at 7:00 PM EDT
John Tulenko of Learning Matters, which produces education stories for the NewsHour, reports on a North Carolina school district switching from textbooks to all-digital learning materials.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, whither the textbook?

We have a report on a North Carolina school district that’s taken digital learning to a whole new level.

It comes from John Tulenko of Learning Matters, which produces education stories for the NewsHour.

JOHN TULENKO: Kids today spend a lot of time with technology, but for the most part, it’s happening outside school. That’s a concern to educators like Mark Edwards.

MARK EDWARDS, Mooresville, N.C., Schools superintendent: I think that’s a huge issue. I think that there’s a disconnect for a lot of kids when, in their world, they’re seeing a whole array of technology. And, you know, it might be with games, or it might be with music, or it might be with a variety of things in their home. Then they go to school, and it’s like going back in time.

JOHN TULENKO: But it’s different in the schools Edwards runs in Mooresville, N.C. Three years ago, the district began giving laptops to every student and teacher from high school down to fourth grade, some 5,000 computers in all.

While computers have been around in public schools for more than 20 years, this is one of the only districts in the country that’s gone entirely digital. It’s completely changed things for teachers like Kristin Faucher, whose class was studying sharks.

KRISTIN FAUCHER, teacher: They always talk about the big hook, the first five minutes of a lesson, to get the kids excited about what you’re going to learn. Well, I feel like, with the computers, you have the hook the whole time.

JOHN TULENKO: Faucher’s class was divided into three groups. One was watching videos online. Another was researching on the Internet. And these students were learning from an electronic textbook.

KRISTIN FAUCHER: You’re reaching auditory learners because they can listen to things on the computer. You know, you have got the visual learners. You have got the kinesthetic, where they have the interactive. You can reach, just by the computer, all learning styles.

JOHN TULENKO: Do you have more fun in school this way?

STUDENT: Mm-hmm.

STUDENT: Mm-hmm.

STUDENT: Yes.

JOHN TULENKO: Oh, that was a big response

(LAUGHTER)

STUDENT: I like it a lot.

JOHN TULENKO: What do you like about it?

STUDENT: I think we learned — I think I’m learning a lot more in fourth grade, because, if we have to have a question, it’s easier to get it from the computer than the dictionary.

JOHN TULENKO: In this district, almost everything’s online, from classwork to homework. And tests are graded by computer.

KRISTIN FAUCHER: Four years ago, if they took an assessment, you know, I would have to sit up at night and grade every paper. And, you know, it might be two or three days. And now it is immediate feedback. And I’m able to adapt my teaching and constantly change what I’m doing.

JOHN TULENKO: Computers have also changed Bethany Smith’s eighth grade English class.

BETHANY SMITH, teacher: I was a dictator, and I told the students, this is what I want you to do. And they would all follow along like robots and get it done. But I definitely have taken a step back.

How does that add to the poem?

JOHN TULENKO: Now, when Smith gives her students an assignment, they can choose to do it as a podcast, a digital comic strip, or even a movie.

This is a student’s book report.

STUDENT: I’m Maddie. I’m the oldest daughter. My younger sisters are Abby…

JOHN TULENKO: You know, but I can still see people saying, well, that’s great, but it’s not as good as a written paper in which they’d have to really spell out their ideas.

BETHANY SMITH: I would disagree. Essentially, they’re writing a paper without me saying, you’re writing a paper. Instead, I say, you need to write a script for your final product.

Their excitement is coming from their own work. They’re doing things. You’re not just filling their bucket up with information and saying, please remember this.

JOHN TULENKO: In another class, students were learning about mood and tone in poetry by setting it to music.

COMPUTER VOICE: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.

JOHN TULENKO: What do your parents say when you bring this kind of work home?

STUDENT: They were always saying how amazing it was, because they never had this kind of technology when they were kids.

CHRIS GAMMON, teacher: These students are ahead of me when it comes to technology in a lot of ways, and I can learn from them.

JOHN TULENKO: Chris Gammon’s students were using their laptops to do research online.

