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Highline Virtual Academy's Approach to Student Expectations and Engagement in Virtual Learning

How one virtual program addressed student participation and discourse through expectations


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, establishing norms and expectations. The district team gathered data, explored potential solutions, and then designed, implemented, measured, and reflected on a pilot program created to address norms and expectations.

To learn more about TLA’s research on effective instruction as it relates to establishing norms and expectations, please visit our Insight: Norms and Expectations in Virtual and Hybrid Learning.

Highline Virtual Academy

Highline Virtual Academy, a virtual and hybrid school based in Washington, serves 250 students in grades 6-12. The school opened in the fall of 2021, offering a new option for students and families who thrive in independent, online learning. Their instructional model offers a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities. They joined Strategy Lab to explore ways to increase engagement–specifically authentic two-way communication.

Understanding the Challenge

The team identified two challenges:

  1. The need to establish common expectations for synchronous class participation; and

  2. The need to provide scaffolds to encourage student discourse.

According to their team assessment, district leaders believed they consistently articulated clear expectations for virtual learning to students, families, and teachers. However, given that the school was early in its development, leaders recognized that teachers were only in the beginning stages of using common norms for organizing content and materials. They also acknowledged that inconsistencies existed for establishing common norms for organizing materials and assignments for students. On their collaborative Jamboard (virtual workspace), the team posed a telling question: “How do we know that students and families are clear on expectations?”

Empathy interview data with teachers offered additional insights, revealing that for the most part, students chose to use the chat function in Zoom as opposed to unmuting and sharing their answers verbally.

In response to a survey question about what would encourage students to unmute during synchronous sessions, 10 of the 20 teachers responded with answers alluding to setting an expectation for unmuting or attaching verbal participation to grades.

Empathy interview data with students revealed three main reasons why they did not verbally participate in synchronous sessions:

  1. Not sure what to say (67%)

  2. Nervousness (63%)

  3. Not confident in speaking (57%)

Continued conversations around policies and practices pointed to a problem of practice: the challenge of providing clear expectations and guidelines for verbal participation in the online setting. To address this issue, the team designed and piloted a program to help teachers design scaffolds and guidelines for verbal participation.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution

The team piloted a professional development cycle to train teachers on how to encourage student discussion and dialogue in their online classes. They provided teachers with a big-picture view, displaying connections across reading, writing, listening, and speaking standards. The team then created a set of expectations for student participation, curated a list of strategies to help increase student verbal engagement, and presented these strategies and best practices to teachers. Due to the timing constraints, only two educators – one English language arts teacher and one social studies teacher – piloted the strategies.

Taking Action

The pilot included two key components:

  • Providing Scaffolds for Speaking: The team provided strategies that teachers could implement to help students practice verbal skills. For example, teachers were advised to co-create discussion norms (for both whole-group settings and breakout rooms), provide sentence frames, and assist students in setting personal speaking goals.

Learning more about how to build language proficiency.

Learn more about using sentence stems.

  • Communicating the “Why:” The pilot team shared that initially the teachers believed technology or student comfort level with technology posed barriers to student engagement – specifically, communication – during virtual sessions. However, after explaining the purpose for communication, providing a connection to standards and assessment, and giving teachers time to implement the structured speaking strategies with their students, the pilot teachers realized that scaffolded support for discourse and dialogue influenced student engagement and communication in their classes.

Learn more about the importance of communication for change initiatives.

By intentionally incorporating structured speaking strategies, the two pilot teachers were able to provide their students with the necessary support to verbally practice articulating their thoughts and sharing their learnings with peers. Workbook notes revealed an unintended consequence: students reflected not only on their need to engage with others, but also on the need to make space for others to engage. According to the leadership team, both students and teachers reported increased engagement (communication) after the implementation of the structured speaking strategies.

A post-pilot survey of teachers revealed an ongoing plan to utilize discussion norms and sentence stems with their classes. Pilot teacher survey responses also indicated intentions to continue the use of speaking and listening standards to guide instructional decisions as well as provide students with rubrics to assess their growth.

Story of Change

As shared by the district, “The pre-and post-surveys were useful to help us glean some information about student and teacher experiences with attending to talk structures. After intentionally focusing on instructional strategies related to discussion, teachers realized it actually did have an impact on student engagement.”

By taking intentional steps to collect data from key stakeholders affected by their pilot, district leaders were able to use their feedback to sharpen their focus on the strategies and structures that provided a positive benefit to their practice.

The district leadership team is planning to use the lessons they learned from this pilot to establish routines to start the new school year, and they intend to continue implementing scaffolded discussion strategies both in person and online. Additionally, as they transfer to a new learning management system, they are working to create clear expectations for student-directed learning. This two-pronged approach to making incremental improvements aligns with why Highline joined Strategy Lab: to explore ways to increase student engagement – specifically authentic two-way communication.