Details Surface in Ambitious Digital Pilot Program

By Bill Dries

Toward the end of his run as Memphis City Schools superintendent, Kriner Cash talked of a switch in schools to digital devices for learning away from school.

It ultimately didn’t get very far in terms of details like how it would be paid for. And school board members at the time greeted the idea of giving students such devices to take home with silence.

Soon the vacuum was filled with the coming merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

Tommylia Brown, from left, Terrika Brooks and Nijahraia Wynn use iPads to work on math and reading activities with teacher Comeshia Williams at Northaven Elementary School.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The idea surfaced with a lot more specifics this week and a still-forming plan to launch “blended learning” in 16 Shelby County Schools in the school year that begins this August.

Training for teachers in those schools would begin as early as June with training for parents in May and a test run with students as well over the summer to work out the bugs.

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson and his staff outlined details of the pilot program Tuesday, Jan. 21, at a school board work session in a conversation that was a mix of tech talk and aspirations.

Cleon Franklin, the principal of virtual schools in the school system’s department of innovation, said blended learning “marries traditional classroom teaching and the availability of an online curriculum to students 24/7.”

“The students that we teach are digital natives,” he said. “The same mentality is saturated into the work world. All of these companies no longer send the bulk of their employees out for training. It is expected that those employees will do that training virtually. … These devices are the new No. 2 pencil.”

But Franklin said the devices are part of a strategy.

“The device in this pilot is second fiddle,” he said. “What we want is a very rigorous digital curriculum that engages students, that steals time away from the time they would be on Facebook or outside playing tag. We want to push students to do more after-school hours.”

What is driving the change isn’t a general view of a digital future.

This is the last school year the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program will be the only measurement of student performance in Tennessee.

With the new school year, the state begins using a new test called PARCC – Partnership For Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. PARCC replaces TCAP for measuring student performance in English and mathematics. PARCC is a computer-based test.

“If kids can’t type and they don’t know how to use computers, they are doomed,” Hopson said.

Franklin agreed.

“The PARCC assessment is built with both teachers and students having a very keen mastery of the use and integration of technology,” he said.

Some details of the blended learning pilot including what kind of devices the pilot program will use are still to be decided. The schools haven’t been selected yet. But Hopson said earlier this month that he wants some of the schools that students would be transferred to, if their schools are closed next year, to be part of the pilot program.

Cost estimates range from $292 to $875 per device including curriculum as well as the ability to monitor what students are seeing and where the devices are at all times.

If a device was lost or stolen or otherwise tampered with, the schools system could track its location and even wipe it to make it useless for resale.

The wide range of cost estimates at this point is based on what other school systems of different sizes have paid.

Shelby County Schools would start with 12,000 devices and probably not buy them, but lease them for a three-year period.

First impressions from school board members included lots of questions about contingencies like what happens if a parent doesn’t want to sign to take responsibility for the device.

The school system is exploring using an existing fiber optics network that could save money on a school infrastructure. Students who don’t have Wi-Fi at home could have curriculum downloaded onto their devices at school. When they walk into the school’s Wi-Fi zone, the work they had done at home automatically would be loaded into the school’s system for their teachers to review.

School board member Shante Avant questioned whether the school district might save money it now spends on textbooks. Initially that won’t be the case, Franklin said. But over time the pilot program “lays the foundation for a 100 percent digital conversion.”