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Cabarrus Virtual Academy's Approach to Active Engagement in Virtual Learning

How a virtual academy integrated active engagement into their program


Between January 2022 and June 2023, the district featured below was one of 20 participants in The Learning Accelerator (TLA)’s Strategy Lab: Virtual & Hybrid program to address a problem of practice related to virtual and hybrid learning environments. Through their participation in Strategy Lab, this team was guided through a multi-step process to identify their unique goals and gaps before determining and designing measurable solutions to their challenge. The Strategy Lab program was based on the Real-Time Redesign (RTR) toolkit, which takes participants through a rapid, research-based, and field-tested process for making targeted improvement toward more equitable, effective, and engaging virtual/hybrid learning and included:

For approximately 18 months, this district worked in Strategy Lab’s cohort model to identify and address a problem of practice specific to their virtual program – in this case, learner-centered design. The district team gathered data, explored potential solutions, and then created, implemented, measured, and reflected on a pilot program created to address learner-centered design.

Each district featured in our learner-centered design case study was selected based upon their focus on one particular aspect of learner-centered design: targeted and relevant, actively engaging, socially connected, or growth oriented. What is important to note is that each district chose to focus on an aspect of learner-centered design that emerged from team discussions, self- and team assessments, and aligned to their reason for joining Strategy Lab. To better visualize this concept, we propose considering the idea of learner-centered design that is personalized, mastery-based, and addresses the whole child. Figure 1 illustrates this concept.

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

To learn more about TLA’s research on effective instruction as it relates to learner-centered design, please visit our Insight: Learner-Centered Design.

Cabarrus Virtual Academy

Cabarrus Virtual Academy, a hybrid school based in North Carolina serving 300 K-12 students, describes their instructional model as a combination of virtual and in-person instruction. They joined Strategy Lab to learn how to create an accessible and sustainable student-centered instructional program for all students across their district.

Addressing Learner-Centered Design: Actively Engaging Instruction

The team identified a core challenge specific to learner-centered design: how to encourage more student engagement and participation in learning. They wanted to provide opportunities for students to be actively engaged in learning tasks so that they would become more independent, creative learners who are better prepared for online learning in the future.

According to the team assessment, teachers were beginning to use instructional strategies that fostered active learning as well as produce multimedia resources to support learner engagement. Discussions during the needs assessment prompted the team to ask: to what degree do students take ownership over their learning? By the same token, workbook entries showed that the team wanted to ensure their middle-school students were prepared with certain skills – independence and self-directed learning – before they transitioned to high school.

Continued conversations around existing policies and practices pointed to a problem of practice: the challenge of providing opportunities for middle schoolers to actively engage in their learning. To address this issue, the team decided to design and pilot a project-based learning (PBL) lesson. They hypothesized that this plan would provide middle-school students with needed opportunities to actively engage in authentic inquiry and application of knowledge while also empowering them in their learning.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution

The leadership team piloted the introduction of a PBL lesson across grades 6-8. The purpose of implementing this learner-centered design was for students to be actively engaged during in-person days as well as transfer the onus of learning from the teacher to the students. To do this, the team intended to foster active learning among students as they solved a real-world problem and reflected on their progress.

Prior to the in-person PBL day, teachers took students through a design cycle and piqued their interest by showing a video that demonstrated an engineering challenge around boat-building. Teachers told students that they would be working on a boat project in cross-grade level teams, but they would not know the full scope of the materials available to them until the day of the in-person event. To further solicit student interest, teachers shared that there would be a contest at the end of the day to see who built the best boat. Additional components of this learner-centered design included activating prior knowledge, engaging in visible thinking, and completing team self-reflection.

Taking Action

The pilot featured two key components:

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL): The pilot team concentrated their efforts to create an actively engaging learning experience for middle-school students. For the PBL project, students needed to design and execute a plan on how to build a boat that would propel itself across water.
  • Collaborative Reflection: After the completion of the PBL project, students completed a boat-building design process rubric within their teams. The purpose of this activity was to provide students with an opportunity to actively reflect on their group’s process and final product – a key component of learner-centered design.

Data from the pilot revealed that 100% of students who attended the in-person PBL day actively engaged with the task and earned a passing grade for their project. According to the pilot team, the middle-school teachers noted the enthusiasm of students as well as a decreased dependence on teachers to provide support as students instead collaborated with their teammates. Notes recorded by a team of students during the design cycle indicated active engagement and reflection as they refined their original design after the initial prototype did not work as expected.

This group reflected on their revised prototype which included the addition of a balloon and added weight which were not present on their initial prototype: “We noticed that the boat didn’t really move for a few seconds as the air from the balloon didn’t flow as much as we wanted. The back of the boat also didn’t hold up for long, which caused the boat to sink.”

Additional evidence provided by the pilot team showed students actively engaged in discussion as well as testing their prototypes.

Workbook entries from the pilot team revealed students more meaningfully and actively engaged with the implementation of the PBL lesson. Teachers saw a variety of successful solutions as each group took a different approach with the project and appeared to learn a lot from the active learning experience. More promisingly, both teachers and students remarked that they would like to participate in additional actively engaging activities.

Story of Change

The PBL lesson encouraged active engagement, but as the following story shows, this particular learning experience also provided additional benefits: instilling in students a sense of belonging, ownership, and empowerment.

As shared by the district team, “We have a student who recently came to us from another school after numerous accounts of bullying and teachers not responding to her unique learning needs. This student was so engaged during the pre-work sessions that she emailed her teachers and her principal ideas she thought of and research she independently completed.

During the in-person PBL event, this student was very engaged. Even though she was the youngest team member, she blossomed! She assumed leadership of the group and did an expert job organizing and soliciting great responses from her teammates. It was her time to shine, and she did! Her mom emailed the principal that evening to tell her and the teachers that her child had never had such a positive learning experience. She remarked that her child was excited about learning again.”

The district leadership team is planning to use the lessons from this pilot to learn, iterate, and scale whole-school PBL learning. As they look forward to the new school year, the team intends to add more actively engaging, learner-centered opportunities as part of their school improvement plan. This aligns with why Cabarrus joined Strategy Lab: to learn how to create an accessible and sustainable student-centered instructional program.