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How North Carolina is Planning for a Digital Learning Future

  • December 19, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solution Architect

North Carolina Becomes a Leader

Over the past several years, North Carolina has become a national leader in K-12 digital planning. In 2005-06, NC State University’s Center for Urban Affairs and Community Services enabled the development, delivery, and reporting of online assessments, and the North Carolina Virtual Public School has offered online courses since 2007 and has grown virtual learning opportunities statewide.

More recently, state legislative actions and funding programs have prepared K-12 educators for a new digital learning environment and have put in place funding and process to connect its schools with high-speed bandwidth access to the internet. Initiatives in connectivity, cloud computing, and other areas have helped secure broadband access, systems, software, and other resources for K-12 districts and schools. The state has ramped up professional development programs in virtual and blended learning as well.

Digital Planning Requires Comprehensive Survey Process

In June of 2014, the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University was charged with developing a state Digital Learning Plan (DLP). It studied all 100 counties, including 18 “deep dive” districts, using 25 staff members and more than 160 interviews. Data was collected in three phases: known historical data on wireless infrastructure, device deployment, and other areas was organized and analyzed; new data was collected and analyzed via interviews, focus groups, observations, and surveys; and all data and findings were then synthesized to inform final DLP recommendations.

The result was that about one in five counties assessed their public K-12 systems as being very early in the digital planning stages, while only one in 16 counties considered themselves in advanced planning. Most reported being somewhere in between. Charter schools surveyed showed a similar distribution in terms of digital readiness.

Many counties surveyed reported that they did not yet have adequate access to ed tech nor sufficient technology training for teachers to leverage modern digital education methods. Nearly 700 districts surveyed offered 1:1 device programs in at least one school at the time of survey, yet only 10 districts served the needs of every student in their districts with 1:1 programs.

Creating Concrete, Aggressive Goals and Benchmarks

In 2015, after analyzing the study, researchers at the Friday Institute made several recommendations, goals, and benchmarks. The first major recommendation centers around internet network and access. The NCDLP calls for all schools in North Carolina to have sufficient network capacity to fully support digital learning in every classroom and workspace by 2018 at the latest.

In order to keep networks functioning once installed, it adds a goal of making sustainable funding and processes available to all K-12 districts. Beyond the classroom, the NCDLP calls for all students in the state to also have internet access available at home or in their communities.

The NCDLP additionally calls for training all working teachers in the state to the point where they are prepared to deploy digital learning effectively in the classroom. All state teacher training degree programs should prepare all future graduates to teach in the new digital environment as well. Finally, the NCDLP sets a goal for all superintendents, principals, and other leaders to be professionally developed to manage and lead these new types of learning and schools.

Budgetary Considerations Examined and Discussed

Investigators for the NCDLP found that the federal E-rate program defrays two-thirds of the cost of infrastructure improvements to schools in state. The remaining cost to districts for infrastructure is estimated at $20 per student.

Device acquisition and issue to all in-state students was estimated at approximately $80 to $100 per student, depending on whether K-4 students are included. Some funding is available through Title I and other federal and local grants.

Digital content costs in North Carolina fall entirely to the districts. These are estimated at $60 per student, which is considered higher than provisioned for in-state budgets. The state should, if possible, establish a statewide cooperative procurement service for all K-12 educational networks, devices, and digital content.

Physical Infrastructure

The NCDLP makes a strong recommendation and goal that all districts proactively build out and maintain physical infrastructure. Increased funding must be allocated to reflect the increased profile of digital networks, devices, content, and support. Budgets must plan for increasing bandwidth demands and the associated increased computing demands of cloud-based filtering technologies, as well as for replacing outdated equipment. Increased technical and engineering support manpower must be funded and made available to districts statewide as well.

The State’s Necessary Advisory Function

The NCDLP stresses that the state should provide robust guidance to districts on network and device acquisition and support. This should include local guidance on mobile device management, privacy issues, backup systems, and antivirus and security systems.

Additionally, the state should educate district leaders and educators about technical considerations such as screen size and resolution, audio and video input and output, Wi-Fi standards, drives, memory, USB connectivity, and various operating-system platforms. When it comes to actually obtaining these resources, the state should obtain clarity from vendors on which softwares can be opted into or out of off the shelf in state-purchased or locally-purchased systems.

Privacy Concerns

Districts should provide completely transparent information to parents about which services are hosting student data and what types of data are being collected, stored, and transferred. One aspect of this indicates that districts must directly and publicly address any policies on the use of student data where advertiser-supported services are concerned. To help facilitate this communication, larger districts must also designate Chief Privacy Officers to provide guidance in security issues.

To ensure that data is being properly safeguarded, all districts must establish policies, planning, and training for the new deployment of cloud-based systems. Vendors must allow compliance and security verification checks by the state at any time, and new contract language with vendors must address the integrity, protection, and confidentiality of personally identifiable student data. Data encryption by vendors must be robust, and district data must be destroyed by vendors upon the date of contract expiration or termination.

Takeaway: Solid planning and concerted effort can make digital education a reality in states and local districts. The NCDLP is an excellent guide. Its road map can be adapted and tailored by other states and districts to best reflect their individual goals and needs.


1. “North Carolina Digital Learning Plan” Friday Institute. September 2015.