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Where the rubber meets the road: Exploring ideas of “use and usefulness” in a virtual school partnership

Southeast | November 19, 2022

Virtual school is still the newest place on the map of how we educate children, although the pandemic brought it into the spotlight like never before. Since 2014, the REL Southeast has explored what it means to have a research-practice partnership with virtual schools through the work with Florida Virtual School (FLVS). This year, with the start of the 2022-2027 REL cycle, we are taking an even closer look at how this partnership might help us understand what it takes to use and adapt existing IES resources in virtual school settings.

Why Focus on "Use and Usefulness"?

In the 2022 National Academies Press book, The Future of Research at IES: Advancing an Equity-Oriented Science1, the authors (a committee charged with providing guidance for future research at NCER and NCES)  described "use and usefulness" of educational research as a major lens "through which to identify salient questions, analyze key issues, and orient our recommendations." (p. 24). They noted that:

"As outlined in ESRA, the functions of IES include obligations to "promote the use, development, and application of knowledge gained from scientifically valid research activities," and "promote the use and application of research and development to improve practice in the classroom." Thus, the committee understands that IES's function is not merely to "disseminate," or inform the public about, research findings, but to take steps to enable their use in practice. As a result, the committee identified use and usefulness of research as a theme that must be consistently addressed." (p. 25)

They also proposed a new IES project type called "Knowledge Mobilization." Knowledge mobilization projects would2:

  • Articulate how knowledge flows across different roles, levels, offices, and sites in the system.
  • Examine and compare different processes for cultivating and sharing knowledge about implementation.
  • Develop and test strategies for addressing barriers and facilitators and supporting productive adaptation.
  • Investigate best practices for implementation and adaptation.
  • Examine how structures and systems contribute to the sustainability, spread, and scale of successful implementation.

The concept of "Use and Usefulness of Education Research" combined with the vision of Knowledge Mobilization projects offers an especially fascinating approach for viewing the challenges that virtual schools face in implementing evidence-based practices, along with different ways in which research-practice partnerships can work. For some topics, there may be no existing IES resources, such as practice-guides or tools, that provide a short-cut to identifying and implementing practices with a strong evidence base. In the last REL cycle, for example, our FLVS partnership discussed the emerging research literature on how teachers can form strong connections with students when working in virtual settings, and we produced new resources that summarized available evidence and recommendations. (See, for example, our infographics on social presence research: When Teachers and Students are Separated: Strategies from Research on Social Presence for Teaching at a Distance and Beyond the Virtual Classroom: Extending the Social Presence Model to Extracurricular Activities in Online Schools.)

In this cycle, however, FLVS is interested in a deep exploration of evidence-based practices for elementary literacy. This is an area in which IES and the What Works Clearinghouse resources are particularly plentiful and strong. A great deal of work has gone into practice guides and other tools to make the research on literacy instruction easier for schools and teachers to use in their practice. However, these resources were developed within the context of brick-and-mortar schools, and this may make them more difficult to use at all levels in a virtual school. For example, the barriers and facilitators for implementing certain practices may be different in virtual settings than in traditional settings and require more extensive adaptation. The structure and systems of virtual schools may also differ in ways that affect knowledge flow and successful implementation of practices across the organization.

To our knowledge, no one has closely examined what might be needed to support the use and usefulness of existing IES resources on evidence-based elementary literacy practices in a virtual setting. How well do these resources translate to the virtual school context so that teachers, coaches, and leaders in those schools can use them? What supports or changes might be needed so that those who work in virtual schools will find them most useful? These are the questions we are currently exploring.

Initial Steps

Our partnership work kicked off this summer, but we have already made plans for our initial forays into this new territory:

  • FLVS is creating dual versions of the IES infographic, Implementing Evidence-Based Literacy Practices, to streamline access to the wealth of evidence-based information on literacy, tailored for the virtual models of coaching and professional learning community (PLC) work that FLVS has developed. One version of the infographic will be for FLVS staff, and the other version will be for FLVS parents since parents in early elementary grades play a much larger role in virtual schools as members of the child's educational support team. (For example, younger students may need parent or learning coach support when reading through coursework or writing/typing in coursework. Parents' active collaboration with teachers is also strongly encouraged.) We will also work with partners to create REL-branded versions of these infographics that any virtual school could use either as-is or as a model for further customizing the infographics to their virtual school model. REL Southeast will conduct coaching sessions with FLVS teachers, specialists, coaches, and school leaders. This coaching project will be integrated with the existing coaching and PLC work at FLVS and will focus on the use and usefulness of IES resources surrounding elementary literacy practices and family engagement. We will ask participants in these sessions to help us think about how to apply these resources in the virtual context and what other supports might help them dive deeper into their use. In later work, we hope to examine some of the features of Knowledge Mobilization projects, such as how knowledge of these resources can spread and scale across the FLVS organization, along with understanding the best strategies for adaptation and implementation of these resources and the literacy practices they describe in a virtual setting.
  • REL Southeast is also holding "listening session" calls with partnership members who work in professional development at FLVS and with a small number of early elementary teachers. The purpose of these calls is to learn more about how these roles at FLVS are similar to and different from those roles in brick-and-mortar schools, with a close focus on how these practitioners also engage with students' families. We will use this information to help us plan more ways to support teachers and families in building their understanding and use of evidence-based literacy practices as they support young FLVS students in their literacy development.

Where the "Rubber Meets the Road"

The IES infographic, Implementing Evidence-Based Literacy Practices, uses the metaphor of a roadmap as its framework. Continuing that metaphor, we believe that where the "rubber meets the road" in changing student outcomes will be in the everyday interactions between teachers, families, and students. With the wealth of existing resources developed by IES outlining evidence-based practices for brick-and-mortar schools, our challenge will be to identify ways these resources can best be used to help supercharge those teacher/family/student interactions in the context of virtual schools. Stay tuned!


1 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2022). The Future of Education Research at IES: Advancing an Equity-Oriented Science. The National Academies Press.

2 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2022). The Future of Education Research at IES: Advancing an Equity-Oriented Science (p. 93). The National Academies Press.


Diana Sharp

Diana Sharp

Shannon  Lasserre-Cortez

Shannon Lasserre-Cortez

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