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Novi Virtual's Approach to Teacher and Student Capacity with Technology

How one virtual school used technology to increase instruction access and empower educators


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, teacher and student capacity with technology. The district team gathered data, explored potential solutions, and then designed, implemented, measured, and reflected on a pilot program created to address teacher and student technology knowledge and skills.

To learn more about TLA’s research on effective instruction as it relates to teacher and student capacity, please visit our Insight: Addressing Teacher and Student Capacity with Technology.

Novi Virtual

A small, virtual school based in Michigan serving 200 K-12 students, Novi Virtual’s instructional model offers a combination of live, on-demand, and independent work. They joined Strategy Lab because they wanted to provide meaningful, equitable, and accessible virtual courses for students.

Understanding the Challenge

The team identified two challenges:

  1. The need to provide students with flexible and equitable access to instruction; and

  2. The need to make teachers feel empowered to try new technologies and teaching practices to help reach disengaged students.

According to their team assessment, district leaders believed teachers knew how to leverage different modalities, provide actionable feedback, and use assessment tools to differentiate instruction. However, they also felt that certain areas could be improved. For example, the team admitted that teachers needed additional training on developing high-quality virtual content and support for creating asynchronous content.

Fortunately, evidence from the team assessment showed that the leadership team believed students spent more time learning from technology as opposed to trying to navigate or use it. However, the data also revealed a gap related to student comfort with technology as well as their ability to access technology support. Although on-site technical support was provided during an open-house event to proactively troubleshoot technology issues, when the district conducted empathy interviews with students, they learned of ongoing frustration with technology:

  • “The Schoology issues make virtual learning really annoying because I can't access stuff.”

  • “I felt really behind, and it was hard to catch up.”

Continued conversations around current policies and practices pointed to a problem of practice: the challenge of redesigning instruction to better meet the needs of students. To address this issue, the team decided to design and pilot a program to help teachers better design effective virtual instruction.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution

The team addressed teacher capacity by conducting a full-day workshop that educated teachers on the importance of designing engaging synchronous and asynchronous activities. They were provided with hands-on support on how to record instructional videos as well as how to design a variety of assessments within their learning management system. 

After completing the workshop, four high school teachers piloted a flipped virtual model as a strategy to offer flexibility for students. In this flipped virtual model, students would receive instruction either synchronously from the teacher or via pre-recorded video, and then they would complete their work asynchronously.

Taking Action

Teachers chose to pilot one of two different options:

  • As-Needed Support: Three high school teachers replaced three to four all-day synchronous sessions with drop-in, as-needed support for struggling students. The purpose of this option was to provide small-group or individual instruction to struggling students.

Learn more about setting up virtual teacher office hours.

  • Station Rotation Model: Another high school teacher implemented a rotation model where half the class met synchronously for two days during the week while the other half worked on asynchronous, content-related tasks. The purpose of this option was to reduce the number of students who attended the synchronous session, making it easier for the teacher to touch base with students.

Learn more about setting up a station rotation model.

Both options offered flexibility as high school students could determine how to structure their asynchronous work time, and both teachers and students responded favorably to these new instructional models. Many students relayed that they liked the flexibility of the class structure as well as the opportunity to receive one-on-one help. Although teachers shared that they were not sure if this structure helped the students most in need, they appreciated the relationship-building opportunities that resulted from meeting with students in smaller groups. According to the teachers, students appeared to be more willing to ask questions and share concerns during the drop-in office hours.

A second team assessment was completed after the pilot and revealed that the district believes it is now consistently ensuring teachers have adequate technology training. The team is looking to expand their pilot program to include K-6 teachers as well as more secondary teachers. It is also addressing student capacity by providing routines and procedures for using technology as well as a newsletter to help students learn how to access technology support.

Stories of Change

Teacher perspective, as shared by the district: “I have been in personal contact a lot more with students through messaging and emails. One of my ‘plusses’ has been that I have relied less on the Zoom class to reach the kids and more on personal messaging.”

This teacher’s comment is particularly relevant in that one of the ongoing challenges educators have faced is teacher burnout, especially at the secondary levels. This particular teacher is known within his district for building positive relationships and connecting with students. Prior to the pilot, he had indicated to his district team that he felt unsuccessful in reaching students and that he was struggling to establish any sort of rapport. What he found was that when students had more flexibility to choose when they needed support, they attended virtual sessions more frequently, and he felt that he had more opportunity to connect with them one-on-one. As the students who engaged with him over a messaging system did not have the pressure of being on camera with their peers, they felt more comfortable meeting in this format.

Student perspective, as shared by the district: “[I have] the ability to complete assignments at my own pace, which puts a lot more responsibility and accountability on the student; it gives a nice sense of freedom that is refreshing compared to doing assignments together as a class.”

This student’s comment mirrors what 95% of the collected student feedback suggested – that students do not like the rigid structure of participating in a live Zoom session every day. We found that home circumstances often necessitated more flexibility, and therefore, for many students, having the freedom to choose when to access and complete assignments was transformative.

The district leadership team is also planning to continue using the flipped virtual model as well as implement a unit at the start of the school year to train all students on using the various technology tools, course materials, and supports. The new plan they have in place aligns with the reason why they joined Strategy Lab: to provide meaningful, equitable, and accessible virtual courses for students.