Education

Official: With new upgrades, Bibb school technology 'best in state'

The future of learning is beginning to take hold across the Bibb County school district.

In the school system’s 21st Century Lab on a recent day, a loud buzz drew a teacher’s shriek ­-- an exclamation of excitement. The enthusiasm stemmed from a new hands-on learning opportunity involving electricity and circuits that science educators will soon be passing on to their students.

But it represents just a fraction of the teaching capacity that’s in store for Bibb’s classrooms.

Over the past couple of years, the school system’s technology department has been completely revamped.

“Getting the infrastructure piece was critical,” said Michael Kemp, Bibb’s chief accountability and information officer.

The data center, where all the system’s backbone equipment ­­-- from servers and switches to hard drives ­-- is stored, is a state-of-the-art setup.

“We are in a position right now that we have the best infrastructure in the state,” Kemp said.

He praised Mike Hall, who previously held the job, for his vision and establishing the district’s technology framework.

“What was done here in 20 months is unheard of,” Kemp said.

The district’s 40 gigabytes of bandwidth, coupled with 8,000 new devices for teachers and students and 30 different educational channels, is ready for use.

Kemp wants school employees -- and the public at large -- to know that the district’s past issues with inadequate technology are virtually nonexistent now. In fact, the school system uses less than 1 percent of its total bandwidth capacity.

Save for an act of God, Kemp said, “The chances of us having any type of data failure has been eliminated.”

The upgrades were the result of funds from education sales tax proceeds and federal Race to the Top dollars. Despite a previous stumble in the purchase of millions of dollars in unused tech equipment, the district has put the ESPLOST money to good use, officials said.

“We spent money to build for the future,” said Bill Nixon, the senior network engineer. “So when everything starts becoming digital content and all that video and everything comes across the network, our whole entire district is prepared to support that.”

STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT

Now that bandwidth and infrastructure have been “eliminated as an excuse,” Kemp said he’s looking to what’s going to make the technology a bridge to boosting student achievement.

The district’s new data management system, Safari Montage, is part of the answer. Think of it as the Amazon of student learning.

Monica Radcliff, Bibb’s instructional technology director, calls it a “one-stop shop” for educating students in the classroom.

The new learning system operates much like a website browser that will allow teachers to digitally access all the materials they might need in the classroom.

Teachers will be able to upload educational videos and send classroom handouts directly to a student’s device, for example.

Together with a school district effort to put cameras in classrooms, teachers will soon be able to use the learning system to share a live broadcast with students who might be out sick for the day.

In May, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law Senate Bill 89, also known as the Digital Classroom Act, which “encourages” Georgia’s school districts to “purchase all instructional materials and content in digital or electronic format” and “provide a laptop, tablet, or other wireless device to each of its students in grades three or higher” by 2020.

Bibb is well on its way to meeting that goal.

In the 21st Century Lab, teachers are being trained on a number of new technologies, including interactive white boards, which function like a giant touch screen, tabletop computers for collaborative learning and video production to create tutorials on a number of subjects.

Additionally, the Georgia Department of Education’s new standardized test, Georgia Milestones, is requiring a portion of a school district’s students to take the assessments online.

This past year, the DOE required that 30 percent of a district’s students take it online. By the third year, school districts are expected to test 80 percent of its students online -- and 100 percent by the fifth year.

Testing this past year, its first year, ran into a bit of a snafu, which caused content errors and disruptions. That was a result of the software platform provided by McGraw-Hill, not Bibb’s technology infrastructure. In a recent DOE release, McGraw-Hill said it would provide “$4.5 million in services at no cost” to Georgia’s school systems because of the disruption.

Bibb’s technology capacity and ability is set up to be an example for other school districts across Georgia, Kemp said.

That is both a good thing and a challenge because the pressure will be on Bibb to demonstrate some best practices with the level of sophistication it has.

With all that’s in place, the next question Kemp asks is, “Now what?”

To contact writer David Schick, call 744-4382.

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