Shifting Gears

Mark Edwards bumps it into overdrive.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

credit-mooresville-mark-edwardsHis deep expertise in managing district-wide digital transitions, implementing successful 1-to-1 programs, designing effective professional development initiatives, and purposefully integrating digital content into classroom instruction will serve Mark Edwards well as he makes his own transition. The 38-year veteran of public education is now working with school systems around the globe to successfully implement even more digital transitions supporting the success of each learner. Having joined Discovery Education as Senior VP of Digital Learning, he’s now poised to positively influence the 30 million students and three million educators they serve worldwide. He previously served for nine years as Mooresville Graded School District’s superintendent in North Carolina. Under his leadership, the district was an early adopter of digital content as a core instructional resource, which helped drive dramatic increases in test scores, graduation rates and college readiness.

We are now in an era in which school leaders are not asking why, but rather how do we leverage digital content and educational technologies to transform teaching and learning.

Since 2007, the number of MGSD students testing proficient or advanced on state end-of-grade tests has increased by 16 percentage points from 73 percent to 89 percent, second best in the state of North Carolina despite being ranked 100th out of 115 districts in funding. Mark has received numerous awards and recognitions throughout his career. Featured on PBS, he has also briefed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the digital conversion and was asked to help launch Digital Promise at the White House. He is the author of Every Child, Every Day: A Digital Conversion Model for Student Achievement. His tireless work in transforming teaching and learning in Mooresville, combined with his efforts to support the work of the educators from around the globe who have visited the district to witness first-hand his teams’ impact on students, makes his move a smooth one. Pre-Mooresville, he served as dean for the University of Northern Alabama’s School of Education, and superintendent of Virginia’s Henrico Public Schools and Danville Public Schools. He holds a Ph.D. in education from Vanderbilt University, an M.Ed. in administration and supervision from Tennessee Technical University, and a B.S. in education from the University of Tennessee. In this exclusive EdTech Digest interview, we discuss digital conversions, scaling success, lessons learned, a brief history of how we got to now, and where we’re driving to with all this edtech.

Could you tell us about this decision—why’d you do it?

Mark: Absolutely. You know, living and working in the Mooresville Graded School District over the last nine years has been absolutely tremendous. I had the opportunity to work with a wonderful team of individuals within the district, tremendously supportive school boards, and a local community dedicated to supporting the growth and development of every child, every day. I am very proud of what was accomplished in Mooresville, and believe the new leadership at the district will continue the district’s success story. 

However, when I had the opportunity to join Discovery Education and the talented team CEO Bill Goodwyn has assembled, I felt it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Discovery Education has a fantastic vision for how dynamic digital content and job-embedded professional development can be combined to support all learners, and their tremendous scope and reach aligns completely with my personal goal of helping all school systems make the digital conversion. I am excited to be working with such passionate and capable colleagues! 

You’re nationally known for your work creating innovative digital learning environments in Mooresville—what will be key elements of the “Next Mooresville”? 

Mark: Great question. You know, as we think about scaling the digital conversion and helping all schools make the shift from print to digital, context is everything. No two districts are exactly alike, and each transition is different. However, I think there are a number of elements that will be found in the “Next Mooresville.”

First, that school system will have clearly articulated goals and a vision for how to meet them that is shared by community stakeholders. Next, that district will have a clear plan for aligning professional development, which will empower educators to effectively incorporate digital resources into classroom instruction, to those goals.

superintendent-edwards-talks-education-with-mhs-veteran-teacher-leaders-nancy-gardner-and-rod-powell-teachinginnc-at-mooresville-graded-school-district

Super Supportive. Superintendent Edwards talks transformation with veteran high school teacher leaders Nancy Gardner and Rod Powell.

In addition, a comprehensive content strategy will be present. The ability of a school system to provide all students access to high quality digital content accessible from all platforms and embedded into district scope and sequence documents is paramount, as is an access strategy for that content that is driven by educational goals. Finally, the next Mooresville will have a continuous feedback loop that enables it to course correct and evolve as needed.

Where those elements are followed, you’ll find school systems firmly on the path to successful digital transitions. 

During your tenure, hundreds of educators across the country, even the President visited your town, your example—seeing what they might learn or export. They learned plenty; what lessons did you learn from them?  

Mark: There were so many lessons that I learned from all the great folks who visited Mooresville. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was that many schools nationwide are doing tremendous work on their own digital transitions. We are no longer talking about pockets of excellence. Instead, today, from Washington State’s Highline Public Schools, to Colorado’s St. Vrain Valley School District, to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools just down to road from Mooresville, there are many, many rural, suburban, and urban school districts across the country that are successfully making this shift. The digital transition is now a nationwide movement.

What key edtech trends are you following?

Mark: Right now, I am watching closely how the OER movement develops. Yes, I would agree that OER can be a useful supplement to classroom lessons. However, I am skeptical of efforts to use OER as a core instructional resource. How do you ensure content is accurate, up to date, aligned to standards, and appropriate for classroom use? How do you ensure OER is delivered consistently? How do you scale professional development in an OER environment?

In many school districts, the expertise and resources to effectively use OER as a core instructional resource simply are not there. I was recently discussing OER with another educator who I respect very much, and in regards to OER, he said to me, “Mark, if I wanted to, I could buy on the internet everything I need to build a perfectly functioning computer. But why would I spend the time and resources I have to do that when it would be infinitely more efficient to purchase a computer?” I guess that sums up my thinking on OER at this time, but I will be following this trend closely.

