Pearson and South Washington County Schools Deliver Remote STEM Learning to 900+ Students on AWS

Executive Summary

South Washington County Schools, a school district in Minnesota, worked alongside AWS Public Sector Partner Pearson to deliver remote STEM learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The school district needed to provide remote learning access to its 18,500 students, but students’ devices couldn’t support the advanced hardware needed for STEM labs. Pearson developed a solution using Amazon AppStream 2.0, giving students immediate remote access to their classes without interruptions to learning.

Finding a Way to Deliver Virtual STEM Labs to Students

South Washington County Schools, a suburban school district near St. Paul, Minnesota, that serves 18,500 students, needed to provide remote learning access during the COVID-19 pandemic. A particular challenge was finding a way to continue offering advanced science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. Although the district had provided laptops for every student, the devices couldn’t run the high-powered software necessary to conduct STEM labs. “We were doing a nice job of solving issues like keeping relationships active between students and teachers, but providing access to the hardware-specific software for advanced labs was a barrier we couldn’t solve,” says Bob Berkowitz, Director of Technology at South Washington County Schools.

South Washington County Schools worked alongside Amazon Web Services (AWS) Public Sector Partner Pearson, a global learning company, to build a solution that virtualizes the compute resources needed to deliver STEM content. The solution uses Amazon AppStream 2.0, a desktop and application virtualization service that facilitates secure access to data, applications, and resources. Using this solution, students in the district now have the learning tools they need to continue their education remotely.

“Using Amazon AppStream 2.0 for commodity hardware, every student can participate and have the same experience regardless of the type of device they have.”

- Jim Sherlock, Director of Information Security and Technology Implementation, Pearson

Seeking Solutions for Remote Learning Challenges

Pearson, which delivers education products and services in nearly 200 countries, has worked alongside AWS since 2013. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Pearson reached out to South Washington County Schools and other customers to find out how it could support remote learning and even held a competition that challenged its engineers to develop solutions. South Washington County Schools was part of the first competition, and in six weeks, a Pearson team developed a product that turned out to be the winner.

South Washington County Schools knew that Pearson was the right partner to take on its remote learning challenge because the district had previously worked with Pearson on state summative accountability assessments. Additionally, because Pearson could not provide classroom-based services such as testing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company had already pivoted to supporting schools’ remote learning needs. The precursor to Pearson’s solution for South Washington County Schools was a contact center that Pearson set up in just 48 hours using omnichannel cloud contact center Amazon Connect to provide tech support for a public school district in Iowa City. “A good idea can turn into a fruitful idea much faster on AWS than if you had to procure your own hardware and infrastructure,” says Jim Sherlock, Director of Information Security and Technology Implementation at Pearson.

Facilitating Equitable Access on Any Device Using Amazon AppStream 2.0

Pearson began working with South Washington County Schools in March 2020 to develop Amazon AppStream 2.0 stacks to match each curriculum that students couldn’t access remotely. The following month, Pearson incorporated feedback from the district’s staff and teachers, and in August 2020, the district achieved a solution that is simple to use and integrates with the school district’s existing system. One of many improvements to come from teacher feedback was integrating a single sign-on link for students to access all their applications. Students can now hit the ground running instead of spending time logging into different services. The solution also integrates with class rosters in a universal format, such as Ed-Fi or OneRoster, then automatically provisions accounts from the roster. This saves setup time and reduces the number of logins and accounts per student.

Using Amazon AppStream 2.0, Pearson was able to build, measure, and pivot as needed. For example, each of the workloads that Pearson runs for South Washington County Schools requires a different kind of compute. Pearson can very quickly change the stacks if necessary, paying only for the resources it needs for each use case. By fall 2020, the district had 12 different software packages across four stacks, each custom developed by Pearson for workloads such as engineering, computer science, and graphic arts software. The solution facilitates advanced-system education through inexpensive devices and through any kind of network connectivity that students might experience. Data remains secure because the information exchange is encrypted and never leaves the cloud on AWS. This solution helps students gain immediate, secure access to their classes and avoid learning interruption, and it helps the district provide equitable access to STEM courses. “We’ve done a lot of work with public schools in the United States to provide equitable access, but the sudden shift to remote learning and the scramble for devices threatened that,” says Sherlock. “Using Amazon AppStream 2.0 for commodity hardware, every student can participate and have the same experience regardless of the type of device they have.”

So far, over 900 students in South Washington County Schools have benefited from Pearson’s remote learning solution, taking part in 12,000 class sessions. Using AWS, the district has supported over 11,000 hours of streaming labs. The solution’s analytics help uncover how, when, and for how long students engage with the curriculum, offering insights into student success. Pearson found that students enjoy the freedom to learn at their own pace, access labs at any time, and take charge of their learning—benefits the company will strive to deliver in future flexible learning initiatives as well.

Giving Teachers More Remote Learning Tools on AWS

After working with Pearson to provide advanced STEM learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, South Washington County Schools plans to keep moving forward with its virtual learning solution and expand access to other district schools. This was the district’s first foray on the cloud, and during its upcoming hardware refresh, it will consider using services on AWS to remove outdated equipment, use its existing compute resources more efficiently, and improve scalability and cost efficiency. Pearson plans to take what it has learned from working with educators globally during the COVID-19 pandemic to improve its virtual learning system and keep making strides toward education access and equity. The company also plans to take part in executive visioning sessions from AWS and pursue a more strategic cooperation as it continues to develop its global flexible learning initiatives and put more virtual learning tools in teachers’ tool kits. “Whatever we can do to understand the problems that teachers, administrators, districts, and parents are facing and take those problems off the table to promote higher-value interactions with students, that’s what we’re going to do,” says Sherlock.

South Washington County Schools

About South Washington Country Schools

South Washington County Schools is a suburban school district located southeast of St. Paul, Minnesota. It includes all or parts of the communities of Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park, Woodbury, Afton, Denmark Township, and Grey Cloud Island Township, serving around 18,500 students.

About Pearson

Pearson is a global learning company that provides digital content, learning experiences, and assessment services in nearly 200 countries. An AWS Partner since 2013, Pearson is an AWS Public Sector Partner, an AWS Partner, and an AWS Independent Software Vendor (ISV).

Published October 2021