EDITORIAL: Digital Learning

By NEMS Daily Journal

When the Tupelo Public School District announced in the fall of 2009 a first-in-the-state initiative to supply students in grades 6 through 12 with laptop computers, the reaction was excitement mixed with a bit of anxiety.
Creating a 21st century school environment by moving to digital-based learning is both a forward-looking innovation and a challenging change to implement, as Daily Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer’s stories in today’s paper underscore.
Teachers have to learn and adapt to new methods of teaching, many of them without much previous technology experience. Students have to learn what’s expected, and what’s not allowed, with their new learning tool. And parents have to get accustomed to a whole new way of looking at their children’s school experience while setting their own ground rules at home.
This first school year with the MacBooks has been a learning experience for everybody. Teachers, students and parents are all still finding their way, but the challenges of the early phases of such a groundbreaking change were to be expected. The lessons learned from the experiences of the first few months of the laptop initiative can help shape its future course for maximum effectiveness.
Clearly, there are exciting things going on with the laptops in and out of many classrooms in the Tupelo district. Teachers are finding that the new technology can enhance their effectiveness by increasing student engagement and providing more opportunities to reinforce the material being taught. Students have been able to be more active and creative in their classwork, which should increase retention of what they learn.
While there was some concern that laptops for all students might be more about the “wow-factor” than actual learning, what is happening should begin to help dispel that thinking. And the inevitable distractions the laptops presented for many students should decrease as expectations are enforced and novelty wears off.
Some teachers obviously are more skilled and resourceful at using the technology than others. It will be the responsibility of district administrators to ensure that faculty and principals work collaboratively to identify the best and most effective means of using the laptops and then expand those methods for the benefit of all students, not just the ones who happen to be taught by the teachers who “get it” early.
The district will also need to be guided by experience as to the best use of textbooks, books of literature and other traditional tools as part of the learning mix, even as it maximizes the new technology. The goal is not technology for technology’s sake, but improving academic performance through the means most likely to engage students who are natives of the digital age.
The proof will be in the pudding, and the pudding in this case will be a recognizable improvement in student academic achievement. This technology initiative comes on the heels of recent declines in test scores and an unacceptable academic ranking for Tupelo’s schools for two years in a row.
Superintendent Randy Shaver introduced the laptops as, first and foremost, a tool to improve student achievement, and it will certainly be fair after a reasonable time to judge the initiative’s effectiveness on that basis.
In the meantime, the bugs are being worked out of the system, and Tupelo can take pride that its schools are out front on an initiative that, if successful, others will surely emulate.