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Amplify and Guilford County, N.C., Rebounding From Device Mishaps: #TBT

By Benjamin Herold — January 08, 2015 3 min read
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One year ago this week, the Guilford County schools in North Carolina temporarily pulled the plug on its much-hyped 1-to-1 student computing initiative, delaying the implementation of a personalized-learning initiative featuring Amplify digital tablets until 2014-15.

Well, the school year is now half-over. So how are things going?

In a word, better.

“We are satisfied and pleased,” said Robin Britt, the director of instructional technology for the 73,000-student district, in an interview this week.

In November, Guilford County completed the deployment to 28 schools of nearly 18,000 devices from New York City-based Amplify, mostly without incident. So far, breakage and defect rates on the devices, much higher than anticipated during last school year’s deployment effort, are down dramatically, the result of Amplify switching manufacturers and placing a new emphasis on the “ruggedness” of their device.

As a result, Britt said, the district’s focus is now, finally, on changing classroom instruction.

Guilford County remains Amplify’s largest tablet client, using more than half of the devices the company has in circulation in U.S. K-12 schools.

“We’re not here to airlift technology into schools and then walk away,” company spokesman Justin Hamilton said in an interview.

Before delving into the lessons that both the company and the district have learned, here’s a quick recap of what originally went wrong with Amplify tablets in Guilford County, courtesy of a Digital Education post I wrote in January 2014:

This has not gone the way we envisioned and hoped and planned for,” Guilford County School Board chairman Alan Duncan told the News & Record in late December. “I think it’s important that we reiterate the regret we have to our students and to our constituency.” Guilford school district officials had previously hoped to re-start the 1-1 initiative, suspended in October after reports of broken screens, a dangerously overheated charger, and other concerns, in time for the second half of this school year.... On October 4, the Guilford County district reported that 10 percent of the 15,000 devices it purchased had suffered from cracked and broken screens and that a device charger appeared to have dangerously overheated. Problems with broken USB connectors and cases were also reported, and eventually reports of problems with eight additional device chargers also surfaced. The district posted a complete list of documented problems on its website. Both parties in Guilford County have worked to make changes this year.

The fix started with an amendment to the original contract between the GCPS and Amplify, spelling out in detail what the company would do to rectify the problems with its devices and to hedge against the possibility that new tablets might not be ready in time for this school year. Critically, the amendment added a year to the contract agreement at no extra charge to Guilford schools, ensuring that the district would still get the originally intended length of service from the devices.

“We recognized that there was a period of time when the tablet was not in service,” Hamilton said. “We wanted to deliver four years of service, which we had committed to.”

For its part, the Guilford County district made significant changes in its deployment plan, staging a slow, staggered rollout this year, rather than trying to deploy at 18 middle schools at one time, as they did last year. Guilford County officials also overhauled the district’s training and professional development for teachers and principals.

With limited time to prepare last spring, said Britt, the instructional technology chief, the district’s training in 2013-14 was rushed, top-down, and overly focused on how to use the tablets.

The unintended consequence of that approach, Britt said, was that the district ended up communicating the message that “if you teach with a tablet, that’s personalized learning.”

Now, he said, the focus is much more on instruction. Teachers are beginning to figure out how to create and deliver content to students via the devices, for example.

Interestingly, though, Guilford County has elected not to purchase Amplify’s curriculum for middle-grades English/language arts. The soup-to-nuts, stand-alone curriculum, which Education Week also wrote about last year, features games and movie stars and just about everything else imaginable. It wasn’t available when Guilford County originally contracted with the company, and district officials haven’t elected to buy it this school year.

“We see [the device] as a way to break out of the mass production, one-size-fits-all model,” Britt said. “We see it less as a curriculum tool and more as a student-independence tool.”

The district’s recent strategic plan calls for expanding its personalized-learning initiative into elementary and high schools in the near future, but no “concrete plan” is currently in place to purchase more devices, Britt said.

Amplify officials said the company currently has about 30,000 of its tablets in circulation in U.S. K-12 schools.

Clarification: This post has been changed to clarify the statement from the Amplify spokesman.

Photo: Kevin Mash, a math teacher at Johnson Street Global Studies school in High Point, N.C., works with an Amplify tablet to identify ways to use it in his classroom during training last year for teachers.--Kristin Zachary/The Enterprise/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.