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Gulfport Virtual Academy's Approach to Targeted, Relevant Virtual Learning

How a virtual school made instruction targeted and relevant to center students


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.

Gulfport Virtual Academy

A small virtual school based in Mississippi serving 89 K-10 students, Gulfport Virtual Academy’s instructional model includes a combination of synchronous instruction for core classes and structured time for in-person or virtual asynchronous instruction for electives. They joined Strategy Lab because they wanted to grow and improve their virtual program to be a sustainable option for students.

Addressing Learner-Centered Design: Targeted and Relevant Instruction

The team identified a core challenge specific to learner-centered design: how to provide instruction that was specific to the needs of their middle-school students. They wanted to encourage more student engagement and work completion in elective classes.

Team assessment data revealed that teachers were beginning to provide specific instruction to help students become independent, self-directed learners. They acknowledged an inconsistency among teachers to leverage both asynchronous and synchronous learning experiences to meet their students’ needs. The team also recognized the need to improve teachers’ abilities to provide targeted and relevant learning experiences, specifically in elective courses.

Coaching notes revealed the team’s recognition of the importance of understanding what students find motivating. Particularly when considering learner-centered program design, as a member of the Gulfport team remarked, “You can’t personalize learning for the kid you don’t know.” This led them to interview students about their thoughts on Gulfport’s current instructional model. During one empathy interview, an eighth-grade student shared, “I don’t entirely feel like I’m being pushed.” When pressed further, the student remarked, “If [the assignment is] not challenging, then I just lose all interest in it and have no motivation to even do it.” The team later recorded in their workbook that they would like to see student attitudes toward elective classes improve.

Throughout the coaching process, the team discussed current policies and practices, and they ultimately identified a problem of practice: the challenge of how to redesign the learning experience in the asynchronous elective classes. To address this issue, the team decided to design and pilot a program to help teachers design effective virtual instruction that was targeted and relevant to student needs.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution

The leadership team piloted a redesign of their asynchronous elective courses for grades seven and eight. To address the need to provide effective virtual instruction, the pilot included one-to-one professional support for the pilot teacher with the district’s virtual learning coordinator. To address the need for targeted and relevant learning experiences, the redesign added real-time, synchronous student support to the formerly fully asynchronous elective courses.

Taking Action

The pilot focused on two core components:

  • Synchronous Virtual Learning: The pilot teacher met with Grade 7 Cyber Foundations and Grade 8 Computer Science students once a week for six weeks. The purpose of these 15-minute synchronous sessions was to provide students with appropriate guidelines and expectations for asynchronous learning while also offering them real-time support. Of note, students were accustomed to synchronous instruction in their core academic classes, so the introduction of a synchronous session to their elective course would not likely be a difficult transition.
  • Instructional Design: The virtual learning coordinator met with the pilot teacher to provide support for planning and facilitating both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Although the pilot teacher was an experienced educator, this was the first year the teacher taught computer science as well as the first time they delivered instruction virtually. In this case, the coordinator supported this teacher in designing new learning experiences that were targeted and relevant to the needs of their students.

Although the inclusion of a synchronous session in an asynchronous-only class was a challenging adjustment for some students, the pilot teacher relayed that, overall, students liked being able to ask questions and receive clarification around assignments. The pilot teacher shared, “The students were more involved and seemed to care more about their projects and assignments when we met.”

A second team assessment revealed that the district found value in taking a more learner-centered approach by implementing more personalized instructional pathways. In addition, they saw work completion and an increase in grades for students who attended the synchronous sessions. As a result of the pilot, the team is now considering the benefits of offering both synchronous and asynchronous instruction for all students as it created opportunities for teachers to provide more targeted support and ensure that learning experiences felt relevant to the students. Thus, it appears that designing targeted and relevant learning experiences specific to the needs of middle-school students met the team’s intended goal.

Story of Change

The following is one student’s experience on Gulfport Virtual Academy’s journey to create more targeted and relevant learning opportunities.

As shared by the district, “The student and her mother both told the pilot team in empathy interviews they did not enjoy completely asynchronous classes, so from there, the team developed a plan to schedule synchronous time within otherwise fully asynchronous classes. After new synchronous time was added to the schedule, the student and her mother both indicated in the survey that classes were more enjoyable and the expectations for learning were made more clear by having time with the teacher(s).”

The district leadership team is planning to use lessons learned from this pilot to iterate and make improvements. They are looking to expand the synchronous sessions across all electives in the upcoming year to increase engagement and provide more targeted support for assignments, and they plan to conduct additional empathy interviews with students to better understand student struggles in the asynchronous classes. The team also recognized the need to develop differentiated learning pathways to engage all students. By focusing on learner-centered design principles – specifically targeted and relevant learning strategies – Gulfport’s team can better motivate and engage their students. Their plan aligns with the reason why Gulfport joined Strategy Lab: to grow and improve their virtual program to be a sustainable option for students.