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Lessons from Summer Learning Programs: 4 Ways to Create Effective Virtual Learning Experiences

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(Photo: Moyo Studio/iStock)
Over the past year, a dominant storyline has emerged on COVID-era education: virtual learning is unpopular with students and caregivers alike. Certainly, virtual learning has created acute challenges for everyone involved. But, for students who participated in several thoughtfully designed programs last year, there have been well-earned virtual learning successes as well. Students in these programs experienced growth in math and literacy skills, and reported remarkably high satisfaction rates.

Our team saw these outcomes firsthand through the 22 summer learning organizations we invested in last year. These programs, which reached nearly 45,000 students nationwide, reported 90-100% satisfaction rates from students and caregivers. What’s more, these students and their caregivers—the majority of whom are Black and Latinx—saw benefits atypical to many traditional classroom experiences, including trusting relationships with educators, a sense of belonging, family support and positive racial identity.

Of course, designing positive virtual learning experiences for students is not easy. In order for virtual learning opportunities to be successful, program creators need to design them intentionally with academic and social-emotional outcomes in mind. Below are four lessons we gleaned from our grantees on how to build strong virtual learning opportunities that foster academic success and bolster student wellbeing.

1. Create opportunities for connection and community.

Relationships have always been a key part of successful learning structures—and now the collective trauma of experiencing a pandemic has made relationships even more critical. Educators often feel pressure, now and in pre-COVID classrooms, to prioritize academics during their limited time with students. Last summer, our grantees recognized that community-building is an investment in students’ holistic development and a necessary prerequisite for engaging in learning. Summer learning programs that prioritized community-building reported a number of benefits for students, including trusting relationships with educators and academic growth.    

What this looked like in practice: Breakthrough Collaborative designed several structures and activities to create opportunities for connection and community-building among their college-age teaching fellows and middle school program participants, including small-group advisories, pep rallies, office hours, and “community work time.” This investment paid off; by the end of the summer, Breakthrough students reported forming positive relationships with their teachers and feeling more prepared for school in the fall. Breakthrough’s recently released white paper describes their community-building strategies and other tactics that help foster the relationships necessary for successful virtual learning.

2. Incorporate content that is culturally relevant.

Many of our grantees used materials that developed students’ academic knowledge and skills and that were also relevant to students’ lives. This enabled students to deepen their knowledge on a variety of pressing topics, develop academic and leadership skills, and increase their agency to address injustices in their communities—all while feeling valued and cared for. This is what relevant learning looks like at its best: building on students’ assets and showing them that they belong in their classroom community.

What this looked like in practice: Students participating in Generation Teach's summer program debated legal cases involving civil rights through use of the ThinkLaw curriculum. As a result of Generation Teach’s thoughtful approach, students made academic gains and reported feeling a sense of belonging in their virtual classrooms.

3. Prioritize family/caregiver engagement.

Several grantees reported that regular caregiver engagement was critical to helping students manage the logistics of virtual learning and engage in learning. The format of the support varied, ranging from weekly workshops and family hotlines, to regular one-on-one check-ins. But regardless of the format, the result was the same: families received the support they needed to get their technology working and support their students’ learning.

What this looked like in practice: Last summer, The Oakland REACH Virtual Family Hub connected each family with a liaison who provided daily social, academic and technical support to families. Offering this kind of support was incredibly well-received; nearly every parent said they wanted a liaison in the fall to ensure they could continue to access online learning from their local schools. In response to this exceptional feedback, liaisons have continued working with families over the school year to help students access high-quality instruction year-round.  

4. Expand the pool of potential teachers and tutors to include young people—especially young people of color.

Some of our summer learning grantees hired college and high school students who shared their students’ racial backgrounds to serve as student teachers and tutors. Since these programs served mostly Black and Latinx students, these teachers and tutors were Black and Latinx as well. This had benefits for everyone involved: students loved the programs, learned and developed new skills, and experienced an environment that honored and empowered their racial and ethnic identities. In addition, student teachers and tutors increased their interest in teaching—a positive outcome aligned with the well-documented benefits of more teachers of color in the classroom.

What this looked like in practice: In addition to hiring expert teachers of color, the Center for Black Educator Development's Freedom Schools Literacy Academy hired high school- and college-aged apprentice teachers to support students in grades 1-3. The program yielded excellent results for students, who strengthened their reading skills and expressed increased positive views of their own race and ethnicity. The program also benefited the college and high school students who participated; they reported greater confidence in speaking out against injustices and an increased interest in teaching (and teaching Black children in particular). 

By prioritizing evidence-based virtual learning methods, schools can support students’ academic development and their social-emotional wellbeing—even from afar. Soon (hopefully!), schools won't be nearly as reliant on virtual learning. But as long as they are, educators can look to innovative summer programs—and the lessons described here—for ways to improve the virtual learning experience for students year-round.


Jennie Herriot-Hatfield is a Portfolio Manager for Education Grantmaking at Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.