Rose Powell – Bibb County School District
It’s early June, and in hundreds of high-school classrooms throughout Georgia’s Bibb County School District (BCSD), students are rapidly tapping and scrolling on their laptops. An air of focus fills the room, so quiet you can practically hear the hands of the clock.
To an observer, the attendant task seems like a standard class assignment—a research project, perhaps—albeit with glitzier wares than were standard a decade ago.
Come to find out, it’s state testing week, and rather than rows of students filling bubbles like little hand-powered factories, the district’s assessments are being conducted entirely online, making BCSD one of Georgia’s earliest adopters.
“Transitioning to online testing gives us a chance to receive formative and summative data of student mastery much more quickly,” explains Rose Powell, executive director of technology services for BCSD. “It’s all about meeting the needs of students and teachers, and we’re already seeing the early payoff.”
With flying colors
The impact goes well beyond mere ease of use. Prior to adopting online testing, it would take up to six weeks for BCSD to receive results from the state’s education department. As a result, teachers weren’t able to address individual learning gaps until the following school year, putting struggling students even further behind.
Now, the district can access test results in as few as three days, giving teachers a week or more before summer break to schedule spring and summer learning sessions or other intervention resources. In addition, BCSD has instituted a comprehensive test-coordinator training program to facilitate and support the state testing process at each school.
While BCSD uses a state-issued platform for its end-of-year exams—what Powell refers to as a “summative assessment,” to determine mastery in a particular subject—the district is also using online testing for much of its formative or curriculum-specific learning. As part of a common district assessment, teachers administer online quizzes or test to “take the pulse” of students throughout the year.
“We use data from these checkpoints immediately, as well,” Powell says. “This data helps us identify which students need more help, but it also tells us who’s excelling. So it’s as much about enrichment as it is remediation.”
Though Powell says the district is just now starting to gauge the quantitative impacts of online testing, the feedback—from students, teachers and administrators—has been overwhelmingly positive.
Learning on the Wi-Fi
To make the transition possible, the technology team spearheaded an overhaul of BCSD’s network infrastructure beginning in 2014. After building a new data center, the district tasked Cox Business—a subsidiary of Georgia-based cable company Cox Enterprises—with boosting its Wi-Fi bandwidth, while simultaneously installing hundreds of new access points throughout BCSD’s 38 schools.
But online testing isn’t the only transformation taking hold. In 2016, the district launched its “Future-Ready Classroom” initiative. It starts with hundreds of 70-inch panel TVs, installed in all of BCSD’s instructional classrooms.
Not only does the big-screen digital format allow for more efficient and engaging lesson plans; by utilizing interactive software, teachers can create dynamic group-learning assignments that encourage teamwork and collaboration.
“These tools are going to define the 21st century economy,” explains Powell, who’s spent more than two decades in the world of education. “In transforming the classroom environment, we’re helping ensure our students are prepared for post-secondary life, whether that means going to college or being career-ready.”
To augment the classroom upgrades, teachers can participate in an innovative Microsoft certification program that gives them tools and strategies for leveraging these “blended learning” environments.
“Technology will never replace a great teacher, but technology in the hands of a great teacher can be transformational,” says Powell, sharing one of her favorite quotes from famed writer, C.S. Lewis.
To date, the district has achieved a student-to-device ratio of 1:1.2 across all grades. According to Powell, BCSD has also outfitted all teachers with their own laptops.
Using Microsoft Office 365 Teams, students can now access lessons and other class materials after school hours. The platform is customizable, allowing both teachers and students to organize their own portfolio. Teachers can even reach a student or group of students in the evening or on weekends using the suite’s internal messaging function.
“In the past, it was difficult to keep kids engaged outside of school,” Powell says. “This new technology makes it so easy. The level of buy-in we’re seeing is unprecedented.”
How unprecedented? By way of back-end data, teachers and administrators are able to see when and for how long students are logging in. After implementing Microsoft 365 in the fall of 2017, this summer gave Powell and her team the first detailed snapshot of just how engaged students are becoming.
Even during summer vacation, kids were still working in the database, busy preparing for the year ahead.
“It’s been heartening to see that all of these investments are paying off—that students really embrace what we’re providing,” Powell says. “The process is ongoing, but we truly feel like we’re laying the groundwork for something transformative.”
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