Plymouth Public Schools Pass the Technology Test

Over the past year, the schools in Plymouth, Mass., have begun a digital revolution. Leveraging 21st-century learning solutions, administrators and teachers are breaking down walls that educators have long struggled against, and deepening the relationship students have with their education.

Chris Campbell, assistant superintendent of schools, remembers a very different landscape when he arrived five years ago: “Limited connectivity. Aging machines. Not much usage in the classroom.” An influx of federal stimulus dollars gave Campbell and his team the resources to make the changes he knew would give Plymouth’s students the opportunity to achieve.

The advent of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests was a significant factor in driving the district to embrace new technology. PARCC is a set of computer-based assessments adopted by Massachusetts (and several other states) in order to comply with Common Core education metrics established by the National Governors Association.

At Plymouth, technology was vital to PARCC testing for two reasons. First, to take the test, students must use computers configured to very precise specifications. The first time the school system participated, Plymouth’s IT staff had to spend three days reimaging the devices in their students’ computer lab to the appropriate specifications and then, when testing was complete, converting them back for general student use. Second, the tests themselves focus on subjects — mathematics and English language arts — that are very effectively taught using software and online tools. In other words, the ideal format for teaching was the same format used for testing: computers.

So Campbell sought a solution that would outfit the school for PARCC testing as well as extend computer-based learning to students in every grade. In a virtual desktop from VMware, he found what he needed. Campbell and his team simply tell the PCs to switch from “school mode” to “test mode,” and presto! That PC used only minutes before for studying now meets all the standards and security for testing.

The next boundary-breaking step was to move this technology into the classrooms. Students took to it immediately. “When the technology is in their hands, they are certainly engaged,” says Campbell. Beyond discrete skills and knowledge, computers help them become critical thinkers. For older students, computers and the Internet enable unique forms of research, which create new opportunities for critiquing information. Campbell calls this “using technology in a meaningful way” — beyond just the bells and whistles of something novel and digital.

With a virtual desktop spread across hundreds of computers and laptops, accessing and using an application is the same for every student. This is especially helpful in the early grades, where teachers want their students working out math problems, not working out how to use a different operating system. And since the technology plan extends across the entire school system, student and teacher experience with computers is consistent and continuous as they move to a new grade or even a new building.

Nonetheless, Campbell says, “the biggest challenge for us continues to be access. Teachers want more, students want more.” Along with the virtual desktop, Campbell introduced Google Chromebook laptops into classrooms. Down the line he sees Plymouth high schools being a completely BYOD environment — where teaching migrates across devices and education is boundless.

Does Campbell have any advice to give other school districts looking ahead at broadening their resources to provide their students a boundless experience? Yes: plan carefully.

“When you’re moving forward with any technology plan, you need to have a well-defined purpose, and make sure everyone who needs to be part of that conversation is at the table,” Campbell says. “Technology and infrastructure need to be a priority, but don’t impulsively purchase tech without understanding its impact on teaching and learning. That’s where a great technology partner like VMware can help.”