Whether online or in person, building relationships is an essential part of any student's learning experience. Just ask Mya Ferguson, an educator at Columbia Heights Educational Campus in Washington D.C. Despite the challenges of the past school year, she managed to foster meaningful connections with her students and between them—thanks in large part to modern technologies like Microsoft Teams

As both an EdTech instructional coach and a health teacher, Mya has a range of expertise that she brought to these hugely impactful roles during the year. But even with her solid working knowledge of technology, she had to figure out the best way to put technological tools to use to unite her class during a year she knew would be far from typical. To make the most of it, Mya committed to meeting the students where they were—both academically and emotionally—then rolled up her sleeves and got to work on their behalf.

Innovative tools help mend digital divide

District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) helped to lay the foundation that Mya and other teachers needed to best support their students. When the pandemic plunged the country into lockdown, thousands of DCPS students lacked access to technology at home. But with the help of the Empowered Learners Initiative—a three-year commitment by DCPS to ensure students have equitable access to technology—the district was able to spring into action and distribute tens of thousands of Surface Go devices to enable virtual learning. 

Mya and her colleagues knew it was a meaningful step, but no one could have imagined how significant these tools, such as Microsoft 365, would become when education lurched to remote learning and quickly became DCPS students’ main link to their teachers, friends, and schoolwork. 

The Surface Go laptops offered the right mix of features for the students’ learning experiences: longer battery life, digital inking capabilities, and front-facing and back-facing cameras. To support students without a reliable home internet connection, the district also distributed thousands of mobile hotspots and LTE-enabled devices. 

And as part of their transformation to Microsoft 365, DCPS adopted Teams, which proved invaluable for online teaching and learning. With Teams, teachers and students could collaborate and communicate easily and instantly, both during and outside of school hours. Students had all the information and files they needed to complete assignments right at their fingertips.

DCPS also took advantage of the integrations between their learning management system, Canvas, and Teams—standardizing those two solutions across the district. By the time teachers and staff returned from the summer break in 2020, they had a thorough plan to provide a rigorous education regardless of their unprecedented situation. 

Reimagining learning environments

Embracing this new way of teaching was crucial—after all, the students were learning about their personal health and well-being at a time where it was arguably most needed and top of mind for many around the world. 

For Mya, using Teams as a classroom platform enabled her students to have an experience similar to being in person. For example, she had her students pull together a list of health questions and then split the students into Breakout Rooms to discuss. Other assignments had the students creating stress management plans, including coping strategies. 

“It was awesome to see them collaborating with one another while doing it, and to see their tech skills grow and blossom,” said Mya. 

Innovative learning technologies help students flourish

Ultimately, the abrupt shift to remote learning had a shimmering silver lining for many DCPS students. Some students learning a second language were able to privately use Immersive Reader in Teams as well as Microsoft 365 speech-to-text tools to complete assignments more accurately while better understanding what the right answers looked like. Other students took advantage of online learning to complete work at their own pace, knowing they could access class discussion recordings and assignments would be right there in Teams whenever they needed it.

“There are some students who have truly blossomed with online learning,” Mya said. “There has to be a place for integrating technology so that those students can continue using it when we return for hybrid classes.”

A solution—and connections—built to last

In Teams, students and teachers could chat with or without a camera, drop gifs and emojis to express their mood, split into Breakout Rooms, and do it all from an easy-to-use interface. It allowed teachers like Mya to meet students where they were, connect with them, and ultimately recreate a close-knit classroom community despite the distance between them. 

DCPS proves how schools—with the right combination of tools, apps, and passionate people—don’t just persevere, but emerged from the pandemic even stronger than before. Dive deeper into their success story and discover the devices, tools, and resources to empower your school and students in any learning environment.