We track anonymous visitor behavior on our website to ensure you have a great experience. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.


Family Engagement in Virtual and Hybrid Learning

TLA arrow logo

Catherine Atkinson & Beth Holland

The Learning Accelerator

For students to thrive in a virtual/hybrid learning environment, families – including parents, extended relatives, guardians, and other caretakers – need to be actively engaged as partners in their child’s learning. Effective engagement involves empowering families with opportunities to share in the decision-making process for their child. Research shows that self-directed learning and the development of students’ skills and readiness through partnerships with families are important factors for student success. Especially in virtual/hybrid environments, it is critical for educators to engage families and activate students' personal networks to support learning at home. The Learning Accelerator’s (TLA’s) analysis of data analyzed from the districts that participated in the organization’s Strategy Lab: Virtual & Hybrid program revealed varying levels of outreach for engaging families. Although some of them provided the means to actively encourage family support, others either had no plan or their plans were still under development. This case study describes the data analyzed from three of the participating districts. As a result of their investigation into family engagement, each district designed a pilot to address this challenge. These pilot projects showcase their commitment to improve outreach efforts and ensure student success in the virtual/hybrid classroom.

The Strategy Lab Process

Between January 2022 and June 2023, 20 district teams participated in TLA’s Strategy Lab: Virtual & Hybrid program. For approximately 18 months, these districts worked as a cohort to address a problem of practice. Although these districts represented a variety of virtual/hybrid programs, regions, and demographics, they aligned around a common goal: designing more effective, engaging, and equitable virtual/hybrid learning experiences for their students. By participating in Strategy Lab, district teams were guided through a multi-step process to identify goals and gaps before determining and designing measurable solutions. This program was based on the Real-Time Redesign (RTR) toolkit, which takes participants through a three-part process (Come Together, Dream Big, and Start Small) to make iterative, equitable, and sustainable improvements.

Strategy Lab: From Problem of Practice to Measurable Solution

School and system leaders can make meaningful, positive changes in their schools – even under challenging circumstances – with the right team, tools, and processes, without waiting for the perfect time to do so.

Strategy Lab participants work through a rapid, research-based, and field-tested process for making targeted improvement toward more equitable, effective, and engaging virtual/hybrid learning environments. This process includes:

Take Action: Strategy Lab followed the Real-Time Redesign (RTR) Process. The publicly available RTR toolkit provides leaders with a realistic, inclusive, and rapid process for making targeted improvement toward more equitable and resilient teaching and learning – in any context – through a series of guided activities paired with examples from real schools.

The Challenge of Family Engagement

As TLA learned from the analysis of the research, family engagement is a critical driver of quality virtual and hybrid learning. For students to succeed in a virtual/hybrid learning environment, it is essential for schools to engage families as partners. A student’s ability to engage in any virtual or remote instructional experience, no matter how well designed, is affected by their resources, learning environment, and state of wellbeing. Families have always played a crucial role in their child’s learning, but in a virtual or hybrid environment, that role becomes even more pronounced since learning primarily occurs at home. At the same time, schools need to understand that families may underestimate their ability to motivate and support their child. Therefore, it is vital that schools put support structures in place that inform, encourage, and support families as an integral part of their child’s learning experience.

Data analyzed from TLA’s work with districts participating in Strategy Lab revealed varying levels of support for soliciting and supporting family engagement. Although most districts indicated they were communicating with families, a true partnership between the school and home continued to pose a barrier to meaningful learning – particularly in virtual/hybrid environments.

What the Research Says About Family Engagement

High-quality virtual and remote learning not only builds upon the effective features of in-person instruction but also actively addresses, mitigates, and leverages the distinct advantages and challenges presented by technology and out-of-school learning. This approach allows for deep engagement and the fulfillment of students' unique learning needs. TLA’s review of the research, in conjunction with continued partnerships with schools, produced what we call drivers of quality that educators and leaders should consider as they design, implement, and improve virtual and hybrid learning approaches.

Figure 1. Key factors that help drive virtual and remote learning quality.

Virtual and hybrid formats can offer flexibility and personalization for individual student and family needs; however, these learning environments also pose unique (but not insurmountable) design challenges. Effective instruction, a quality driver for virtual and remote learning, requires that virtual and hybrid schools consider how each of the following is strategically embedded within their instructional model:

  • Technology as a medium for communication, collaboration, and learning;

  • Pedagogy as the guideline to inform instructional decisions; and

  • Relationships as the lever to build community and culture.

Because virtual and hybrid learning depends on relationships as the lever to build community and culture, schools and teachers need to actively solicit, encourage, and welcome family engagement.

  1. School leaders and teachers must ensure that open, two-way communication occurs between the school and home.

  2. School leaders and teachers need to ensure that communication is clear, consistent, and positive.

  3. School leaders need to implement structures and practices that allow families to easily provide feedback as well as receive support.

  4. School leaders and teachers need to remove barriers to communication such as language and accessibility.

Most importantly, the best instructional design will not be effective if a key stakeholder group – families – are not included as partners in their child’s learning.

Examples from the Field

The TLA Research & Measurement team identified parent engagement as a distinct need after analyzing data collected throughout the Strategy Lab process. This involved repeated analysis of workbook entries, meeting/coaching notes, and digital artifacts such as a data repository spreadsheets, self- and team assessments, and collaborative documents provided by each district to identify emerging topics and themes. The topic of family engagement first emerged as a potential challenge in TLA’s analysis of the teams’ self-assessment – a research-based measurement tool designed to facilitate meaningful conversations about quality in virtual/hybrid learning environments and help teams identify potential problems of practice in context.

