Gwinnett County Public Schools is a school district operating in Gwinnett County, Georgia. The largest school district in Georgia, with 134 schools serving more than 176,000 students, Gwinnett County Public Schools embarked several years ago on an ambitious digital learning initiative to transform instruction and learning inside and outside of its classrooms through blended learning. Leveraging the Brightspace learning management system (LMS), Gwinnett developed a digital content, learning, assessment and support system branded “eCLASS” that is now in use by every classroom, teacher, and student in Gwinnett County Public Schools as an extension of their collective learning space.
An ambitious plan to transform learning
In 2009, leaders within Gwinnett County Public Schools embarked on a large initiative to identify its strategic priorities for the next decade. The effort engaged all key stakeholders, including community leaders, higher education leaders, business leaders, teachers, the district’s central office, students, and parents to identify priorities. They ultimately identified a host of priorities under 10 distinct categories representing all key components of the school district, including students, parents and guardians, employees, curriculum, instruction and assessment, among others.
“When we looked at the priorities, many of them were dependent on the expected use of technology – even those that didn’t explicitly dictate technology. In addition, many of our priorities evolved around transforming teaching and learning. We wanted teachers to be able to differentiate instruction based on student personal needs, allow students to personalize learning options, and expand beyond the classroom to make learning accessible from home,” explains Tricia Kennedy, Executive Director for eCLASS Transformation at Gwinnett County Public Schools. “Based on these findings and objectives, our school board and Superintendent along with his cabinet identified a clear need for an instructional platform to support our execution against these priorities.”
In November 2010 a special purpose local option sales tax was approved by Gwinnett County voters. This sales tax provided the school district with the critical funding to embark on the eCLASS initiative. As part of this effort, Gwinnett invested in the Brightspace LMS to serve as a central hub for eCLASS. The goal was to provide a one-stop shop for digital content, resources and communication for teachers, students, and parents.
A range of learning resources available 24/7
While classroom teaching will continue to be the main method for learning delivery across Gwinnett’s 134 schools, eCLASS supplements and supports work performed by teachers and students in the classroom environment, providing a range of learning resources that can be accessed 24/7. The concept of blended learning was fairly new to the majority of teachers, so a key element of Gwinnett County Public Schools’ implementation strategy was support to build teachers’ knowledge and confidence and to establish effective practices.
For this support, Gwinnett County Public Schools partnered with D2L’s technical account services team to develop and implement an adoption strategy aimed at success. “Many of our teachers had websites that they used for communicating with students and parents, but not a lot of experience in two-way communication with students inside and outside of the classroom,” says Kennedy. “Having our D2L technical account manager here as an on-site resource helping our team with the implementation of eCLASS and the adoption of best practices has been invaluable. We would not be nearly as far along in the implementation if he had not been at our side,” she adds.
Ongoing training and peer coaching accelerated adoption and pace of learning
In the first phase of the eCLASS implementation, 33 schools were selected in 2011 to pilot the Brightspace LMS. Over the next three years, this initial flight was followed by schools who self-selected to adopt the Brightspace platform and eCLASS. To develop the required digital content, teams of master teachers (called innovators) were brought together to develop sample course pages for more than 130 subjects/courses across all grade levels to serve as starting points for teachers. To support the roll-out across the schools, Gwinnett tapped into local school technology coordinators (LSTCs), who are teachers with deep knowledge of instructional design who are embedded within the schools, to provide ongoing coaching and training through the first year of implementation. LSTCs were given the latitude to deliver support and training around eCLASS in a way that would be most meaningful to their individual schools, and provide embedded ‘just-in-time’ training to teachers throughout the school year.
“It was a steep learning curve for many of our schools,” admits Kennedy. “The eCLASS implementation came on top of the LSTCs’ existing duties and responsibilities.” In response, Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Superintendent approved additional peer support for the LSTCs, dedicating five specialists to the eCLASS roll-out, assigned to specific schools by school level. “The specialists are there to mentor, peer coach, offer an extra mind and a pair of hands,” says Kennedy. “And they have really helped accelerate the pace of adoption and pace of learning.” Indeed that specialist role has proved to be so successful, the total number of specialists serving schools has now risen from 5 to 12, with specialists now actively working in about half of the schools. “The peer coaching model paired with schools and teachers viewed to be innovators has been very successful, and continues to be the strategy of choice for building capacity among teachers,” says Kennedy.
“Having our D2L technical account manager here as an on-site resource helping our team with the implementation of eCLASS and the adoption of best practices has been invaluable. We would not be nearly as far along in the implementation if he had not been at our side.” Tricia Kennedy, Executive Director, eCLASS Transformation, Gwinnett County Public Schools
Gwinnett’s eCLASS initiative is now available in every classroom, to every teacher and every student in Gwinnett County Public Schools as an extension of their collective learning space.
“Over the last year, the district has experienced tremendous growth in use of the platform,” says Kennedy. “This is in large part due to the dedicated efforts of the LSTCs, school specialists, and having the right strategies in the classroom,” she adds. In January 2015, about midway through the district’s first-year implementation for all schools, less than 50% of teachers were accessing course pages in eCLASS once a week. One year later, 80% of teachers are now regularly accessing course pages in eCLASS at least once a week. In January 2015, only 30% of students were accessing course pages weekly, while in January 2016, that percentage had climbed to 75%. “We are most excited about the increase in student usage,” says Kennedy. “We know that students won’t go into the course pages unless the teachers are directing them there.”
Another key indicator of success from the eCLASS implementation is a matrix developed for school leaders to help them self-assess their progress when it comes to digital learning using a scale ranging from “planning” to “transforming.”
“We told them all that it was absolutely okay if they were not all the way to the right, as long as they understood where they were on the chart and had a plan for moving to the right,” says Kennedy. “We have seen significant progress on the matrix over the last year. It is helping schools track their progress and gives them a framework to know what expectations they should be building within their school.”
Linking digital learning to better outcomes
While Gwinnett County Public Schools has achieved significant success in a short timeframe with eCLASS, there is still work to be done in the area of digital learning that will help the district fully realize its strategic priorities. “Next year we have it on our radar to clearly define what the classroom should look like in the optimal blended learning environment,” says Kennedy. “As a district, we are very goal focused. We want to see an increasing number of students graduating, performing well on standardized assessments, and achieving success at the post-secondary level. Our digital learning initiatives all feed into these outcomes, and we certainly expect to see these kinds of achievements as part of eCLASS.”
This case was a Brightspace Excellence Accessibility Award Winner for 2016.
 Data courtesy of Gwinnett County Public Schools