Hardware glitches delay, but don’t derail, Guilford County’s $30 million plan to personalize learning. Here’s how the district recovered from an early setback.
By Dennis Pierce
In Lauren Smith’s sixth-grade math class in Greensboro, North Carolina, students who are ready to advance to a new topic aren’t held back by those who need more time. And students who need extra time to learn aren’t dragged ahead before they understand a concept.
Smith uses an app called Lensoo to create self-paced math lessons for her Jackson Middle School students. She records video lessons for each topic, and her students watch the videos, practice their skills, and take an assessment that shows whether they have mastered the content. While her students are completing these activities, she walks around the room, offering help and individual attention as needed. Students can also go back and watch the videos as many times as they want, and they can move on to various enrichment activities if they score high enough on the assessments.
“The kids are excited,” she says in a video about her new style of instruction. “They’re eager. They come in and they know exactly what they have to do.” And it seems to be paying off, with average test scores rising by an average of 10 percentage points in her classes. “When I gave them their tests back,” she proclaims, “I had kids’ jaws drop.”
Smith’s class is part of a new district-wide effort in the Guilford County Schools (GCS) to transform teaching and learning through personalized instruction, using tablet computers from Amplify. But the program almost never got off the ground.
Beset by early problems that included broken screens and melted chargers in the fall of 2013, Guilford County suspended its $30 million educational technology initiative just a few months in.
For most school districts, such a high-profile setback would have spelled the end of the program. But not Guilford County. “We believed in what we were doing,” says chief of staff Nora Carr, who notes that community support for the initiative’s goals remains high.
Determined to get it right, Guilford County officials worked with Amplify to make key changes to the program. Amplify found another manufacturer for its tablets and strengthened the devices’ screens. The company also agreed to place one support technician in each building during the program’s initial reboot.
As a result of these efforts, Guilford County is now moving forward again with its personalized learning program. This past fall, the district deployed more than 17,000 redesigned tablets to its middle school students, and teachers are in the early stages of reshaping their instruction.
Guilford County’s experience is a stark reminder that while integrating technology into instruction has its potential pitfalls, when a school district and its vendors are united by a common purpose, it’s possible to overcome these challenges to achieve real success.
Fostering Instructional Change
Funded by a $30 million Race to the Top grant in 2012, Guilford County’s PACE (Personalized Achievement, Curriculum, and Environment) program aims to personalize learning by providing a tablet computer to every middle school student, as well as training and support to staff, students, and their families.
“Kids are wired to want to learn,” says Robin Britt, director of PACE. “If we can get them working at their own level on something that interests them, then they will be engaged.”
To help teachers implement personalized learning, Guilford County assigns a PLC to each middle school. (Britt was a personalized learning coordinator (PLC) when the project began in 2013.) Each of the district’s PLCs is responsible for two schools.
“Essentially, personalized learning is a new buzz phrase for an old practice,” says Britt, who explains that personalized learning relies on “best practices that have evolved over the long history of education: everything from knowing your students’ interests…and how those influence their learning to doing a good job of assessing students along the way, so you know what they need to learn.”
Because personalized learning will look different in every classroom, Guilford County focused its training on identifying the practices that every teacher should integrate—and then exploring some of the possible strategies for achieving these.
“We want to see assessment happening all the time,” Britt says. “We want to see teachers moving from whole group instruction to differentiation and small group instruction—and from that to individualized learning, where every student is moving at his own pace.”
The training was an integral piece of the program, but what garnered the most attention were the tablets.
“It’s really an instructional change initiative, one piece of which is the integration of technology,” Britt says. “We’re trying to use [technology] as a lever to create instructional change in our middle schools.”
In mid-2013, Guilford County entered into a $16 million service contract with Amplify to provide the tablets. A key reason was that Amplify’s tablets come with a mobile device management system to make deployment easier.
“We wanted a turnkey solution, and Amplify offered that,” says Carr, Guilford’s chief of staff.
But just a few months into deployment, problems with the devices began to surface. Screens were cracking or chipping, and chargers were overheating. When a charger actually melted in a student’s home, it became a safety concern—and district officials decided to suspend the program immediately.
