Loudoun County Public Schools

Technology empowers students to design their own education

For decades, education was “one size fits all,” with a teacher planted at the front of the room. But there’s a shift underway, and schools are introducing a model that’s more “choose your own adventure,” where students take the lead. They have a voice in how they want to learn—whether that is in groups or individually.

In Loudoun County, Virginia, roughly 35 miles northwest of Washington D.C., Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) is embracing the new instructional model, which it calls personalized learning.

Loudoun County Public Schools

At 15 of the 90 schools in LCPS, groups of students learn in a rotational model huddled around Chromebooks, while some students work individually on iPads, and other groups stand at smartboards discussing their projects with teachers. Students are empowered to take control of their own education and experiences—though that may vary from classroom to classroom. Some classes are loud and boisterous, others are quiet, with classical music playing in the background.

To make this possible, LCPS has spent five years investing in its technology infrastructure, and the district’s chief information officer, Dr. Rich Contartesi, says it’s only a matter of time before every LCPS school offers personalized learning.

Laying the foundation

 Personalized learning is part of the district’s overarching “One to the World” initiative. While districts across the country are adopting 1:1 initiatives where every student has access to a device, LCPS wants to take things a step further; it wants to connect students not only to to devices but to the world.

Contartesi compares the concept of personalized learning to an onion. The outer, most visible layer is students working in groups or individually, using technology when appropriate and tailoring lessons to their unique learning styles.

“As you continue to peel back the onion, you’re going to see all of the technologies, complexities and resources involved to make this a successful project,” he says.

In the case of LCPS, the underlying technology that makes personalized learning possible includes fully upgraded network switches, ubiquitous wireless in all schools and increased bandwidth, which has grown from 500 megabits per second (mbps) to 10 gigabits per second (gbps) providing approximately 120 mbps of capacity per 1,000 students.

Loudoun County Public Schools

To make sure that all of its 80,000 students have access to technology, not just a select few, the district established a 3.6:1, student-to-computer ratio. It installed Promethean whiteboards with projectors in each classroom and welcomed a BYOT, or bring your own technology, policy. It also partnered with ClassLink to create a single sign-on that gives students, teachers and staff access to more than 100 applications.

All of this requires funding, but that burden has been lessened by a supportive superintendent and school board, the falling cost of hardware and by LCPS purchasing in volume and collaborating with vendors for better deals.

Contartesi’s technology leadership team has found additional ways to cut district spending. For instance, LCPS encompasses two area codes, and it’s charged in excess of $70,000 per month to transfer data between them. Contartesi’s team is looking to install its own broadband fiber, which would cost $550,000 initially but ultimately save the district in monthly fees.

“We’re a billion dollar organization, so there’s a heck of a lot going on,” Contartesi says.

Fostering trust

That refers to the people he works with, not just the wares.

When Contartesi arrived in the district in 2012, there were four separate IT departments and each reported to different assistant superintendents. Each had cultural differences and there was redundancy everywhere, he says.

Merging the four departments was not easy.

“Once we started to build trust, people became more open because initially there was a lot of fear and angst,” Contartesi says.

After “very long days and long weeks and months and years,” he says LCPS has put together an agile technology department with a culture of teamwork and open communication. Staff are encouraged to work on their skills, regardless of whether they stay in the district or not.

The way Contartesi sees it, no matter where employees go, they’ll use those skills for good. “It’s almost like a moral imperative thing.”

Securing devices

 Contartesi works closely with those outside of his department, as well. To make sure staff and students get the most out of new technology, LCPS has partnered with Absolute Software, a company that helps school districts track, manage and protect their computer assets.

When a new batch of teacher laptops were deployed, Absolute software showed many of the laptops were being brought home but not being brought back to school. Contartesi asked teachers and principals why this was happening, and they told him that, because teachers already had desktops in the classroom, the laptops were redundant. So, Contartesi put the desktops to better use, distributing them throughout the district, and made sure those teacher-laptops weren’t falling to the wayside.

Loudoun County Public Schools

The software provides a level of security, too. It allows LCPS to assign “geo fences” to devices, so if those devices leave a certain boundary, administrators will be notified. This helps prevent devices from “drifting” and it protects sensitive information, such as health records on a nurse’s laptop or individualized education plans.

“It goes back to accountability,” says Dave Hawks, senior account executive at Absolute. “These are taxpayer assets, and the public wants to know, as their taxpayer dollars are put to use buying these, that [LCPS] thought through issues of security and governance.”

Supporting instruction

Of course, all of this improving is rooted in giving better, more hands-on instruction to students.

“It’s really essential in personalized learning to be joined at the hip with the instructional department,” Contartesi says. “We handle all the technical things. The instruction department handles content, training, all the heavy lifting that goes into the classrooms.”

There, again, Absolute’s software provides educators with analytics on how devices are being used and allows them to correlate how the use of technology impacts test scores, even down to the student level.

Contartesi has worked in school districts around the country—from Palm Beach, Florida, to Kansas City, Missouri, and Erie, Pennsylvania—and says watching personalized learning come to life is the most exciting process he has seen in education.

“I think the biggest sense of motivation is finding challenges and working through all the challenges and coming up with something that really helps kids, helps teachers in the classroom,” he says.

In all cases, Contartesi says, “You can see and feel the excitement in the classroom, the energy. It really makes learning meaningful and fun.”

As LCPS converts more of its schools into personalized learning schools, Contartesi operates with a sense of urgency. Students are going to graduate and matriculate every year, he says. If the district doesn’t have the best technology or instruction in place, those kids are going to miss out.

“That’s been my mantra my whole career: I care about what happens in the classroom, what happens in our schools,” he says. “I want our kids to be able to grow up in a great society and a great country and we have a responsibly to keep that positive energy moving forward.”

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