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In its final report to the General Assembly, the interim committee on digital learning called on lawmakers to initiate the shift from hardbound to digital textbooks and to implement other measures that will ensure North Carolina public schools are, in fact, providing students with a 21st century education.

In addition to the transition from bound books to e-books, the committee recommended the use of lottery funds for digital learning needs and the creation of a new “digital competency” standard that teachers and administrators would have to meet to get their credentials.

“We truly have set North Carolina on a new path forward into, as we say, the 21st century,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union and co-chair of the committee. “This is important work. It does not end here. All we’ve done is . . . (identify) the direction in which the ship should go at some point, so lots of work ahead.”

Like other interim education committees this week, the digital learning panel sidestepped the one or two issues destined to create controversy. In this case, the issue was virtual charter schools.

Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, pointedly noted the omission but there was no other discussion about the possibility of allowing virtual charters to become a part of North Carolina’s school choice landscape.

Criticized in other states for providing a lackluster form of education, virtual charters have met with resistance in North Carolina. A superior court judge effectively blocked an educational company called N.C. Learns from opening a virtual charter school earlier this year, a move supported by school boards across the state and the N.C. Justice Center.

“We hope,” said Katherine Joyce, assistant director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, that “the committee’s decision not to recommend authorizing a virtual charter school indicates an awareness of the concerns surrounding that proposal and all the unanswered questions that need investigation before the state moves in that direction.”

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The state’s textbook warehouse, already rather empty due to budget cuts, could become even more vacuous if lawmakers follow through with a recommendation to substantially shift textbook funding from hardbound tomes to e-books.

The issue is likely to be discussed this week when the digital learning committee releases its recommendations for the upcoming legislative session. A draft of those recommendations calls for the General Assembly “to transition funding for textbooks to funding for digital textbooks and instructional resources.”

So far, the transition to online learning has taken place on a piecemeal basis both nationally and throughout the state. Maine, for example, has implemented a shift toward digital textbooks coupled with a policy that provides all seventh and eighth graders and half of the state’s high school students with a laptop.

In North Carolina, Mooresville Graded School District in Iredell County went completely digital 3 ½ years ago in grades four through 12, and the governor’s office recently recognized four high schools and six school systems — Mooresville, Cherokee, Rutherford, and Granville, among others — for their use of classroom technology and digital learning.

The legislative recommendation, however, could make digital learning a much more common practice in North Carolina – a practice that also raises concerns about the so-called digital divide.

While 81 percent of the state’s households have a computer and 80 percent have access to the Internet, there is a large discrepancy between the haves and have-nots.

According to a 2011 NC Broadband report, only 52 percent of households with an annual income under $15,000 have a computer, and 50 percent have access to the Internet. Among those earning $15,000 to $24,999 a year, 62 percent have a computer and 62 percent have Internet access.