It has been a long time since fundamental changes have been made to the way American students learn, but Mesquite ISD is ready to usher in another transition.
The district, along with technology partners Google and SoftServe, is launching a tool called Ayo (pronounced eye-oh) that seeks to use current technology to help students understand what they like and are good at — and to help teachers, staff and administrators create individualized learning plans for them.
“Ayo is about understanding that we can no longer standardize learning, that we have to recognize the uniqueness of each child,” Superintendent David Vroonland said.
“The standards of learning don’t change,” he said. “The standards of math are the standards of math. It’s how one progresses through math based on their aptitude and passion that differs rather than everyone getting the same experience of it; it differs based on who you are and your unique qualities.”
The project aims to make each student’s individual pathway more clear, helping to emphasize elements of learning that excite the student. It’s also designed to grow with the student, creating a profile from elementary school until graduation.
Creating their own path
Vroonland recalled a student who graduated from West Mesquite High and later returned to the district and said there was little in the curriculum that matched up with his passion for fashion.
Under Ayo, the superintendent said, a teacher could highlight things like the evolution of uniforms in war, how presidents dressed or the economics of clothing manufacturing through time. All of that could be more likely to increase the student’s retention of the material required to meet the standards, he said.
Vroonland, a former history teacher, noted the transition in education when American society moved from an agrarian one to an industrial one. But Mesquite leaders believe education hasn’t kept up with the latest transition, struggling to help students in a digital economy.
“You can probably go to a school and recognize everything that goes on at the school — expect for a little bit of technology integration,” said Angel Rivera, Mesquite ISD’s assistant superintendent of leadership and innovation. “You can follow along with everything that’s happening because it’s the same as when you were a student.
“For the most part everyone gets the same thing during the same time at the same pace. But … not everybody learns at the same rate and not everybody learns the same thing. What we’re trying to do with Ayo is discover students’ potential earlier than what you do now under the current system by tapping into their passions and aptitudes.”
“Passions and aptitudes” is a mantra in constant use by those involved with the Ayo process. Vroonland said that without exciting students about their passions and showing them what they’re capable of, he worries public education’s approach will become obsolete.
His technology partners agreed. SoftServe, which develops digital software, said once it understood the human element and what the district’s vision was, it made sense to join the project despite rarely working on K-12 projects.
“The public school system hasn’t changed in at least 100 years, so Mesquite is really a thought leader and really a pioneer in leveraging new technologies to advance students and their circumstances and their outcomes,” said Ron Espinosa, SoftServe’s strategic opportunities director.
Safety in mind
Vroonland said the initial feedback from parents with whom Mesquite has shared Ayo is overwhelmingly positive, but he understands there always be security concerns when rolling out a digital element.
“The biggest critique will be who owns the data we’re gathering here and for us the important communication here is, it’s your child,” he said.
“This data is something they will carry with them when they leave our district. It’s intended to be managed on a handheld app and you literally should be able to walk with your profile to a college counselor or someone who is going to help you understand your path, show them what you’ve done, show them this profile you have. … We’re trying to put children in charge of their lives.”
Espinosa pointed out that his school-age children have a different understanding of what data security looks like than most members of his generation, but he said parents have little to worry about.
“AI can be a frightening term for those that don’t understand it,” he said. “In this case, there is no artificial intelligence embellishing or augmenting the student themselves. All the AI is being used for is to help the students, parents and staff and everybody around them understand what the next best action is for that student.”
The way of the future?
Ayo was built with expansion in mind, not only by leaving certain things open-ended to allow for the hardware evolution that will inevitably occur in the 13 years a student is in the education system but also with the idea more districts could jump on in the future.
Then, a student who moves from Mesquite still will see their profile grow and evolve with them, even if they’re no longer in the district.
“Google and Mesquite ISD intend to keep as much of this project as open-source and interoperable as possible so other districts may benefit from the foundation that was really built in Mesquite,” said Kevin Hodges, the Texas K-12 regional manager at Google for Education. “I think this vision, this project is going to look a little bit different over the next 12, 18, 24 months, and to have a foundation set in place in Mesquite, I think the potential is going to be endless.”