And when they’re going out online, what are you doing to make sure that the information they’re getting is correct?

CHRIS GAMMON: Well, one key thing is, we are able to find websites beforehand previewed by me. If they get to a point where they say, all right, I would like to go further, well, they do an excellent job of double-checking to make sure that is this credible and citing their sources and doing that stuff.

JOHN TULENKO: How often does it happen that you give them an assignment, and then, instead of doing that, they will be off playing a game or something?

(LAUGHTER)

CHRIS GAMMON: Oh, well, I think that it is a reality that that’s going to happen. But I’m also moving around constantly, because I need to see what’s on their screens and what they’re doing.

JOHN TULENKO: So, here’s something with some clearly inappropriate language.

Also watching is the middle school’s principal, Carrie Tulbert. From her computer, she can pull up the screen of any student.

CARRIE TULBERT, Mooresville Middle School: So, I have just randomly brought up four different desktops.

JOHN TULENKO: Wow.

CARRIE TULBERT: And I can click on one of these and bring it up. And she’s taking a test right now.

JOHN TULENKO: I — it looked like someone was playing a game.

CARRIE TULBERT: Let’s go back. This one, maybe.

JOHN TULENKO: Is this something to do with class, or is this just how to play pool better?

(LAUGHTER)

CARRIE TULBERT: It can be either one. I can send a message, and you can see it pop up on his screen. And he’s clicked back on to what his history page is that he’s supposed to be back on.

(LAUGHTER)

CARRIE TULBERT: So, he realizes that he was caught in the act, and then he’s stopped doing it.

JOHN TULENKO: To prevent students from going where they’re not supposed to, Mooresville also blocks sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.

To see how far the limits go, we did some searches of our own. Hate crime was blocked, gun control blocked, terrorism blocked.

Is there something strange about blocking information in a school that’s supposed to be an intellectually open place?

MARK EDWARDS: No, I really don’t think so, because I know that — and if you look at education over the years, and if we talk about, well, what was blocked before technology, they would say, well, a ton of information. Everything was blocked that wasn’t in this one book.

JOHN TULENKO: But even if computers do make more information available, across the country, it’s not done much to lift student performance. Most schools have had some Internet access for years, and yet achievement scored for the nation as a whole have barely budged.

Mark Edwards says it’s a question of commitment.

MARK EDWARDS: I have seen a lot of cases where we invested in technology, but it was minute and an hour a week. I think we have dabbled in it, rather than really diving in.

JOHN TULENKO: But just giving computers to everyone won’t work either. What counts more is planning. Mooresville gave its teachers their laptops a year in advance, along with ongoing training and a help desk in every school, investments that, in Mooresville, have begun paying off.

MARK EDWARDS: We have seen gains in content areas across the board. It’s early. Graduation rate has gone up fairly dramatically. Dropout rate has gone down. Suspension rates have dropped dramatically.

JOHN TULENKO: So, how much does all this cost? About $200 per student per year, but much of that money comes back. Edwards says laptops haven’t added to the district’s costs.

MARK EDWARDS: Most districts that have visited us have said: This is a financial model. We can do this.

JOHN TULENKO: Where have you saved?

MARK EDWARDS: Well, we have saved in terms of books, print costs, paper cost.

JOHN TULENKO: Do you buy textbooks anymore?

MARK EDWARDS: I will quote our high school principal: “Divorce proceedings are under way.”

JOHN TULENKO: In Edwards’ view, it’s schools’ responsibility to stay up to date.

MARK EDWARDS: You know, for years, we would tell students, we’re going to prepare you for your future, but their experience in school didn’t have much to do. I would say that would be the same to telling a student, we’re going to prepare you to drive a car, so get on this horse.

And it doesn’t — the kids say, well, that doesn’t make sense. I’m not going to be riding a horse. And, so, a lot of kids in school said, let’s get off that horse.

JOHN TULENKO: Soon, Edwards plans to bring his message to Washington, D.C., to testify about computers in schools.