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Learner-Centered Design in Virtual and Hybrid Learning

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Catherine Atkinson & Beth Holland

The Learning Accelerator

For students to thrive in a virtual/hybrid learning environment, it is essential for schools and teachers to foster learner-centered design practices. This entails, first, understanding what learner-centered design looks like. Second, educators should consider the individual academic, social, and developmental needs of students in tandem with the capacity of the school and teachers to offer flexible and personalized options for students. For all this to occur, teachers must be empowered to create and implement effective instructional strategies that encourage students to actively participate in their learning. This case study describes data analyzed from four districts that participated in The Learning Accelerator (TLA)’s Strategy Lab program, revealing various elements of learner-centered design: targeted and relevant, growth oriented, socially connected, and actively engaging. Although the districts indicated that their teachers use strategies that promote learner-centered design, they also discovered that students were not necessarily active or empowered participants in their learning. As a result of their investigation, each district designed a pilot to address the challenge of learner-centered design. These projects showcase their commitment to providing the necessary support to 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.

What the Research Says About Learner-Centered Design

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. At TLA, we believe that for every child to have an effective education, it should be personalized, mastery-based, and focused on the whole child. To achieve that vision, educators and leaders should leverage strategies that align to four key practice areas (see Figure 1). We recommend that educators and leaders consider these learner-centered practices as they design, implement, and improve virtual and hybrid learning approaches.

Figure 1. TLA’s best practices for teaching and learning.

Learner-centered design prioritizes the needs, preferences, and personal goals of the student
. This concept is a shift from more traditional approaches to learning which situates the teacher as the one who delivers instruction to students who receive it. Through our continued research and work with districts and schools, we have identified four components of learner-centered design and supporting strategies:

  • Targeted and Relevant: Rigorous, grade-level learning; differentiated pathways and materials; individual and small-group instruction; and culturally relevant and sustaining

  • Actively Engaging: Choice and agency; authentic inquiry and application; self-directed learning; and knowledge activation and reflection

  • Socially Connected: Peer learning and collaboration; family engagement and involvement; relationship and trust-building; and communication and civic connection

  • Growth Oriented: Goal-setting and planning; meaningful feedback; sustained opportunities for practice; and progress monitoring and reporting

For more on each of these components, including actionable examples from the field, see TLA’s Teaching and Learning Practices resources.

TLA acknowledges that context and system capacity (e.g., staffing structures, state and local policies, district priorities) play a significant role in instructional design. While our organization offers our definition of learner-centered design, TLA recognizes that the process for implementing these practices will look different for each district and school.

What we do know is that learner-centered design fosters improved engagement and motivation for students [1; see full reference list below]. In this case, students actively construct their knowledge through various learning experiences, including collaborating with peers [2, 3]. Learner-centered design is also a critical driver of quality virtual and remote learning. As school leaders and educators consider how to implement effective instruction in the virtual and hybrid classroom, we offer our research-based work on drivers of quality to inform improvement efforts that foster learner-centered design. Essentially, relationships, pedagogy, and technology should be in service of effective learner-centered instruction.

Figure 2. 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 that result in learner-centered experiences; and

  • Relationships as the lever to build community and culture.

Because effective virtual and hybrid learning is highly dependent on opportunities that foster student engagement, teachers must develop a deep understanding of – and pedagogy behind – learner-centered design.

  1. Teachers must have sufficient pedagogical knowledge so they can design instruction that is targeted and relevant as well as actively engaging for students – including personalized pathways and opportunities for student voice and choice.

  2. Teachers need to understand the importance of providing students with actionable feedback as well as opportunities for practice, goal-setting, and mastery learning, adopting a mindset that learning should be growth oriented and not based on seat time.

  3. Teachers need to establish a warm classroom environment so that students have opportunities to engage in learning that is socially connected with their peers and their community.

  4. Most importantly, the best instructional design will not be effective if teachers and students are not provided with the time and resources necessary to support empowered learning in the classroom, such as sustained professional development, rigorous instructional materials, adequate planning time, and support from administrators.

The Challenge of Learner-Centered Design

One challenge to learner-centered design is addressing the diverse learning needs and preferences of students. We know that since no two learners are alike, tailoring content to meet their varied needs and providing meaningful feedback may prove to be a time-management challenge for teachers to tackle on their own. Educators may also face the following challenges:

  • Balancing the need to provide students with rigorous tasks and address individual learning differences;

  • Ensuring that students attain mastery when they have varied skills and knowledge;

  • Effectively communicating with and supporting students and families to understand the shift from a teacher- to learner-centered model as the majority are likely accustomed to more traditional teaching; and

  • Scalability and teacher capacity to implement learner-centered designs.

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

While examining items from the team assessments that specifically mentioned choice, agency, independence, and self-direction, TLA identified trends related to learner-centered design. Participant responses on select items revealed that although approximately 32% of schools consistently implemented measures to support learner-centered design, the majority of districts (59%) indicated that they were in the beginning stages, particularly as they pertained to leveraging technology and instructional strategies to support student choice and agency.

Figure 3. Team responses using the Stoplight Protocol from Data Wise to identify the degree to which policies and practices supported learner-centered design.

A deeper analysis of the available data (i.e., districts’ workbooks, coaching notes, interviews, team reflections, individual and team assessments, collaborative activities) from all 20 district teams revealed four schools in which learner-centered design emerged as a recurring and predominant theme. Each of these districts identified some aspect of learner-centered design as a problem of practice in different 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 learner-centered design. Detailed case studies then provide additional information and context.

