21st century chalkboards

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 11, 2014

“The inventor of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not the greatest benefactors of mankind.”
The quote above was not aimed at the inventor of the personal computer or the calculator. It came from Josiah F. Bumstead (1797-1859) as he praised the invention of the chalkboard.
A couple of centuries have gone by since; dry-erase boards and white boards eventually followed. And now Rowan-Salisbury schools are on the verge of taking the next leap forward — laptops and iPads for every teacher and student. It is a bold and necessary plan.
The school board has approved a plan to allocate $12 million over three years to lease the digital devices, starting with laptops to be put in teachers’ hands next month. The price tag is a stunner, but Rowan-Salisbury has nearly 20,000 students and well over a thousand educators. Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody plans to shift funds to pay for the devices, doing away with some positions, changing others and anticipating a drop in spending on things like paper, printing and computer labs. Surely fewer textbooks would have to be bought as well.
County commissioners, who have to approve the deal, will have questions. This is a big dose of change to expect school personnel and taxpayers to swallow. No one likes change. And a great many of us expect the classrooms of today to operate like the ones we sat in decades ago, even though everything else in our lives has changed.
School technology is not a gimmick or a way to dazzle students any more than computers are provided to entertain employees in the workplace. Computers have become essential tools. Rare is the occupation that involves information but not technology — and schools are all about information.
Teachers face the biggest challenge as the culture of instruction changes along with the tools. They’ll have ideas about how the money and effort might be better spent. But Rowan-Salisbury needs a game changer to raise stubbornly low student performance.
In grades 3-8, reading and math scores in Rowan-Salisbury are about 10 percentage points lower than North Carolina’s state averages, which also leave something to be desired. North Carolina has a “reading problem,” as a judge overseeing the case of several poor counties recently said.
The Mooresville Graded School District has had great success with a conversion like the one Rowan-Salisbury proposes, turning students from passive listeners to active learners. Digital devices paired with the coaching of skilled teachers could be invaluable tools — perhaps even “among the best contributors to learning and science if not the greatest benefactors of mankind.”