Feature                                                      Pages 20-24


Our Digital Conversion

The introduction of a 1-to-1 laptop initiative is only part of a sweeping districtwide commitment to the learning of every student


Imagine being part of a school district where children choose to come in early from recess to do schoolwork, a place where student engagement is so contagious it has overtaken the faculty and staff, a district where the focus is truly on every child every day.

Many would contend such an ideal culture simply doesn’t or can’t exist in today’s public schools. I would say they haven’t been to Mooresville, N.C.

While walking down a hallway at Mooresville Intermediate School not long ago, I suddenly heard a commotion behind me. I turned to see three young boys pushing through the back door into the school, running as fast as they could — an action that rekindled the principal in me. “Whoa, slow down, gentlemen! What is going on?” I asked.

In excited and urgent tones, they all spoke at once. The sum of their urgent explanation: “We have been monitoring earthquakes on, and we think one is about to happen! Can we go in our room and show you?”

Mark Edwards

We quickly moved into the nearby classroom, where one of the 6th graders opened up his laptop. He went to his bookmarks and clicked on, where he found a link to a map of Southeast Asia. One boy began explaining, “Each place that you see a light blinking …” But then all three boys yelled at the same time, “It’s happening right now!” They pointed to a light that had just started blinking.

The boys went on to explain that while tracking seismic activity in Southeast Asia in recent days, they had noticed an unusual amount of activity. They had permission from their teacher to depart early from recess — yes, recess — because they were confident based on earlier readings of the data that an earthquake was imminent. The boys stood there sweating and high-fiving amid “we saw it first” and “we knew it” comments.

All I could say was “wow!”

Vibrant Evidence
In more than 30 years of working in public education, I never had witnessed students voluntarily curtailing their recess or even the unbridled energy and excitement this trio had shown while learning about earthquakes. The boys went on to show me all around the website, and several times they said with exuberance, “This is the real deal!”

The rest of the class came filtering in, prompting the boys to share their exciting news with classmates while pointing to the still-blinking light on the laptop. “Darn it! I shoulda come in early,” grumbled one student about his missed opportunity. “That’s not fair!” said another. “Lucky!”

Once the students returned to their seats, the 6th-grade teacher, Maureen Tunnell explained how this was a really cool part of the North Carolina Standard Course of Study for Science before moving into a vibrant discussion about earthquakes, scientific data and what “real time” really means. As I said goodbye to the class, I lauded the dedication to learning of the three who had returned early from recess.

Moving on to another classroom, I realized I was as excited as the students. I knew I’d never forget that experience. We always hear about the need for relevance and active learning in our classrooms, along with calls for engagement and innovation. The earthquake science lesson captured all of those components.

We are seeing vibrant examples of transformative instruction regularly in the 5,500-student Mooresville Graded School District, located just north of Charlotte, N.C. At the heart of this classroom transformation is our digital conversion initiative.

Known officially as Mooresville’s 21st Century Digital Conversion, the project has placed a MacBook Air laptop computer in the hands of every 3rd through 12th grader and their teachers in the district over the past four years, with over 5,000 computers distributed. But we believe our recent academic successes have somewhat less to do with the use of technology than with a fundamental rethinking of teaching and learning districtwide. We’ve adopted curricular changes and raised our expectations for collaboration and ubiquitous use of data for all teachers.

Amid some concerns nationwide about the investment in and payoff of 1-to-1 laptop programs, Education Week in October 2011 saluted our school district’s major undertaking as “a model of how to do it right … in a community whose roots are more akin to Mayberry than the state’s Research Triangle region.”

A Roaming Conductor
In Mooresville, we have developed an instructional design that combines digital tools, creative pursuits, multivaried collaboration, discovery research, independence and cultural synergy — all focused toward student learning and academic achievement. Already, we are seeing encouraging signs of the gains. 


Creating Capacity to Apply Our Digital Tools

Since the launch of our initiative, the number of students receiving “proficient” ratings on state exams has increased 20 percentage points, and the number of schools meeting adequate yearly progress has increased from two to six. Last June’s graduation rate was 91 percent, compared to 77 percent four years earlier.

The question our staff is asked most often by visitors to the school district is this: “Is teaching easier using all digital resources?”

I believe most teachers in Mooresville would say absolutely not. Most say they are more effective, more successful, more excited about the kind of teaching they are doing, and that they are growing professionally and learning exponentially.

However, teaching in the digital conversion requires significant changes for individuals and teams with an expectation for everyone to be committed to growth and improvement. Teachers are expected to find relevant content and to share resources and practices through small-group collaboration. Success in the classroom depends more than ever on the talent, initiative and skills of the teacher.

Orchestrating several small working groups or stations requires a “roaming conductor” — a teacher who will deftly move among tables of students, listening and observing intently, then engaging as needed with groups or individual students. It’s a physical approach to teaching, but the benefits of proximity are truly significant and educationally healthier in many ways.