Addressing Problems Head On
When Guilford County suspended its tablet program in October 2013 district officials notified all middle school principals and parents, and they also held a press conference to announce their decision.
“Many districts might try to keep the news to themselves and hope it doesn’t get out,” Carr says. But transparency is one of Guilford County’s core values, and so district officials refused to hide from the news. “We just ripped the Band-Aid off,” Carr adds.
However, Guilford County leaders remained committed to the program and its goals, and they immediately began working with Amplify to explore remedies.
Amplify, too, had a vested interest in making sure the project was a success: Guilford County was the company’s largest and most visible customer.
“It was in everybody’s best interest to make this program work,” says Jill Wilson, general counsel for the district. She and Amplify executives worked “days and weekends” negotiating a solution that would enable the program to continue.
For starters, Amplify cut ties with its original tablet maker and chose another manufacturer. The company also insisted on the use of Corning Gorilla Glass, a more durable and damage-resistant material, for its tablet screens.
Amplify also agreed to reimburse Guilford County more than $850,000 for lost staff time, training, and other expenses incurred during the 2013-14 school year. To make up for that lost year, the company added another year to the end of its contract with the district at no additional charge.
“We owed that to the district,” says Justin Hamilton, former chief of staff for Amplify and founder of the public relations firm Justin Hamilton Solutions. “We wanted to make sure they got everything that was promised.”
Guilford County had planned to roll out the tablets in phases, but because of the lost year, this schedule was accelerated during the 2014-15 school year. To ensure a smooth transition, Amplify agreed to supply a support service employee at each of the schools receiving tablets for 90 days.
Throughout the negotiations, the district continued to keep the community informed. This transparency was a key factor in maintaining stakeholders’ trust and support.
Guilford County conducts a public opinion poll each year to learn what its stakeholders are thinking. “I thought our numbers would tank last year” after the district’s technology troubles, Carr says. In fact, they improved: Eighty-two percent of respondents said they thought the district was doing a good job—up from 80 percent in 2013.
Having addressed the problems with its devices, Guilford County launched version 2.0 of the program this year. More than 17,000 redesigned tablets have been distributed to students and staff in waves over the first few months of the school year, and the district has seen far fewer technical problems.
Britt says the district’s focus this year has been on “regaining the trust of our teachers, acclimating to the technology, and developing the materials needed to create a more personalized approach to learning.”
Reaction from both teachers and community members has been positive so far.
“We cannot expect all kids to learn at the same pace and to be interested in all of the same things at the same time,” says Winston McGregor, executive director of the Guilford Education Alliance and the parent of a middle school student at GCS. “The tablets help provide for that personalized learning experience.”
As for having to pull back and then restart the program this year, McGregor says she thought the district handled the situation well.
“There was transparency and a lack of defensiveness on the part of the leadership,” she notes. “Staying committed to our goal allowed us to work through the tactical challenges of making the tablets work.”
To help teachers use the devices to personalize learning, Guilford County is creating a video library of exemplary practices. One of these is the video of Smith describing how she creates self-paced math lessons for her classes.
“Every day, students log into our learning management system and they have three tasks to do,” she explains. “They watch a video that I’ve created in Lensoo with the day’s lesson, then they practice that skill in the online management system, which is graded immediately for automatic feedback. Finally, they complete a daily formative assessment so I can see how well they’ve mastered that concept.”
If students complete these tasks and they haven’t fallen behind the pace she has mapped out for the course, “they can use the extra class time to do some enrichment,” she says. This might include independent projects or additional math activities.
Why did she change her practice? Smith is sold on the district’s new approach, and one reason is the reaction of her students. “We need to change how we do work,” one student says in the video. With self-paced lessons, “we can rewind” the videos and watch them as many times as needed, he notes with enthusiasm.
“I have kids who never did much work before come to me on Friday and say, ‘Can I have extra [assignments] so I can get caught up and do more work over the weekend?’” she says in the video. “And I never thought that would come out of their mouths. That’s pretty encouraging to me.”
Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer who has been covering education and technology for nearly two decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Credit: Courtesy of Guilford County Schools