Sabrina Ng, 17, goes to school every day for four hours. Instead of studying multiple courses at once, she takes them one by one. She uses online courses in a classroom setting, with individualized assistance from teachers, to help her whiz through her course materials.
At this time last year, she didn't think she could graduate on time. Now, she's graduating early.
What changed? She left her shared learning experiences behind at Highland High School and started an individualized, technology-based approach to learning at Innovations High School that she thinks has made all the difference.
Learning situations like Ng's are what brought legislators and educators from across the state together at Utah's Digital Learning Summit on Tuesday at the new Innovations High School, near 1700 South and State Street.
Legislators and tech-enthusiasts came to discuss, educate and persuade school districts to implement individualized technology-based teaching styles that they believe is the future of education.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who addressed educators at the summit along with Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said that teachers who tell kids to put their phones and other gadgets away when they come to school need a wake-up call to the digitally thriving world they live in.
"Students bring more computing capacity into a classroom than the school owns, and we ought to be utilizing that," Stephenson said. If educators can't capture their students' attention because the learners are distracted by technology, he said, then the educators need to re-examine the way they're teaching.
He said the answer lies in teaching students through individualized, digital teaching means.
"Individualized instruction honors who we are as learning creatures and we need to move there much faster than we are," said Stephenson.
Stephenson and Hughes said a stronger focus on implementing digital teaching and learning could solve many of Utah's current education problems, like too many students with not enough teachers to cater to their individual needs.
With technology's assistance, teachers can be everywhere at once, Hughes said. They can move around the room and not have to be tied down to a whiteboard. They use microphones to make their voice louder, they use the Internet to open new pathways to learning, and they use computer-based testing to provide immediate results, which facilitates faster and more effective learning.
Hughes said that legislators and educators need to overcome the resistance to technology that comes from being part of an older, less tech-savvy generation.
"I'm the technology immigrant. I'm the guy who still owns a BlackBerry. This like should be in a museum somewhere," he joked. "We're asking the immigrants to teach the technology natives, and that is difficult."
But if teachers can get over that, the legislators said, they can use technology to allow students to learn at their own pace. The students who learn faster can move forward, while the students who need extra time can do so without feeling stupid and holding the entire class back.
Creating tech schools can even solve the achievement gap, according to Hughes. Students in low-income schools want technology more, work harder to get it, and appreciate it more when they have it, he said.
"I absolutely believe that technology is going to be how we're going to reach these kids in a smart way," he said.
For Ng and five other students who spoke at the summit, digital learning helped to solve their problems.The flexible schedule of online classes gave them more time for extra-curricular activities like sports and part-time jobs. The individualized attention helped them succeed where they were struggling before.
Ng said there should be more schools like Innovations High.
"Being here lets me know I'm not a bad student, I just learn in a different way," she said. "I feel like the school is completely focused on me."
Which, Ng said, is possible through a focus on teaching and learning through technology. In her previous school, not only was she falling behind in her credits, but she was hardly ever using technology, she said.
Now, she couldn't imagine a better school or a better way to learn.