At North Iredell Middle earlier this week, what used to be a teacher’s nightmare – dozens of children in the hallway working in small groups, very little direct supervision – went off without a hitch, no arguing, no slacking off and only a couple unnecessary distractions.

“It was insane,” said Erin Walle, blended-learning coach at the school. “I got goose-bumps.”

But at this point, it’s not really a surprise. It’s more the norm.

Iredell-Statesville Schools’ middle and high schools have undergone a major culture shift this year, as the district has gone all-in on digital learning. And at this stage in the game, six months after full deployment of laptops, the level of comfort that teachers and students have with learning and interacting through technology is high and continuing to rise. 

On Friday, dubbed Digital Learning Day in I-SS, eighth-grade English students at East Iredell Middle went on a virtual field trip to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. Afterward, they collaborated and shared thoughts on an online blog. In another classroom, students in science class were using Skype with the honors biology teacher at North Iredell High, getting a lesson in what it’s going to take to succeed at the next level.

Back over at North Middle, a teacher was able to meet individually with students to set goals for the next two weeks, something that was made possible because the rest of the class was fine working on their own in small groups and on laptops.

“It’s showing a shift in the instructional practice in the teacher,” North Middle blended-learning coach Bill Brown said about what’s happening.

That shift, moving away from lecturing to allow students more control and freedom in their learning and assignments, is one that may become a model across the state.

Dan Maser, a research associate with the evaluation team at the Friday Institute, a North Carolina State University institution focused on educational innovation, visited I-SS on Friday to learn about how the district is using the resources from the Race to the Top grant that is now about halfway through its four-year life. He called it a “pretty impressive visit” and said the level of interest that students showed in their work left an imprint.

“Everybody was engaged,” said Maser. “They seemed comfortable, from the teachers to the students, using the devices with their learning.”

And while Maser hesitated to say that a laptop in the hands of every student was the direction the state should head, he did say that it seems to working well locally from what he saw.

“That is a model that we would be highly interested in looking at in detail to share out with the rest of the state,” Maser said about what I-SS is doing.

As prevalent as laptops are in I-SS these days, there are still plenty of times when they’re put away and textbooks are open. Several classes at North Middle on Friday were working directly out of the books.

They are a regular part of each day, though, but Walle said any notion that it’s all fun and games is simply wrong.

“It’s not just playing on computers,” she said. “It’s actually creating and collaborating.”

One sixth-grade math class at North Middle on Friday was watching videos on a projector that each student had made explaining how they solved a math problem. Afterwards, they critiqued each other, and it was obvious that the children enjoyed seeing each other and themselves on a big screen. 

“We get to use technology for educational stuff and not just for social (media),” North Middle student Gerardo Luevanos said about why he’d been enjoying his work more recently.

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