With dynamic digital content and personalized learning, a district embraces transition.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Jeff McCoy has reason to smile. Anyone with a big purpose, an inclusive vision, and who is making great headway with plenty of help from others would be smiling, too. He started his career in Greenville County schools at Greer Middle School in 2000. He also served in the role of International Baccalaureate Coordinator at Greer Middle School until moving to the Central Office as an Instructional Technology Specialist. He has served various roles in the district including Distance Learning Coordinator, Director of Instructional Technology, and Director of Academic Innovation and Technology. Now Interim Associate Superintendent for Academics, he earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and his Master’s Degree in Education Technology with a focus on leadership.
Providing students with a high-quality education should be a moral imperative for every citizen in our country.
Greenville County Schools is the largest school district in South Carolina, serving 76,000 students over 800 square miles. Greenville County Schools is recognized as a school district of excellence and was awarded district-wide National Accreditation from the AdvancED Accreditation Commission. Multiple magnet and special focus schools provide students with various opportunities for students to pursue their interests and passions. Fifteen percent of the population in Greenville County Schools takes advantage of school choice. “Greenville is fortunate to have an active community and boasts partnerships with businesses who are heavily invested in our successful school system,” adds Jeff. Here, he answers questions about education, technology, and the state of education today.
Your district is transitioning from using hardcopy textbooks as a core instructional resource to using dynamic digital content as the core instructional resource. Could you describe this transition in your school system?
Jeff: Greenville began transitioning to more dynamic digital content several years ago. For the past 10 years, the Board of Trustees and District Administration have supported and funded technology in our schools. As teachers became more comfortable with technology, they began looking for digital resources beyond the traditional textbook to meet the needs of their students. As a result, Greenville formed a partnership with Discovery Education over 10 years ago that has evolved into a strong relationship resulting in not only dynamic digital content that engages students, but also high quality professional development to train teacher leaders how best meet the needs and interests of their students in an increasingly digital age. These lead technology teachers in turn offer professional development to their peers and open their classrooms up as learning labs to provide Professional Development. We know that the most effective professional development is provided by teachers, to teachers. Change is always hard, but true to form, Greenville County teachers embraced the transition and have continued to move digital learning to new levels. Greenville recently authorized a personalized learning initiative, which will put a Chromebook in the hands of every student in grades 3-12. Ten schools received Chromebooks this year and another 25 will receive them next year. Full implementation for all students in grades 3-12 will be realized in 2019-2020.
How has teaching and learning changed?
Jeff: Dramatic shifts in the teaching and learning process must occur if true digital learning is to be realized. The ‘personalized learning schools’ receive professional development in order to help teachers learn new ways of teaching in the digital age. There is a variety of professional development offered based on the needs and levels of the teachers. The goal is to continue to push teachers to the higher levels of technology integration and Greenville uses SAMR model to help teachers evaluate technology integration. While SAMR is focused on technology integration, as teachers move up the SAMR scale, the rigor of their lessons and content also increases to meet those higher levels of technology integration. We have seen a shift to Flipped Classroom models, project based learning and more hands-on, inquiry based learning as a result of the focus on personalized learning using engaging digital content. Greenville’s personalized learning vision is for instruction to be (1) paced to student learning needs, (2) tailored to the learning preferences of students (3) tailored to specific interests of different learners, and (4) co-designed by students to set learning goals, planning learning paths, tracking progress and demonstrating learning. While this vision for personalized learning is not yet realized fully in every classroom, as personalized learning spreads and teachers become more comfortable teaching in a digital world, we expect this vision to become more of a reality.
Personalized Vision. Greenville’s personalized learning vision is for instruction to be:
(1) paced to student learning needs,
(2) tailored to the learning preferences of students
(3) tailored to specific interests of different learners, and
(4) co-designed by students to set learning goals, planning learning paths, tracking progress and demonstrating learning.
SOURCE: Jeff McCoy, Greenville County Schools
What was the catalyst for this transition to digital textbooks?
