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P-CCS' Approach to Student-Centered Virtual Learning

Centering students in virtual learning with mastery-based instruction


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.

Plymouth-Canton Community School Virtual Academy

Plymouth-Canton Community Schools' (P-CCS) Virtual Academy, a virtual school based in Michigan, serves 299 K-12 students. Their instructional model includes fully synchronous instruction alongside access to in-person clubs and sports for middle- and high-school students at their local school. They joined Strategy Lab to create a vision and viable action plan for their virtual program.

Addressing Learner-Centered Design: Growth Oriented Instruction

The team identified a core challenge specific to learner-centered design: how to provide flexibility in their instructional program to best meet the needs of their students. They wanted to provide students with the skills to be self-sufficient and independent thinkers.

The team discussed the limitations of offering a fully synchronous program – a carryover from emergency remote learning during the pandemic – as some students appeared to struggle with being on Zoom all day. Besides relying heavily on teachers for support, the team also recognized that their current program design was not necessarily learner centered.

A closer examination of the team assessment data revealed that students were beginning to engage in individualized activities to improve specific aspects of their own learning through repetition, revision, or refinement. The team also shared that they were not sure to what extent the feedback students received was meaningful or growth oriented.

Throughout the Strategy Lab coaching process, the team discussed policies and practices, ultimately identifying a problem of practice: the challenge of how to design instruction for middle schoolers that is growth oriented. To address this issue, the team decided to design and pilot a program that would help students intentionally work toward mastery.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution

The team piloted a revamped, hybrid schedule of two synchronous (Tuesday, Thursday) and three asynchronous (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) days for middle schoolers. Alternating synchronous and asynchronous days enabled teachers to take a more growth oriented approach, leveraging a combination of whole and independent practice to meet the varied and immediate needs of students.

Taking Action

The pilot included two components:

  • Hybrid Schedule: The team purposely changed the schedule for middle-school students to encourage the development of independent learning skills and create opportunities for students to have one-on-one access to their teachers. The hybrid schedule allowed teachers to better orient towards student growth by creating deliberate opportunities for practice, providing more actionable feedback, and assisting students as they planned their work and identified ways to monitor their progress.
  • Foster Independence: The pilot team believed that students needed to develop skills such as goal-setting, planning, and progress-monitoring. By implementing a hybrid schedule, students received synchronous whole-class instruction prior to working independently on asynchronous days.

Feedback from the pilot revealed that students like the flexibility of the hybrid schedule – likely due to the fact that they could set goals and plan their work day to suit their needs. As teachers made themselves available for one-to-one conferences or small-group sessions on asynchronous days, students could also schedule time to meet with teachers to discuss their academic progress and next steps.

A post-pilot survey revealed that 51% of middle-school students wanted to continue with the hybrid schedule, with 17% indicating that they were not sure and 31% relaying that they did not want the new schedule to continue. Notable student feedback included a request to schedule synchronous days concurrently and add more small-group time to asynchronous days. It appears that giving students voice and choice in configuring instructional time empowered them to share additional changes they believed would better support their learning – a prime outcome of learner-centered design.

Stories of Change

A seventh grader, who had been with the virtual academy for two years, shared how the new hybrid schedule helped him with planning and goal-setting: “I liked that some classes published assignments before school started on Monday morning so that I knew what I had to do for the entire week. I also liked that some assignments were due on Sunday night as it gave me flexibility to work on the weekend if needed.”

According to the district, his mother enrolled him in the virtual academy because of health concerns, and this new learning environment allowed him to become a leader in his class. His mother shared, “He is excited to try this new approach. It may even enable him to free up a few hours, and then we can do some exploration outside of the standard classroom.”

The district leadership team plans to use the lessons learned to iterate and try the pilot again – but with a few adjustments: a longer timeframe (two weeks instead of one) and consecutive synchronous days instead of staggered ones throughout the week. Workbook reflections showed that the team felt positively about the addition of asynchronous learning as they believed it allowed teachers to design more growth oriented learning opportunities for students – a key tenet of learner-centered design. This plan aligns with the reason why Plymouth-Canton Community Schools' Virtual Academy joined Strategy Lab: to create a vision and viable action plan for their virtual program.