Gulfport Virtual Academy

Gulfport Virtual Academy is a small virtual school with an enrollment of 89 K-10 students in a suburban district in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Learner-Centered Design (Targeted and Relevant): The team discovered issues with students not completing work in their asynchronous elective classes. This led them to identify the necessary traits of an independent learner and strategies through which teachers could leverage technology to make learning more targeted and relevant.

Pilot Plan: Tailor instruction so that it is targeted and relevant to middle-school students’ academic needs by introducing a weekly synchronous session in formerly fully asynchronous elective classes.

Cabarrus Virtual Academy

Cabarrus Virtual Academy is a hybrid school with an enrollment of 300 K-12 students, located in a suburban district in Concord, North Carolina.

Learner-Centered Design (Actively Engaging): Team members noticed that their middle-school students did not have many opportunities to actively engage in their learning. They also wondered to what degree their students were provided with choice and agency.

Pilot Plan: Increase opportunities for students to be actively engaged by implementing a cross-curricular, collaborative, project-based learning (PBL) unit for all middle schoolers.

Newport News Virtual Learning Academy

Newport News Virtual Learning Academy is a small virtual school with an enrollment of 467 grade 1-12 students in a suburban district in Newport News, Virginia.

Learner-Centered Design (Socially Connected): Team members shared that high-school students struggled in the current program model. They wondered if relationship-building would encourage students who are academically at-risk to persist in their academics.

Pilot Plan: Create opportunities for high-school students and teachers to develop a relationship through ongoing communication and in-person events that allow for socially connected learning.

Plymouth-Canton Community Schools' Virtual Academy

Plymouth-Canton Community Schools' Virtual Academy has an enrollment of 299 K-12 students serving a suburban district in Plymouth, Michigan.

Learner-Centered Design (Growth Oriented): The team noticed that students struggled in the asynchronous courses as evidenced by low assignment completion. They questioned if their course design offered students opportunities for sustained practice to demonstrate mastery over time.

Pilot Plan: Add asynchronous days to a formerly fully synchronous schedule to foster growth-oriented practices such as goal-setting, planning, and progress-monitoring for middle-school students.

Future Implications

The needs assessments conducted by these four district teams revealed similar root causes to their problems of practice: fostering learner-centered design. Although these schools shared a similar challenge, they each chose a different way to address the issue:

  • Gulfport Virtual Academy introduced weekly synchronous sessions to ensure that instruction was targeted and relevant to middle-school students’ academic needs.

  • Cabarrus Virtual Academy implemented a school-wide PBL unit so that middle-school students would be actively engaged in their learning.

  • Newport News Virtual Learning Academy created opportunities for high-school students and teachers to be socially connected through hosting in-person activities and on-going communication.

  • P-CCS Virtual Academy introduced weekly asynchronous sessions so that instruction was more growth oriented and nurtured skills such as independence and self-sufficiency for middle-school students.

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

Because virtual/hybrid learning requires students to be self-directed, it is critical that teachers know how to design effective instruction that is learner-centered. Teachers can accomplish this by using strategies that align to four key practice areas: targeted and relevant, actively engaging, socially connected, and growth oriented. To address challenges specific to virtual/hybrid settings, TLA recommends that districts leverage three quality drivers (technology, pedagogy, and relationships) to inform their policies and practices, especially as they relate to learner-centered design:

  • If teachers have sufficient technology and pedagogical knowledge to design and implement instruction that is targeted and relevant, then students will be able to access and interact with materials and experiences that are tailored to their unique needs, strengths, interests, and abilities.

  • If teachers have sufficient technology and pedagogical knowledge to design and implement instruction that is actively engaging, then students will be motivated and empowered to take ownership of their learning.

  • If teachers and leaders establish a school culture that prioritizes social connections, then students will be able to develop meaningful, supportive relationships with teachers, peers, and content to persist, deepen commitment to learning, and co-create together.

  • If teachers have sufficient technology and pedagogical knowledge to design and implement instruction that is growth oriented, then students will gain skills as they build intentionally towards mastery learning.

Taking It Forward

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

  • Teachers need to know how to design effective instruction for synchronous and asynchronous learning;

  • Student voices should inform program design and instructional delivery;

  • Students should be empowered to leverage technology as a means for self-directed learning; and

  • Program design should be flexible to individual student needs, interests, and abilities.

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. While entrenched policies and practices (e.g., state-mandated testing, required curricula, funding requirements) may prevent large-scale changes, TLA recommends starting small by focusing on one aspect of an instructional program at a time. More importantly, although it may seem a daunting task for teachers to plan for differentiation and personalized learning, TLA believes this task may be more manageable and sustainable if students work in tandem with teachers to co-create educational experiences.

As the four 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 challenge of developing learner-centered design practices by:

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

2. Gathering data to understand the challenge: As a team, examine the quality of your virtual or hybrid learning environment.

3. Identifying and implementing the conditions necessary to support planning, adoption, and scaling of new initiatives: To address the issue of implementing learner-centered design, districts must have a concrete vision for remote/hybrid learning that describes how students will experience an engaging, effective, and equitable learning environment, and should communicate this vision clearly to all stakeholders. In addition, districts need to foster a culture of change, cultivate relationships, and provide a sustainable professional learning program for educators.

4. Identifying and implementing promising practices: Teachers need to intentionally design their class structure to be user-friendly, with clear guidance and support for students, many of whom are developing self-directed learning skills. Teachers not only need to clearly communicate norms and expectations for learning, engagement, and behavior, but they also need to offer students voice and choice in their learning.

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.

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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.