Jeff: Over the last several years, Gallup has released the student engagement poll. This poll conducted across the county reveals a disturbing trend. In the most recent poll, the percent of students engaged drops significantly from 5th grade (75 percent engaged) to 12th grade (34 percent engaged). This trend was one we saw in Greenville County 8-10 years ago as we struggled to keep pace with students who were immersed in a digital age. That began the transformation in our schools and classrooms. Engagement is still something we are focused on today. We want our students to be passionate about learning and we recognize that we have to engage them in the ways they learn best. The professional development that teachers get prior to implementing personalized learning through the district and Discovery Education is heavily focused on using best practice strategies that engage students through digital tools and content. We know academically that students who are more engaged in learning perform at higher levels than those disengaged. Dynamic Digital textbooks serve as a learning tool for students at a level that traditional textbooks cannot. The digital textbooks that Greenville County seeks to put in our classrooms are not only engaging for students, but also dynamic in the sense that they provide feedback as students learn. In the world of “digital textbooks” we quickly realized that we needed more than just a PDF of the traditional textbook. We wanted digital textbooks that would interact with the students and help them learn content at level a traditional textbook could not do. The Discovery Education Techbook series provide the type of resource that takes learning from a static experience to a more dynamic experience because of the way they are able to interact with it.
I understand the Greenville County Schools is part of a wave of South Carolina Schools making this digital transition. Can you describe this trend in South Carolina?
Jeff: South Carolina as a whole is committed to the digital transition and several requirements are in place to ensure that happens by 2020. However, as this trend continues in South Carolina and across the country, it is important for school districts to develop their vision for their digital transitions. “Digital Textbook” is a buzzword currently that means everything from a PDF of the traditional textbook to an interactive textbook that is fully immersive and engaging. It is important for districts to understand exactly what they want and what will benefit their students the most. South Carolina is making great strides towards their digital transition and should be commended as one of the leaders in the country for this effort. It is up to the districts to refine that state vision to ensure that the needs of their students are being met and the best possible resources are being chosen to carry out the vision for their digital transformation. When a state decides to move this direction, great investments must be made in ensure that ALL districts and students have the bandwidth to access these digital tools. South Carolina has invested in upgrading bandwidth and closing the Digital Divide over the last several years. While we have a ways to go, we are heading in the right direction.
What, in your opinion is driving the transition to dynamic digital learning environments in South Carolina?
Jeff: I believe a large part of it has to do with equity. Greenville has been a leader in technology and digital learning for many years alongside many other districts in our state and nation. However, other districts that may not have the resources were left behind in that digital transformation. I believe South Carolina believes that digital learning is beneficial for all students and a high quality education using the latest best practices should be afforded to every child regardless of zip code or circumstance of life. I commend the state for their focus on providing dollars and resources to help close the digital divide for districts and students. We must not rest on those achievements, but continue to push forward until that Digital Divide ceases to exist. For Greenville, set in the heart of big business and industry, the transition is also being driven by companies and parents. Most people today recognize that regardless of the career students choose for their life, technology is going to be a huge part of their job. While we certainly teach students the basics, we now have to teach them how to interact with technology in a productive manner to accomplish tasks and be successful. These soft skills are necessary for success and something our business community needs in the workers they hire. South Carolina has led this focus on soft skills through TransformSC (http://sccompetes.org/transformsc/). TransformSC released the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate, which defines what students today need to have in order to be successful. TransformSC is a network of 55 schools and 23 districts focused on transforming public education. Immersing students into a dynamic digital learning environment is one of the ways we can engage students and prepare them for the world they will not only live in, but also work in every day. I believe the incredible network of district leaders across the state is driving the digital transformation we are now experiencing.
How can state and local policymakers better support school districts like yours as you make the digital transition?
