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PCCS' Approach to Setting Norms and Expectations

How one virtual school addressed norms and expectations for 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, 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.

Plymouth-Canton Community Schools' 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 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.

Understanding the Challenge

The team identified two challenges:

  1. The need to clearly articulate expectations to better support students with virtual learning; and

  2. The need to train teachers on best practices for establishing norms and expectations in a virtual learning environment.

Evidence from their team assessment revealed that district leaders believed they consistently articulated clear expectations for virtual learning to teachers. According to the team, these expectations were communicated during professional development sessions and staff meetings. At the same time, district leaders ranked themselves as beginning to articulate clear expectations for virtual learning to students and families – including the use of common norms for organizing content and material across courses. The team shared that the district technology department created a course template for the teachers to use; however, since its use was not required, many teachers ended up creating their own.

According to workbook entries from the district team, during the pandemic, emergency remote learning relied on daily synchronous sessions. Since returning to in-person instruction in the district, enrollment numbers in the virtual academy have declined as students expressed frustration with its teaching structure, in which they were required to be on Zoom for the entirety of the school day. Notes from a coaching session with Strategy Lab facilitators revealed that the team surveyed families to gather their feedback about the design of the program and shared that approximately three-quarters of the respondents indicated that they wanted “something else… but they [weren’t] sure what they [wanted].” This revelation led the district team to consider how to redesign their program to better fit the needs of students and families. The team discussed converting their current model (100% synchronous instruction) to a hybrid one that would include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. As with any change, an equally important task presented itself: how to clearly communicate the vision, mission, and expectations for virtual and hybrid learning. Even though the team did not yet have an exact idea of the changes they wanted to implement, coaching notes revealed that they recognized the importance of communication and expectation-setting.

Throughout the Strategy Lab coaching process, the team discussed policies and practices, ultimately identifying a problem of practice: the challenge of how to establish school-wide consistency and clarity in course design as well as expectations of learning tasks. To address this issue, the team decided to design and pilot a program to help teachers learn how to design their online courses to provide clarity, direction, and guidance for students.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution

The leadership team designed a pilot that included a one-day workshop for teachers to prepare them for a redesigned middle-school schedule integrating the addition of asynchronous learning time to supplement the existing synchronous instruction. During the workshop, teachers received instruction around designing their home and course pages in Canvas (their LMS) to ensure that it was user-friendly, providing clear structure and guidance for students.

Taking Action

The pilot included two components:

  • User-Friendly Design: To establish school-wide expectations for webpage design as well as to provide clarity and consistency for students, teachers learned how to design the layout of their homepage in their learning management system (Canvas) as well as how to organize information – including learning goals, assignment requirements, and due dates – for each lesson.

Learn more about centralizing instructional materials through curriculum blueprints.

  • Teacher Professional Development: To be effective, teacher professional development should be targeted, relevant, and timely. The teachers participated in this workshop prior to the implementation of new changes in the school schedule and instructional model to include more asynchronous learning.

Learn more about quality online professional development.

When the team analyzed survey data from their pilot, they found that while 51% of the students shared that they liked the new schedule, 31% indicated that they did not want to continue with the new format. When reflecting on their pilot, the team recognized that communication of expectations still posed a challenge as both students and families indicated they did not feel comfortable with the new structure or expectations. Notes from the team’s workbook described a key area of confusion – the perception among both students and families that school days that did not integrate time in Zoom rooms signified (incorrectly) that students were not expected to participate in learning activities.

After completing their pilot, the district repeated their team assessment, reflecting on the progress they made during Strategy Lab. They made observations such as advancing from beginning to consistently articulating clear expectations for virtual learning to students and families. The team also indicated that teachers made valuable inroads from beginning to consistently using and providing students with common norms for learning materials. During discussions around how to continue their progress, the team noted that they intend to continue their focus on how to better communicate the role of asynchronous learning and its associated expectations to families and students.

Stories of Change

A seventh grader, who had been with the virtual academy for two years, shared what worked well for him during the pilot: “Having every portion of the assignment list for the day in a separate module was helpful. Otherwise, it is easy to forget which warm-ups I completed and which ones I still had to do. Without a module, there is no way to check it off of my [to-do] list or to remember that I have to do it. This would even be helpful if it was just one assignment of warm-ups to turn in per week.”

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.”

One teacher voiced a positive experience from this pilot: “I loved the schedule from a teaching standpoint. I felt it was an effective amount of time to plan, record videos, grade, give timely feedback, and help students who asked for help. I was able to work with many students and interact with parents via email (17 different email interactions over the course of the week).”

The district leadership team is planning to use the lessons they learned to iterate and try the pilot again but with a few adjustments: a longer time frame (two weeks) and consecutive synchronous days instead of staggered ones throughout the week. Workbook reflections show that the team felt positively about the addition of asynchronous learning and are looking for ways to provide better clarity of the new instructional format and communicate expectations to students and families. 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.