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Personalized Learning: Changing the Way Students Learn

Academics and Technology must work closely together to ensure personalized learning is successful

By Jeff McCoy

Greenville County Schools is located in the upstate of South Carolina and frequently makes the list as one of the best places to live. Greenville County is fortunate to be home to some of the country’s largest businesses like BMW, Michelin, Bosch and a host of others. The district boasts high test scores and typically outperforms the state and nation in most categories. The district is home to nearly 77,000 students and covers over 800 square miles.

Greenville County Schools has had a strong focus on technology since the early 2000s. The Board of Trustees and the last two superintendents have understood the benefit of students engaging with technology to learn key content and skills. They began giving devices to students in 2006 as a pilot to see what was possible. Those were the early days of personalized learning, before anyone used that term to describe their initiatives. In 2006, Greenville used the term “one to one” to describe the technology initiative and rolled out several thousand devices to students. Several years ago, a re-visioning of that initiative took place and typical to the Greenville way, we learned from our mistakes. While the students enjoyed interacting with the devices, we found that there was a strong emphasis on the device and not enough emphasis on the learning taking place because of the device. That, and several other things that emerged, caused us to re-think what we wanted this initiative to look like. Today, personalized learning looks very different than it did back in 2006!

Creating a Strong Vision

The first thing we did was establish a district technology committee to design a vision for what personalized learning should look like. This committee was made up of teachers, principals, and district staff. Through many hours of discussion and conversations, a vision was developed. This vision encompassed the present and also the future. We have strong vision for what we want personalized learning to look like five years from now and we have a plan to get us there.

Create buy-in from all levels

Greenville is fortunate because our Superintendent, Dr. Burke Royster, is an innovator. He has the vision to see where we could be and knows how to gather the staff around him to make that vision a reality. He was recently named as one of Education Week’s 2017 Leaders to Learn From. His vision for learning and innovative leadership has been the result of many successful initiatives in Greenville County. Having strong leadership from the top down is key to success for any initiative.

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We started the re-boot of our personalized learning initiative by getting everyone on board. The leadership for personalized learning lives in the academics department. The technology department is critical in making personalized learning a success. However, personalized learning is not about a device. It is about the teaching and learning that take place because all students have access to a device. It is about the classroom instruction that changes because learning is able to be personalized and differentiated to new levels. The leadership for personalized learning must come from the Academics Division for the focus of the initiative to be on what we are all about — teaching and learning! It is critical that the academics and technology departments have a strong working relationship. Personalized Learning will not be successful if those two departments are unable to work together to accomplish the vision.

All members of the executive team in Greenville County and the Board of Trustees understand the vision for personalized learning and where we are going. It is critical for all departments to understand where the district is going and what role their department plays in getting there. If all departments are not working together, the journey will be difficult and filled with obstacles! In Greenville, the Academics and Technology Departments work closely together to ensure the personalized learning initiative is successful. The talents in the Technology Department keep the technology operating smoothly, the networks open and students safe while interacting with the web. The Academics Department is key in helping teachers understand how to use these tools in their classroom to personalize learning and actively engage students in the learning process.

Many districts overlook departments outside the Academics and Technology Divisions. However, when you embark on a Personalized Learning initiative of this magnitude, it is critical that all departments understand the district vision. Human Resources will play a vital role in dealing with potential HR issues. Finance must understand the initiative in order to budget for it and sustain it long term. Facilities must understand how a device for every child impacts building design. A Personalized Learning initiative impacts every department in the district.

Investing in Professional Development

Professional development is key for any large initiative, particularly one that asks teachers to change how they teach. Greenville recognized this early on and identified a key partner to help us on this exciting journey. Discovery Education has been a partner in learning with Greenville County Schools for more than ten years. They are a part of our team and they have a strong presence in our school system. Discovery Education worked with us to create our personalized learning professional development and they continue to adjust and refine as feedback comes in from teachers. This partnership involves taking four to eight teachers from every school to become teacher leaders. They embark on a three year commitment of learning, not just about technology, but about high yield, high interest teaching strategies that engage students. These Digital Leader Corps teachers open their classrooms as learning labs for others to learn about teaching in the 21st century where every child has a device. They offer professional development to their colleagues and serve on school committees to ensure the personalized learning vision is moving forward. They become the teacher leaders at their school to fuel the initiative and ensure it is a success.

In addition to the Discovery Leader Corp, the GCS Instructional Technology Department is a key component of the Personalized Learning initiative. Unlike many districts, the Instructional Technology team reports to the Associate Superintendent of Academics. Their primary role is to support the schools daily as they implement personalized learning. They do not provide technical support, but rather instructional support which is why it is critical they report to the Academics side of the house. They also hold Personalized Learning Academies with schools one year prior to the school receiving devices. This academy focuses on the school planning necessary to implement personalized learning. School leadership teams (including teacher leaders) spend two days creating a plan for their initiative. They then spend the next year refining that plan and implementing various sections of that plan before receiving the devices. This up-front planning allows the schools time to consider all obstacles and discover solutions for them, well ahead of them becoming issues.

Embarking on the Journey

Greenville County Schools re-boot of their Personalized Learning initiative under the new vision began last year with the roll out of 7,500 devices to ten pilot schools. These schools had a year of training in the Discovery Leader Corps prior to receiving the devices. The implementation in all ten schools has been exciting for the school communities and the students in those schools. While GCS has had multiple successful personalized learning initiatives in place at several schools since 2010, a rollout of this many devices was unprecedented. The initiative has been widely successful the first year thanks to the leadership of the principals and teachers in the schools.

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