What current edtech trend has staying power?

Mark: While not purely an edtech trend, I think the movement by school leaders to pair any digital transition with sustained, job-embedded professional development will endure. I think school administrators have seen how badly digital transitions can go when devices and content are thrust into teachers hands without the professional development needed to effectively integrate new resources and tools into instruction.  

In Every Child, Every Day, you lay out the basis of a digital conversion model for student achievement that other leaders in education can learn from. How will this message dovetail into your new role with Discovery?  

Mark: I think one of the many reasons I feel right at home here at Discovery Education is that the messages in Every Child, Every Day mesh completely with both Discovery’s corporate philosophy and partnership model.

In the short time I’ve been with the organization, I’ve found that everyone I’ve met is deeply committed to helping partner school districts create cultures of caring, building leadership capacity at all levels, effectively integrating digital content into teaching and learning, and creating student-centered learning environments that support the success of all students. For these reasons and more, Discovery Education is really a perfect fit for me personally. 

How do you feel about cloning Mark Edwards? Possible through a Discovery-supported “Superintendent School” helping young upstart superintendents-in-training replicate your successful actions, at least in digital transitions?

Mark: Well, I am not sure anyone would or should clone Mark Edwards, but certainly part of my role is to support school leaders nationwide as they go through their own transitions. Today, education is infinitely more complex than it was over 30 years ago when I entered the profession, and school leaders need a network of colleagues they can rely on for advice, honest feedback, and encouragement.

The great news is that the Discovery Education Community has for over 10 years connected educators at all levels across the country and around the world in a supportive learning environment that helps them improve their practice. I am looking forward to building on that tradition to further support aspiring superintendents and current superintendents as they undertake their own digital transitions.

Discovery now offers Science, Math, and Social Studies “Techbooks”. Three years ago when you won Superintendent of the Year, you didn’t necessarily have all these resources, but you saw a future with dynamic, multimodal content, and the acceleration of school districts’ digital transitions. Could you give us a whirlwind abbreviated tour and trace us through the past 10, 5 and 3 years with respect to increase and improvement of edtech offerings (not just Discovery, but hundreds of others as well)? What are your thoughts on this?

Mark: Well, I think ten years ago, as more and more schools became connected to high speed internet, many of us in education began to see the potential for disrupting education. However, in 2009, when Discovery Education’s Basal Science Service, the forerunner of today’s Techbook series, was approved for statewide use through that state’s textbook adoption process, for me anyway, the potential for disrupting education became much more real.

Alongside these key developments was the emergence of today’s tech-savvy student and an explosion, not just in content delivery systems, but technological resources that actually let students interact with content in meaningful ways. I think when you put all these things together, all the elements became present to really begin shifting K-12 education into the future. 

Regarding edtech offerings, would you agree we’ve never had it so good? However, with a glut of resources, what sort of mindset or focus does today’s superintendent need in approaching technology integration, and implementation of smart choices, to avoid a crash-and-burn dispersal and ensure a powerful, fast-driving success no matter their budget resources?  

Mark: Yes, I’d agree that we are living in education’s most exciting era. I think for today’s superintendents making the digital transition, the key to success lies in the vision for change. If you use a vision for change as your touchstone for making decisions and keep the goals you are trying to achieve in the forefront of the minds of the many stakeholders you depend on, your digital transition will ultimately be a success. That is not to say there will not be bumps in the road. Rest assured, that will happen. But, as long as a superintendent and other district leaders uses a shared vision for change as their North Star and make subsequent decisions based on realizing that vision, I believe their transition will ultimately be successful. 

Schools depend on companies, large and small, established corporations as well as scrappy startups pushing forth innovative apps, to find a way forward. Is there trouble involved here? Ethical guidelines? How do you address the influence of business interests, even big foundation interests, in the shaping of education today? (Are there examples of good and bad ways forward?)  

Mark: Well, remember, before the advent of modern education technologies, schools have relied on corporations large and small to find a way forward. From buses to food services to school furniture, schools have for years relied on businesses for critical resources and support, so in my opinion, I really don’t see anything new in that respect.

When I think of any sort of school/business or foundation relationship, for me, it comes down to alignment. Does my potential partner share my goals? Is my partner fundamentally aligned to my efforts to serve my students? When that type of alignment is present, a symbiotic relationship is created in which the partner succeeds only when the school district succeeds.

In my opinion, if school leaders keep partner alignment at the forefront of their thinking, they will build successful relationships that will drive forward successful initiatives. 

Tell us something about the future of education you are really excited about? 

Mark: I am excited about the continuation of the digital transition. We are now in an era in which school leaders are not asking why, but rather how do we leverage digital content and educational technologies to transform teaching and learning. New models for success are growing in school systems across the country and those districts are inspiring others. I am excited to see this movement continue to unfold and grow.

You’re remaining in Mooresville, your son is at the high school. Fair to say you value a sense of place? What lessons have you learned from racing teams or drivers that have parallels into your field of edtech, education? 

Mark: Many Mooresville students and staff have parents or relatives that work in the race industry, and it is abundantly clear that practice, teamwork, and the effective use of data and technology are the heart and soul of champion race teams. The same is true for champion schools and school districts. When school districts combine great teams of people dedicated to serving students with sustained professional development, technology, and data, an environment for success is created.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. He oversees the annual EdTech Digest Awards Recognition Program featuring Cool Tool, Leadership, and Trendsetter awards. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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