Online and blended learning models are likely to stay, as global full or partial school closures endure in the new academic year. Yet, challenges encountered in the early experience of education in lockdown compel us to think about what is currently being done to shape learning technologies in response to pupils’ and teachers’ needs, as opposed to letting technology shape how we design remote instruction.
Pupils with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) may have been particularly hard-hit by the online learning regime, as they may require services that are not easily available via the internet. Educators, parents and the pupils themselves have an important role to play in co-designing digital and blended learning environments that suit the diverse needs of all learners. A community-wide commitment to equity and access (Rimmer, 2016) involves leaders engaging all stakeholders in committing to this work as ‘a lens through which all decisions are made’ and not an add-on (Berg, 2018) Thrive, a site hosting tools and resources for equity-based inclusive learning practices, was launched with this goal in mind, and in this article, we share our recommendations to help practitioners and leaders develop blended learning environments.
Research by online education corporation Michigan Virtual University (Deschaine, 2018) provides insight into some of the specific challenges of remote learning faced by pupils with SEND as well as guidance on inclusive learning practices for digital environments.
Online or blended learning environments can be perceived as complex and confusing. Therefore, educators should:
- Include the student, where practically possible and to the greatest extent possible, in planning for instruction and set expectations around the use of technology, e.g. using instructional videos or screenshots
- Use multimedia material to make behavioural requirements known and share it with the students, mentors and parents. Make expectations clear and the application of consequences consistent
- Take time to consider and plan how to manage the students’ emotional issues, including working closely with mentors and parents to identify any behavioural issues that are indicative of a state of distress
- Monitor and adapt instruction to the student’s socio-emotional abilities
- Communicate any changes promptly to students as well as mentors and parents
- Enable students to have access to playback opportunities to validate their understanding of the course content and assessment requirements and expectations
- Introduce chats, discussion boards and group work as part of instruction to help maximise peer-to-peer support.
With respect to the use of adaptive or support technology for instruction and assessment, it is important to:
- Test technology systems before the student is expected to use them
- Check instruction material for specific sights or sounds that may be perceived as disturbing or upsetting
- Plan technology support requirements, including consideration of what training will be needed for the student, educators and family to be competent and confident users of those supports
Where possible, specific provisions should be made for each category of need and each individual student’s learning requirements (Deschaine, 2018) as follows:
- Plan and share in advance resources and strategies for time management and study habit development
- Keep all instructions in writing
- Consider using tailored resources, such as this selection of tools by non-profit organisation Common Sense Education to help students to better regulate their emotions and communicate effectively.
- Share self-monitoring and emotion-management tools and resources with the students, such as The Zones of Regulation, a digital program to help learners identify and use strategies for achieving emotional regulation.
Deaf or hard of hearing
- Support key instructional goals, objectives, and elements with visual instruction and use video conferences to ensure the students always have access to the visual clues they need. Digital content service Flipgrid comes with closed-caption features and Microsoft Teams comes with live captioning and subtitles.
- When building online lesson content, optimise the use of the screen based on the students’ needs (students might have difficulty seeing part of the screen or content). Place images, tables and diagrams correctly in relation to the text and remove unessential information from diagrams
- For each online lesson, summarise the content covered in a text-to-speech accessible format and clarify the main features that students should focus on
- Consider using tailored resources, including Hoffman, Hartley, and Boon’s (2005) Guidance for digital learning environments, Storyline Online – a library of videos featuring celebrated actors reading children’s books; Seeing AI, audio description software and Google Keep, a tool to grab image text from photos and convert it as text-to-speech with optical character recognition technology.
Specific learning disabilities
Specific learning disabilities may include cognitive disorders that can impact on a student’s ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations, including perceptual disabilities, minor brain dysfunction, dyslexia, dysgraphia and developmental aphasia.
- Make all written instruction material editable with text editing software
- Consider using the following resources: Modmath, a free iPad app that helps children with dyslexia and dysgraphia to write down their mathematical problems, so they can go about solving them; LetterSchool, an interactive tool to practice writing; Bookshare, an online library with over 800,000 ebooks in easy-to-read formats for students with dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy and other reading barriers; Immersive Reader, a text editing app to re-space or re-colour words on a screen, based on the reader’s accessibility needs.
Start with self-reflection
When planning inclusive responses to online and blended learning, school leaders and other education stakeholders of pupils with SEND can start by reflecting on their own approach. The questions below might be helpful to consider:
- Even in this time when we are all experiencing trauma, some of us are more privileged than others. What are your privileges in this current situation? How are you using your privilege to support students and families?
- How are you moving students that were already behind forward to where they need to be? How are you planning to address the needs of students who might fall further behind during remote schooling?
- How are you addressing any attendance, grading and other accountability structures for student learning that are not conducive to the current situation?
- How are you building the capacity of teachers and colleagues to choose instructional curricula and high-quality instructional materials that are appropriate for all students in the remote learning environment?
- How are you supporting teachers and colleagues to continue to build relationships with students in new, innovative ways?
- How are you connecting with families to support them in supporting their children in remote learning? For whom are the connections working/not working? What needs do they have?
Berg JH (2018) Leading together / Educating ourselves for equity. Educational Leadership 76(3): 84-85.
Deschaine M (2018) Supporting students with disabilities in k-12 online and blended learning. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Available at: https://mvlri.org/research/publications/supporting-students-with-disabilities-in-k-12-online-and-blended-learning/ (accessed 5 November 2020).
Rimmer J (2016) Developing principals as equity-centered instructional leaders. The Equity-Centered Capacity Building Network (ECCBN). Available at: https://capacitybuildingnetwork.org/article9/ (accessed 5 November 2020).