Transforming Education through Personalized Learning at Fulton County Schools

By Serena Sacks, CIO, Fulton County Schools

Serena Sacks, CIO, Fulton County Schools

Today more than ever, information and technology are becoming mission critical to teaching and learning. Kids today are born as digital natives and exposed to digital technology on a daily basis. They can interact seamlessly between the cyber world and the real, tangible world. This tech savvy generation expects to be presented with media-rich information, content, dialogue, and even entertainment. Anything less won’t hold the attention of most kids, and if we don’t have their attention, they aren't learning.

The Fulton County School (FCS) District is on an exciting journey to personalize learning for every student. As the fourth largest school district in the state of Georgia, we serve over 96,000 students and 14,000 staff, including 7,500 teachers. We see personalized learning as a pathway to meet our district strategic goals by 2017 that include 90 percent graduation rate, 85 percent college readiness, and 100 percent career readiness.

Personalized learning means that students get what they need when they need it, and teachers have the tools they need to help students learn at their own unique, individual pace. Part of this personalized effort includes leveraging mobile technology for all of our students. Thanks to the generosity of our taxpayers and funding through the one-cent special-purpose, local-option sales tax (SPLOST), we are now able to purchase and deploy 65,000 mobile devices that will enable teachers to track student progress in real time and make necessary adjustments. We are providing class sets of devices for elementary schools (10 devices per 30 students) and one device for each middle and high school student. Readiness for these devices involves a methodical 12-18 month process to plan for how technology will be used to enhance and personalize learning.

Imagine a classroom studying a current event. Currently, all the students would be reading about the same event from the same reading material. With these new devices, all of the students could still be studying about the same event, but each could be reading from a variety of articles chosen for their specific reading level. Kids who are already strong readers get to keep sailing ahead through more challenging material. At the same time, the teacher uses the technology to discover who is struggling and help them catch up to where they should be.

However, it's important to emphasize that technology alone cannot transform education. It’s not about the device—it's about people, especially teachers, using tools to enhance the learning process for students. The instructional model, facilities, evaluation metrics and many other factors play a great role in learning success than a device ever could. Our teachers are our most valuable resource, so it’s our job to make sure they can spend as much of their time as possible doing those things that only a human can do. These devices give teachers more tools to help students learn at their own, unique, individual pace. By continuing to put more resources in the hands of our teachers to meet students where they are, we can accelerate learning and help our students reach their full potential for college and career readiness. To date, more than 15,000 FCS students have received devices as part of their school’s Personalized Learning device rollout, paving the way for students to receive customized learning that meets their individual needs, skills and interests. All 65,000 devices will be deployed across the district by September 2017.

While most school districts only allow their schools to choose from one device, FCS solicited a Request for Proposals (RFP) at the District level for student devices. This RFP allowed FCS to select multiple devices that meet the district’s requirements for personalized learning. These devices are listed in a “marketplace” of options from which schools can choose. Keeping with FCS’ philosophy of local school autonomy, schools make the ultimate decision on which option best meets their students’ unique instructional needs. The four devices in our marketplace include the Apple iPad, Dell Windows Notebook, Microsoft Surface, and Dell Chromebook.

The Information Technology department owns the complexity of supporting this marketplace of devices that operates on three different operation systems: Windows 10, Chrome, and iOS. With the rapidly changing pace of technology, we must proactively explore ways to ensure that each device is operable and secure on our network.

In addition to mobile devices, our tools in the classroom include interactive projectors and flat panels, digital content and curriculum, games, videos, graphics, assessments and analysis. Behind all of those things we can see, there's a robust wide-area network and wireless access points, managed through a modern datacenter equipped with monitoring and protective layers.

Our personalized learning initiative requires a network that can support 65,000 student devices and over 7,000 teacher devices all working at the same time in different classrooms on a wireless network. This required us to make substantial network upgrades to deliver scalable bandwidth connectivity in schools up to 10Gb. We also tripled the number of wireless access points in classrooms to ensure readiness for the device deployment and a stable network to support uninterrupted student learning.

We also custom designed a redundant data center and invested in the most cutting-edge equipment that our server vendors could provide, including energy-efficient cooling components for the hardware racks and a brand new VMware NSX technology software system. Each of our district’s 101 schools has vastly different needs and progresses at different rates. The use of SDN technology allows our server-side technicians to respond to individual needs and paces by manipulating infrastructure much faster. FCS is one of the first organizations to fully embrace the system and are on the bleeding edge of implementing SDN and the technology we put in the network. We also improved network security be using virtualized firewalls and F5 Silverline services to mitigate DDOS attacks.

Throughout this process, we have been laser-focused on addressing the challenges of keeping up with the updates from three different operating systems to ensure information security and student safety. We also work closely with our Academics department to help parents feel comfortable with this new way of learning for their children. As technology becomes more mission critical to teaching and learning, there is a much more enhanced focus on providing schools with easily accessible digital content and curriculum.

Ronald E. McNair Middle School was one of our first schools to deploy devices to students. Eighty-eight percent of McNair students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and many don’t have access to the internet at home and have never used a tablet before. When FC Sprovided every McNair student and teacher with an iPad this past fall, teachers talked about it as a paradigm shift. Access to technology allows teachers to use new tools to differentiate instruction and better meet the needs of students. They expect this to improve student achievement, and also to open up a world their students never had access to before. In the words of one teacher: “for a child who’s never been out of College Park, GA, an iPad can take him or her around world.”

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