Jeff: State and local policymakers have a vested interest in making sure students receive the best possible education. In the world we live in today, we battle engaging students because of the digital world they live in. We as educators and state and local policymakers must realize that we are no longer educating students in the factory model where every child receives the same education. Digital learning has the ability to personalize learning for students in a way that has never been possible before. This incredible opportunity allows students to pursue their passions and interests so they are ready to enter into a career and/or college when they graduate from school. If our job as educators is to prepare students for future careers, we must do so in the environment they are going to be immersed in every day. Providing students with real world experiences, dynamic digital content and a wealth of digital resources will prepare them for success in their future. Digital resources and digital textbooks are not cheap. When making the decision to transition to a digital learning environment, money must be budgeted. State and local policymakers can help by providing resources to school districts. Sadly, too often public education is not funded at the levels needed which ultimately short changes our students.
Do you have any advice for school leaders seeking to make this transition in their own districts?
Jeff: Network and research! Reach out to those who have already done it and learn from their mistakes and successes. When Greenville began their transition ten years ago, few districts were making the transition and it was hard to find those districts to network with around digital transformation. Today, networks are set up all over the country and there are organizations that specifically exist to help districts network and learn from each other. I belong to the RTM Business Group, which puts on the K12 Congress for Chief Academic Officers and Chief Information Officers two times a year. I network with the brightest minds across the country and learn from them every time we are together. This network has been invaluable for me as a leader in my district. Bringing together the Academic and Technology departments together is critical for success. Both must understand the vision and work together to ensure that the vision is being carried out. There has to be a deep level of collaboration across all district departments for a meaningful and successful transition to occur. This transition must also start from the top. The district leadership team must be the drivers of the digital transformation. Our Superintendent not only supports personalized learning and the digital transformation, but is actively involved in ensuring its success. All members of our executive team understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. Having this common vision is critical. Our Board of Trustees is also fully supportive of our transformation, which is another critical factor for success. We rely on them to allocate resources to ensure we can implement at the level needed and they support us on multiple fronts to ensure success.
What in your opinion from what you have observed, is the overall state of education in America?
Jeff: I am fortunate to work with some of the most talented teachers and administrators in the country. Because of my work with the K12 Congress, I’m amazed every time I meet with my colleagues around the country. I’m encouraged by the incredible work they are doing to educate and prepare students for future college and careers. Many times, they are doing this in spite of political undermining of public education. Public education is many times caught up in politics when in actuality, regardless of politics, our country should recognize that education is the key to our future success. I’m encouraged in my work around the country because I don’t see the sad state of education that opponents of public education like to paint. While those cases certainly exist, I see teachers working hard every day to educate students so they have the best possible chance at life. I see district and school leadership implementing innovative strategies and learning models that pull those students about to drop out back into the classroom. I see business and community leaders invested in their schools, supporting their schools, and playing an active role in the education of students. Regardless of whether they have children or not, they recognize that educating children is what preserves our future. Do we have a lot of work to do in education? Absolutely. We have to fight until every child has a high quality education regardless of where they live. Your zip code should never determine your success. Providing students with a high-quality education should be a moral imperative for every citizen in our country. High-quality education comes with a price and our politicians make education funding a priority if we are going to remain on top as a global leader.
What opportunity does technology represent in not merely digitizing, but transforming the learning experience?
Jeff: Some of my colleagues will disagree with this statement, but technology has made wide-scale personalized learning possible. While personalized learning is possible without technology, it’s not possible (in my opinion) with the number of students assigned to teachers without the use of technology. There are various types of digital learning around the country. Everything from blended learning, flipped classrooms, and personalized learning exists in various forms. Regardless of the type of digital learning a district is implementing, the critical component is having a vision for how the technology is being used. Unfortunately, in the early days of “one-to-one” initiatives, devices were handed out with little training and no real vision for what to do with the devices. Technology integration models and frameworks like SAMR help educators understand and evolve with technology integration. While it’s acceptable in the first few months or year for teachers to stay on the substitution level while they learn, leaders must provide support to help move them to the higher levels of transformational integration. Ideally, you want the technology to be a transformational tool, but without proper training and support, it will simply be an expensive substitution to traditional methods. Technology has the ability to help transform learning, but it is important to realize it is simply a tool. The real power in transformational learning occurs with the teacher and their ability to engage students and provide them with high quality, rigorous instruction.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]