Leading with learning instead of technology is a recipe for success, as exemplified by metro Atlanta district Fulton County Schools. With 99 schools and 95,000 students, the district has made a point of starting with infrastructure and following with the right technology to support its goal of personalized learning. “We always want to use tried and true technology in innovative ways,” says Serena Sacks, Chief Information Officer. “We don’t want to worry about whether the technology works– we just want to use it better.” Investing in a bunch of iPads can be exciting, but Fulton had the foresight to first ask what infrastructure is required for devices to work properly, and instead invest in that process. “We started with the classroom first, asking, ‘What type of experience do we want to create for students?’” says Dr. Scott Muri, Head of Academics. Fulton envisioned a personalized learning environment where students could access multiple types of media and multiple devices simultaneously, which would require a very robust network and the implementation of many new wireless access points. After speaking with technology consultants about the realistic requirements of building such a system, the district formulated a ‘backwards design’ plan, which included laying new overhead cables and upgrading the hardware closets in schools with new switches.
With the help of Layer 3 Communications, an Atlanta-based company that designs network infrastructures for schools and offices, Fulton began building a complex infrastructure in 2003 that was recently overhauled. Now, the network can support two devices per student accessing a network simultaneously. In addition to strengthening networks, Fulton’s schools doubled the number of Aruba access points to almost two per classroom, and added much denser wireless coverage in common areas such as media centers and cafeterias. They also increased bandwidth from 1GB to 2GB, and installed new Brocade network cables and switches in the computer room with the capacity to expand bandwidth to 10GB in the future. These infrastructure upgrades cost about $18 million, part of Fulton Schools’ $189 million technology upgrade budget funded by Fulton County’s SPLOST 1% tax.
The idea of personalized learning, as defined by the district’s Personalized Learning Roadmap, is a learning style that is co-planned by students, parents, and teachers. The method became part of Fulton’s plan several years ago, and it allows a more student-centric curriculum with flexible pacing and individual skill mastery, which can be customized to fit individual students’ needs. Technology is the key that brings it all together. “Not only is technology widespread, but we couldn’t survive without it,” says Kenny Wilder, Director of IT Infrastructure at Fulton County Schools. “If technology is interrupted, classroom instruction is interrupted.” The learning is more project-driven, and by integrating daily assessments with content, students can essentially manage their own education experience. The goal is to make sure every student is successfully mastering the material before advancing to the next set of studies.
With the new technology finally in place, the district has evolved from an 8-5 business to a 24/7 operation, with IT demands around the clock. Instead of resisting the change, Fulton has embraced moving toward a technology infrastructure model more consistent with business. That means more support is tied to schools during hours and after. “Fifteen years ago, we could have turned off the system at 4 p.m. and back on at 7 a.m., and no one would’ve noticed,” says Wilder. “Now we have as many as 52,000 devices on the network at once, and it’s a 24/7 operation.” Suddenly, students and teachers alike are taking advantage of the system’s flexibility to fit their personal scheduling needs.
As part of the 1 to 1 learning initiative, where each student is issued a personal electronic device by the school, and students and teachers are also encouraged to “bring your own device” (BYOD), problems can arise in the wireless environment if a school is not adequately prepared. When many people introduce a personal device to the network, the devices attach wirelessly, requiring more capacity and creating more density, and shared technology gets slower. To evade these roadblocks, Fulton worked with with Layer 3 to custom design a network infrastructure plan for each school, building in overhead capacity and replacing the hardware in the wiring closets. “Everything Fulton is doing in the classroom from a technological perspective requires network infrastructure in place; itʼs critical to the success of projects,” says Rodney Turner, CEO of Layer 3. The company configured all the devices to operate together, physically installed the system, and understands the history enough to fix any problems that arise.
In addition to careful planning, the district is conscientious with taxpayer dollars and has earned the support of the school board. “We wanted to ensure that the technology would become the vehicle to support great instruction, not to supplant it,” says Linda McCain, Fulton County School Board President. Each school chooses how they want to incorporate the technology into their school based on their strategic plans, and then reviews the Board’s approved providers to decide what works best for their particular school’s needs. “Not many school districts realize the back room comes first, before devices are in the hands of students,” says Gail Dean, on the school board since 2000, where she has overseen Fulton’s technology upgrades first hand. Fulton’s flexibility as a charter district has made its reputation of progressive thinking a tough act to follow for other districts embracing technology integration.
At the end of 2014, each school in the district completed a “readiness rubric” to indicate how ready they were to begin personalized learning for their students. The survey took into account teaching and leadership capacity, instructional spaces, and the school’s current strategic plan. Beginning with the most “ready” group of 20 schools, each school will choose from a group of 12 vendors, all experts in instructional design, who will help create a personal design plan for them. Schools will decide what type of devices to provide, and find the most seamless ways to transition these 1 to 1 learning devices into the classroom.
Once all these technology tools are functional, there is still one major challenge hindering implementation: the human element. When schools filled out their rubrics, the only reasons they cited for hesitation involved either students, teachers, or community members not being fully prepared for the changes. “The technology infrastructure is ready, but the human infrastructure isn’t ready at the same time for every school,” says Muri. Every school could have begun the process in January , but there is more human infrastructure work to be done at some schools before implementation. To help gradually prepare these teachers for blended learning, Fulton launched a plan of action, lasting 12-18 months. “We are using a combination of traditional professional development, vendor assisted training, online learning, coaching and mentoring to assist teachers in delivery of content in new ways, while keeping student achievement as our number one priority,” says McCain. Teachers who have been teaching one way for 25 years are not going to change overnight, and the district understands the change process with adults will take time. When it comes to putting the final touches on the implementation process, wiring and increasing bandwidth in schools is the easy part, because humans cannot be rewired as easily.
The leaders implementing the new system have always emphasized that learning and teaching comes first, and devices are merely one way to personalize that process. “Personalizing the learning experience in the classroom is a journey,” says Muri. “It will take us several years to finish this process, and it will be evolutionary.”
Jennifer Klein is a writer and media publicist focusing on education, sports, and the arts. She frequently writes about newsworthy educational programs for Fulton County Schools, where she has held leadership roles as parent and community member for the past 20 years.