Long before remote learning went mainstream during the pandemic, Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale had a strong vision of a tech-enabled future for his schools. A customized learning management system (LMS), called the Cobb Teaching and Learning System (CTLS), had been in development for years when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Forced to accelerate its ambitious vision in a few short weeks, Cobb Schools worked with Education Incites (EdIncites), an education software company, to build out a synchronous learning experience for the district’s 110,000-plus students and 9,000 teachers. By integrating Zoom seamlessly into CTLS, Cobb Schools and EdIncites created a robust digital experience that engaged students with a 97% login rate across the district — and will continue to support flexible learning models going forward.
‘We had a vision for our own ecosystem’
CTLS was conceived as an online hub where Cobb Schools could “deliver anything a student, parent, or teacher needs in the digital space,” according to John Floresta, chief strategy officer of Cobb County School District.
“CTLS is our digital home — not just for online learning but face-to-face resources with digital tools for teachers, assessments and digital content for students, parent communications, and soon, instructional resources for parents to support learning from home,” he said.
“We wanted to bring capabilities together in an integrated way and make workflows as smooth as possible for parents, teachers, students, and administrators,” said Steve Campbell, president and chief operating officer of EdIncites.
The district had a vision, timeline, and budget for continued development of the platform over several years. Then, COVID-19 hit, accelerating plans nearly overnight.
“When the pandemic hit, we knew we had to move faster on building out synchronous capabilities for Cobb. We started looking at potential providers in the market that offered video capabilities,” Campbell said. “But we would have to integrate our application into their ecosystem — and that wasn’t what we were looking for. We had a vision for our own ecosystem.”
“Integration was really important — over the years, we have learned that no one tool or platform by itself could provide what our teachers and students needed,” added Marc Smith, chief technology officer at Cobb Schools. “Our superintendent has been clear that solutions for teachers and students should be driven by teachers and students. We had to find the right partners that allow for flexible video options.”
‘Zoom could integrate into our point of view’
Cobb Schools and EdIncites found Zoom fit the bill when it came to integration, with a flexible, customizable platform that also checked the boxes for reliability and scalability.
“We never approached this as ‘Let’s create an asynchronous experience’ — which is what many others did. We wanted to create something as robust and synchronous as possible,” Campbell said. “Our goal was functionality at the point of need. We didn’t want teachers to have to log in and out of system one to go to system two or three — instead, we wanted to integrate the capabilities into their workflows.”
Using webhooks and APIs, EdIncites built a seamless digital classroom experience where students could join live Zoom sessions directly within CTLS.
“Zoom could integrate into our point of view of what the platform should be, and did so quite nicely,” Campbell explained. “Webhooks allowed us to launch Zoom sessions from within CTLS, whereas other schools might send a meeting link and the student has to go into another app for their class.”
Adding video capability inside of CTLS in record time came with its fair share of concerns. “There was no time for experimenting. When you have 105,000 kids logging in at once, at 8 in the morning, it’s got to work. We asked, ‘Could Zoom handle it?’” Campbell said. “The ability to move as fast as Zoom did was critical. We needed it up in days, and we were able to integrate it in that short timeframe. And it worked, it scaled, it was available.”
“Zoom allowed us to put a teacher’s voice and face in front of 105,000 students on a daily basis, in a consistent, reliable way,” Floresta said. Video courtesy of Cobb County School District
“Being able to reliably see my students, every single day, was so important. I couldn’t have taught this year without CTLS and without the ability to see and hear my students every day,” said Chelsea Dawkins, a teacher at Mableton Elementary in Mableton, Georgia.
As a custom-built education solution, CTLS enhances the teaching and learning experience in many different ways. “With CTLS, we can collect data and know when kids join their class sessions, or when they’re not signing on,” Campbell said. “Zoom class recordings get pulled automatically and put into a content repository on CTLS that students can access on demand.”
‘More reliable & flexible options’
In the first month of the fall 2020 semester, when students were still remote, Cobb Schools saw approximately 97% of students actively logging in — roughly 105,000 students in Georgia’s second-largest school district. By the end of the semester, students and teachers had participated in more than 1.4 million Zoom sessions across Cobb County.
“It took an incredible amount of time and effort to provide quality education options during this pandemic. The vision of Superintendent Ragsdale, combined with our hardworking teachers, district staff, and our partners, has allowed us to build a really unique digital tool,” said Jennifer Lawson, Cobb Schools’ chief academic officer. “Zoom is a reliable partner that has provided students with face-to-face interaction and allowed us to deliver consistent educational options for students and parents.”
In the spring 2021 semester, Cobb Schools adopted a choice model with roughly 60% of students opting for in-person learning, and the other 40% online.
For the district’s 45,000 students who opted in for a 100% remote experience, Zoom is the main conduit for teacher-student interaction. “Providing our students, teachers, and parents with the best tools is important to us, but nothing can replace the importance of a teacher, especially in a digital classroom,” Floresta said. “Zoom enables human-to-human interaction.”
Regardless of how many students were remote versus in-person, Cobb educators were using CTLS to teach and communicate with students and parents.
“The distinction between a physical classroom and a digital classroom has been disappearing for years,” Lawson said. “We believe good instruction is good instruction, no matter where students are located.”
“Some kids really like the online experience and some want to go back to the classroom. What’s clear is that the capability is here,” Campbell said. “Institutions understand that they have the ability to offer a terrific experience online, and the competition will get even stronger with the rise of virtual academies.”
Looking past the pandemic, Floresta noted that Cobb Schools intends to continue supporting choice and flexibility for families, and that digital learning will be a core component of the district’s strategy.
“As a public school system, we have to be flexible enough to provide options that work for our families — and those are going to be different choices based on what each student needs,” he said. “As we come out of the pandemic, we are able to provide more reliable and flexible options than we were before.”
Cobb County School District
Location: Cobb County, Georgia
Industry: K-12 Education
Challenges: Needed to deliver an effective remote learning experience during the pandemic and accelerate digital education plans to provide greater choice and flexibility for families
Solutions: Used webhooks and APIs to integrate Zoom into a custom LMS and created a seamless platform that engages students, parents, and faculty on a daily basis
Benefits: Ease of integration and customization, ability to scale and reliably support 1.4 million Zoom sessions in Georgia’s second-largest school district