Voter-approved tech investments give students, families new learning flexibility

Teacher Jennifer Fagan is nervous and excited at the same time as students return to school in person and full time.

In her “split” class with both fourth- and fifth-graders at DeLong Elementary, she’s using technology to recreate—and improve—the way she teaches math.

Because Fagan teaches two different grades in one classroom, her students need a range of lessons depending on what they need to learn. While fourth-graders work on place values, fifth-graders work on decimals.

How to do that without wasting precious time? Fagan’s solution uses technology to her advantage. Instead of standing in front of the classroom and delivering a lesson that only applies to half the class, she records each grade’s math lessons. After they’ve talked about their math goal for the day, each student puts on headphones, opens their computer and watches the lesson she created for them. From there, what happens is based on the student.

If they understand the lesson, they complete the follow-up assignment and even move ahead to the next learning module if they’re ready.

If they don’t quite get it, they can watch it again or choose to watch a supporting lesson that gives even more detail.

Meanwhile, Fagan walks through the classroom, watching each student’s progress and helping whoever needs it, either in small groups or individually. Students who need the most help get the most time with her.

Fagan likes this teaching method because it helps her direct her attention where it’s needed, and it gives her students more control over their own learning.

“They can figure out what they need and what works for them,” she said. “It gives students a chance to work at their own pace and caters to their different learning styles.”

Fagan and her class can work this way now because, since winter 2020, every student in Tacoma Public Schools has their own laptop to use at school and take home every day.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted learning to full or partial remote learning, Tacoma Public Schools had not intended to have a laptop for every student. Thanks to a voter-approved 2018 technology levy and other funding sources, TPS changed its plan to meet the need.

The district’s ability to continue to provide laptops to all TPS students will be presented to voters in a levy on the February 2022 ballot. If approved, the levy will allow those laptops to get replaced every four years. It will also provide access to online tools that that support education and network security improvements to protect student privacy.

Tech access gives advantage to students
While the COVID-19 pandemic pushed this change in computer access so all students could learn at home with a laptop, the premise of technology-infused learning has been around a long time. And in Tacoma, it’s here to stay, bringing with it many benefits, including a competitive advantage for students, equitable access to a laptop for all students, and the potential for personalized instruction.

It’s that idea of personalized instruction that could open the most doors for students. Nichol Everett, who supports teachers with curriculum and professional development, has played a big role in helping teachers understand how to bring technology into classrooms daily and make it a useful tool for student and teacher.  

“Every student has a unique experience,” she said. “I think of English language learners, or students in special education or those experiencing homelessness. They are not all accessing learning in the same way. Everyone is different. How do we use technology in a way that meets them where they’re at?”

With their own laptop, students who struggle with reading can have text read to them. Students who struggle with writing can speak and their laptop will record it. English language learners can use an online translator. The list of tools will grow.

“Using technology gives teachers more flexibility in how they provide opportunities for students, and students can demonstrate their learning in lots of different ways, which is huge,” Everett said.

That doesn’t mean traditional teaching tools are no longer options.

“There’s something to be said for pen to paper. I think there’s a place for both,” Everett said. “There’s a time for face-to face-collaboration. There’s a time when online collaboration is more engaging and accessible for students. Sometimes they are more willing to participate in an online forum than in person. But there are assignments for which I would not use technology at all. Or I would give them a choice between creating an assignment with a digital tool or on paper.”

Choice and flexibility
As the pandemic created the need for all students to have a laptop, it also opened doors to at-home learning on a permanent basis.

During the 2020-2021 school year, TPS opened Tacoma Online (TOL) in response to the desire of students and families to choose to learn from home even as others transitioned back to school in person. TOL is an all-inclusive virtual school that provides TPS teachers, core content courses and elective courses in grades K-12. Students have access to their courses online anytime, from anywhere, and they can work at their own pace.

TOL provides its students a coach who helps them develop a yearly learning plan and meets with them weekly. Even in an online environment, students need a trusted adult they can connect with and someone to help personalize their education, said TOL Associate Principal Paul Eliot

While it started as a district program, TOL is now its own school recognized by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, with nearly 1,700 K-12 students enrolled. That change in status was cemented by the desire of students and their families to have more flexibility in how and when they receive their instruction – regardless of outside influences like the pandemic.

In Eliot’s experience, people have a variety of reasons for choosing TOL—from health concerns and complicated family schedules to employment needs and the desire to have the choice to complete schoolwork on their own time.

“Family life is a complex blend of resources and management, Eliot said. “TOL has given families flexibility that they haven’t had before. It’s the anytime, anywhere piece that makes this valuable for them.”

Melissa Ramos, parent of three children in TOL, said she’s been looking for a fit like this for years.

“We like it because of the freedom,” Ramos said. “We are able to do some family activities together during the school day, where we would not normally be able to. We go to museums, the beach, park. We meet up with other families that are doing the same thing.”

TOL also accommodates her desire to be active in her children’s education, particularly in the cases of her middle and high school students.

“I’m able to see what they’re learning and learn with them. I can be involved and help. I like the hands-on aspect of it and the freedom of learning wherever you are. All of those factors made us want to do TOL.”

In some ways, long-time educator Eliot sees the advent of TOL and the access to laptops as the school district’s acknowledgement of students’ evolving needs and their view of the world.

“These kids, they don’t see why everything has to fit in the same box. They appreciate a system that responds to them and allows them to do it their way.”