Q&A Jake Henry: Lessons from Guilford County’s Amplify Tablet Rollout

Q&A Jake Henry: Lessons from Guilford County’s Amplify Tablet Rollout


Problematic device rollouts often make splashy headlines about the implementation of education technology, where good intentions can go awry. Just ask Los Angeles, where administrators and vendors are still dealing with the backlash from the highly criticized iPad deployment and contract.

But deploying new technologies across schools and districts is no easy task. And there is no formula to doing them perfectly well. As different districts brave the ups and downs of the rollout roller coaster, we wondered: What lessons do districts learn when thing don’t go exactly as planned?

We turned to Jake Henry, Executive Director of Instructional Technology at Guilford County Public Schools in North Carolina, home of the paused--and restarted--Amplify tablet rollout, for answers.

In 2013, Guilford County halted their rollout in early October due to concerns about safety and durability of the 15,000 Amplify tablets purchased with $16.8 million of Race to the Top funds. Of those 15,000, 1,500 tables had cracked screens within a month of school and one charger melted while plugged in at a student’s home.

The district responded swiftly, asking for teachers to turn in all their tablets while Amplify figured out the issues. By December 2013, the company worked with its device manufacturers to build tougher screens and offered to pay Guilford county $856,750 for staff time and training costs due to the halted rollout.

This fall, the district resumed their rollout, one school at a time. Henry shares the ups and downs from the rollout experience, lessons about how to respond when things don’t go as planned, and some awesome resources the district created to make their second time count.

So, last year you were over a month into your implementation of Amplify tablets and already you had 1,000 cracked screens and a melted charger. You put a halt to the rollout. What was the response of parents, teachers and students in your district?

Henry: I was surprised to see the support we received after making this decision. But looking at the full picture there was disappointment, obvious disappointment, coming from our parents, teachers, principals. Nobody was happy about the decision. But at the same time there was a high level of understanding. People got it. Nobody wanted to do it, nobody was happy about doing it, but people supported the decision.

Why did you stick with Amplify? Why not change direction or look at other products?

Henry: One, the Amplify system was more than just a device. With the Amplify system It came with a management system that enabled the teacher to communicate directly with the student. Other devices would have required a third party learning management system that we would have to operate off of. We were also concerned about our kids who didn't have connectivity at home. We wanted an option that had content on the tablet, so that if I’m a student I could learn without having Wifi at home. That was all an important part of the solution and Amplify offered that.

The other part was that Amplify was our partner. We wanted to give them an opportunity to make things right. Every request we were making, whether hardware related or software related, we saw Amplify taking concrete steps to meet that request. And when you’re talking about a long term commitment - three-to-four years per device - you want to know that the partner you’re working with is listening to you and responding to your feedback.

Now that you’ve been given an extra year to teacher your teachers how to use the devices, what are the different ways you can go about doing effective training?

Henry: I think there are a couple of models. One ways is to focus on tech integration first, then introduce instructional strategies.

Another is to focus on instructional strategies first, and then figure out a way to introduce technology to support those instructional strategies. It’s a model implemented by Patrick Odell at Higher Dell State School, which was to spend an entire year training teachers in blended learning strategies, so that when they deployed the technology there was already a context and an instructional framework in place.

When we suspended [the rollout], we went to visit them. We brought that back and spent a lot of time working with teachers so that when they got the technology back they didn’t just do the same things they used to.

The third is a blended approach. As you introduce a new piece of technology, combine how to use the tool with instructional strategies. You don’t train people on how the device works, then train them about good teaching, and end it all by training them to do both at the same time. You need to be very deliberate. Show what good pedagogy looks like. Show how the tool enables you to implement good pedagogy. Finally, show what the tool enables you to do that you couldn’t do before. That to me is good professional development.

If you don’t get the PD right up front, all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to walk into classrooms, you’re going to see the exact thing that was there before the device was implemented. There will be no transformation of instruction.

So, what does the future of your rollout look like at Guilford County?

Henry: The goal of our one-to-one initiative is personalized learning for students. It’s not just about using a tablet. It’s about changing instruction.

So, this year we’ve created the PLE Resource Center. It’s a website that started with visioning videos, which were a set of videos that gave our teachers a sense of what this initiative was all about. Then we created Navigator--an online tool that has a variety of instructional strategies related to personalized learning for teachers. We created a self assessment, that aligns to that Navigator, that allows teachers to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, so they know where they need to work on to become better facilitator of personalized learning.

Then the Navigator tells them the strategies they need to be working on and it takes them to videos and resources to learn more so that teachers can be driving their own professional development.

Now as we deploy, we take the Navigator and have conversations with certain teachers about how their instruction can be enhanced. It’s a much more deliberate effort.

What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about the rollout process and making decisions when things don’t go as expected?

Henry: The first lesson is that a staggered slower rollout is best. The first time we implemented with all 18 schools at once. The lessons we applied this year is a staggered rollout. We launched one school already, then we plan to get three more onboard in three weeks, then more deployments after that. This allows us to learn lessons from each school and apply it to the next school.

The second lesson is to broaden the base of who’s involved and provide opportunities for those people to have input on what the rollout looks like. For instance, our professional development plan was dramatically better this time, because of the feedback we got from our teams of teachers. We really involved the schools and the staff of schools in determining the professional development needs and even writing the trainings.

The third lesson is that this cannot be done by the office instructional technology alone. They cannot shepard it by themselves. Rollouts involve every aspect within a district: instructional strategies, technology infrastructure, management and oversight, policy and procedure, and every content area. Involving all the departments across the district in creating a solution is a really important step.

The final lesson, which is the most important is that when you’re innovating and there’s no model to follow, things will go wrong. But that doesn’t mean you abandon the vision. You learn from it. You continue to keep that vision in front of those who are implementing it, including students, teachers and parents. But you don’t quit.

We didn’t deal with a minor speed bump. We were dealing with a major issue. And we didn’t give up. We went back to the basics and we said, “Why are we doing this and what’s the end result.” I was determined that our end target goal was worth getting back on the horse and riding again. 

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