More students benefit from frequent individual direction by the teacher. This design clearly provides a natural means to differentiate and to foster significant student-driven work. Project RED (a major resource on 1-to-1 computing) researchers Tom Greaves and Jeanne Hayes, after classroom observations across the nation, noted that students in Mooresville “lean into their work.” There is a visible “leaning forward” by students because they are doing something active — researching, creating, writing and reading.

I refer to this observable behavior of our students as the “cognition ignition” factor. When students are engaged in their work and link a creative experience using audio, movies or research to the lesson, it literally builds a cognitive link, helping students understand what they are learning and why they are learning it.

Design Components
The instructional design of our 1-to-1 laptop initiative has several key elements.

COLLABORATION makes teaching and learning more like the world students will live in, so it makes great sense to design learning around content projects that must be achieved with individual and collaborative responsibility. Personal focus is an absolute power driver for student development and achievement. The abundant opportunities to personalize instruction strengthen teacher-student connections and blend well with other differentiation strategies.

STUDENT ENGAGEMENT is a vital element of the digital conversion. Research, formative assessments, projects and oral presentations are incorporated into daily assignments for students from 3rd through 12th grade.

CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION are current chargers on the “electric learning line” in our classrooms. As we observe students making things and discovering new places and people, we notice an evolving energy in classrooms that is exciting and productive for students and teachers.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT is vital to successful teaching. We have invested in every employee in the district to grow and improve. Professional growth is tightly connected to student success. Teachers who want to improve their practice demonstrate a willingness to be self-critical and accept they can and should improve.

Building a culture where adult learning is the norm is vitally important to our digital conversion. Our focus on individual and team skill development in using digital content and data is at the heart of our impressive student learning gains.

As we have raised the expectations, we are seeing our teachers being thoughtful about their work. Personal and team reflection on our experiences contributes to the refinement, enhancement and improvement of our work. When we reflect as colleagues, we build a culture of learners and community.

STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT is a major part of the Mooresville culture because it is the product of student learning and our teachers’ work. The use of student data provides us with timely information to focus on students’ learning needs. We developed a systemic way to align student performance data with instructional planning that allows precision with intervention, both for acceleration and remediation.

We include student performance goals in our district strategic plan, school improvement plans, department- and grade-level plans and individual teacher plans. Clear expectations for students and all employees are part of the culture of personal and professional responsibility. We use quarterly data meetings at each school to keep our team focus aligned with actual student progress and needs.

The capacity to use data has been a catalyst for a more precise awareness of how we are doing. Building the transparency and the reflective confidence to know and understand how to improve learning outcomes is the work of all involved. It takes time and does not come easily.

Pinpoint Instruction
We use various digital resources, such as online content, assessments, databases and search engines, for instruction. Our teachers have harnessed the power and precision of mapping formative data to both intervention and acceleration for students. We have a level of exacting, constant data that informs teaching at all times.

We have seen this level of precision result in efficiencies and a personal focus. Our students’ passage rate on the state’s end-of-course exam in biology has gone from 68 percent five years ago to 94 percent in 2011. Mooresville’s biology department uses formative online data and resources to great effect.

The significant return we derive from the systemic use and daily integration of data is a huge component of our digital conversion.

We have used the works of Michael Fullan, particularly All Systems Go, and Roland Barth, author of Learning by Heart, to develop our commitment to creating a culture of learners and leaders. Leadership development sessions take place throughout the year for grade-level and department chairs to build their capacity and effectiveness and contribute to a collegial culture.

School culture is a basic foundation of the digital conversion. As Terry Deal so clearly denotes in defining organizational culture, this relates to “how we treat each other and how we do things around here.”

At the heart of the culture in Mooresville are highly focused individual and team performance goals along with high expectations immersed in a caring and supportive environment. We can see and hear the impact of our work with students, staff and community in the results of what they are doing in classes every day. I am more excited now about the potential we have to meet our students’ needs than at any time in my 34-year career in education.

Moral Imperative
In Mooresville, we believe in Horace Mann’s vision of what public education should be. He called education “the great equalizer … the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

When a district has students with no access to technology at home, no access to libraries and limited educational opportunities, there is a moral imperative to level the playing field. That moral imperative is what drives the rationale behind our digital conversion — it allows us to close the digital divide, the opportunity divide and the hope divide among our students.

We also embrace the concept that we should prepare students for their future and not our past. Whether moving on to college, work, military or society in general, students need to know how to navigate the digital world we inhabit. What students are doing in school must be aligned with what they will do in the future.

When we create a culture of caring infused with teamwork and high expectations, focus our efforts to ensure the academic and personal success of every student and take full advantage of the power and relevance of digital resources, we can embrace this moral imperative. We are able to reach every child, every day.

Mark Edwards is superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District in Mooresville, N.C. E-mail:



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