In examining items from the team assessments that specifically mentioned families, communication, and technology, TLA identified distinct trends related to family engagement. Participant responses on select items revealed that although approximately 40% of schools indicated that they consistently used user-friendly technology platforms that families could easily access from any device, the majority of districts indicated that they were at the beginning stages of addressing family engagement, particularly as it pertained to accessibility and language. Another gap appeared in district efforts to actively solicit the voices and perspectives of families that are traditionally excluded. As research and field practice has shown, schools can encourage parent engagement by instituting policies and practices that bring them together with students and staff as true partners in education.

Figure 2. Team responses using the Stoplight Protocol from Data Wise to identify the degree to which their policies and practices fostered parent engagement.

A deeper analysis of the available data (i.e., districts’ workbooks, coaching notes, interviews, team reflections, individual and team assessments, and collaborative activities) from all 20 district teams revealed three schools in which family engagement emerged as a recurring and predominant theme. Both identified family engagement as a problem of practice in distinct ways and chose to address it through the design of different pilot programs. The table below provides an overview of how each district identified and addressed this topic. Detailed case studies then provide additional information and context.

NYC School Without Walls

NYC School Without Walls (SWOW) is a hybrid program with an enrollment of 60 students in grade 9, located in an urban district in New York.

Family Engagement: Team members shared that they are in the beginning stages of planning how to develop clear communication channels with families. They believe that “explicit messaging” to families would increase student engagement in off-campus fieldwork.

Pilot Plan: Address family engagement by providing regular home outreach on upcoming fieldwork expectations.

Madison Promise Online Program

Madison Promise Online Program is a virtual school with an enrollment of 125 students in grades 4-11, located in Wisconsin.

Family Engagement: When reflecting on equity, team members noted, “We need to be flexible in allowing the parent to connect in a way that works best for them.” They also acknowledged a disconnect between teacher, student, and family expectations for learning in the virtual program.

Pilot Plan: Address family engagement by scheduling weekly video conferences for students and families, targeting students who are falling behind pace or failing.

Cajon Valley Virtual Learning Program

Cajon Valley Virtual Learning Program, located within an urban district in California, is a synchronous program with an enrollment of 250 students in grades K-8.

Family Engagement: Team members shared that they consistently articulate clear expectations for virtual learning to families. However, they also admitted that they provided “limited opportunities for families to share [their] input” especially as it related to students from diverse and households positioned furthest from financial opportunity.

Pilot Plan: Address family engagement by implementing in-person meet-up events for students and their families.

Future Implications

The needs assessments conducted by these three district teams revealed similar root causes to their problems of practice: how to increase family engagement. Although these schools shared a similar challenge, they each chose a different way to address the issue:

  • NYC School Without Walls opted to hold family workshops prior to a fieldwork event.

  • Madison Promise Online Program chose to host weekly check-ins with students and their families.

  • Cajon Valley Virtual Learning Program hosted in-person events for students and families.

Importantly, each district chose a solution that was specific to their teachers, their learning context, and their student needs.

Because family engagement is a key component of student success in the virtual/hybrid classroom, it is critical that school leaders and teachers clearly articulate and communicate expectations with families. When dealing with challenges inherent in virtual/hybrid learning spaces, we recommend that districts leverage three quality drivers (technology, pedagogy, and relationships) to inform their policies and practices – especially as they relate to engaging with families:

  • If families are engaged as partners in their child’s education, they will be able to provide academic support at home.

  • If families feel as though they are part of the school community, they are more likely to be involved in school-wide activities.

  • If students have family support at home, they are more likely to be motivated and engaged in their learning.

Taking It Forward

From the organization’s Strategy Lab work, TLA knows that the challenge of effectively engaging families can be mitigated through the implementation of quality drivers for effective instruction: technology, pedagogy, and relationships. As TLA learned with the three schools highlighted in this case study:

  • School leaders and teachers need to clearly articulate expectations for virtual/hybrid learning to families;

  • School leaders and teachers need to engage in regular and ongoing communication efforts with families; and

  • Families need technology tools and platforms to be user-friendly and accessible so that they can be engaged as partners in their child’s academic success.

TLA acknowledges that change is hard – but sustaining data-driven, personalized approaches to teaching and learning requires coherent, system-wide shifts in both strategy and practice. As the three schools featured in this case study demonstrated, there is no single, correct pathway to address a common problem of practice. The “right” solutions are contextual and highly dependent upon available resources.

As concrete action steps, TLA encourages leaders exploring this report to begin addressing the issue of family engagement by:

1. Building an inclusive team: Bring together a diversity of perspectives, ideas, and experiences.

3. Identifying and implementing the conditions necessary to support planning, adoption, and scaling of new initiatives: To address the issue of family engagement, districts must ensure that policies and practices are inclusive, accessible, and flexible, especially for families who cannot take time off from work. More importantly, families need to feel like partners in their child’s learning and know that their voice matters.

4. Identifying and implementing promising practices: Teachers need to intentionally select strategies that encourage family engagement in the virtual/hybrid learning environment, including real-time, flexible, and accessible options.

5. Measuring progress to inform improvement efforts: Designing measurable solutions lies at the heart of the Strategy Lab process. In addition to following Real-Time Redesign – a framework for quickly making improvements that are scalable, iterative, and relevant to district needs – begin by exploring the strategies below.

TLA arrow logo

Catherine Atkinson & Beth Holland

The Learning Accelerator

Catherine Atkinson is a Researcher with The Learning Accelerator (TLA), bringing her expertise in measurement, analysis, and synthesis to the team. Beth Holland is a Partner at TLA and leads the organization's work in research and measurement.