At Canyon Creek Elementary school in Farmington, Utah, Rachel Steenblik has been working with K-6 students for the past two years. Like most schools, the shift to remote learning at Canyon Creek was quick. But as an elementary special education teacher at a Microsoft Showcase School, Steenblik had access to tools, from Immersive Reader to Flipgrid, that she believes helped support all her students — regardless of need for accommodations.
That’s crucial to Steenblik, as she is focused on opportunities that give every student a chance to engage with learning material equally.
“If kids have access to the curriculum, they can show their full potential, which enables them to become full learners,” Steenblik said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic showing few signs of ebbing, millions of students are facing another semester of at least part of their school week online.
Educators, then, are keen on how lessons can be inclusive for all students, accessible from any point of entry. And there are steps they can take and questions that can be asked before adopting material to use in the classroom, even remotely, to help all students reach learning goals set for the coming year.
Presentation and design matter
For Steenblik, the work starts with adopting tools all students can use equally and don’t project accessibility or accommodation. Adopting technologies that appear to be designed for certain children is likely to turn some of her students away from using them, she said.
“My kids would rather go without the tools than stand out,” she said. “So if I teach them these tools, and they’re the only ones using them, they stick out like a sore thumb. They don’t want to be different. So my thing is let’s use these with all students — and the teacher should be using them and implementing them in the classroom, too — so not just kids who need them use them, but everyone. Because it makes tasks easier for all of them.”
Katherine McAlvage, assistant director of course development and training at Oregon State University’s Ecampus in Corvallis, Oregon, suggests educators actually start by thinking of how students will need to access material they’re using before they send it out. As part of a four-person team with the ECampus, McAlvage is not only helping educators at the university adapt to remote teaching, she is also in close contact with local school districts in the area to support their efforts as well, she said.
She encourages educators to design lessons around keyboards rather than a mouse, for example, to be cognizant of students who have physical accessibility needs. Another tip — one of five suggestions from a quick reference guide the university hosts online — is to use heading styles when writing out lessons, as screen readers will delineate headers such as a new chapter title or topic aloud.
Advocate for representation in materials
Mary Rice wants to assure educators that transforming an entire year of lesson plans overnight is a bit unrealistic. Instead, the assistant professor of literacy at the University of New Mexico believes educators and curriculum instructors should make this journey one step at a time.
She encourages educators to start by examining new material they want to adopt every year through four distinct lenses, including making sure they’re meeting legal standards, which technology can help to address. But teachers should also consider whether the content they’re adopting is engaging enough that students will want to interact. Third, they should read through to see if online programs are transparent about the data being collected on users, and, finally, check that the material itself is inclusive in terms of its content.
“I’ve been through thousands of pieces of online learning material,” Rice said. “A lot is of girls watching boys do science. No one is overweight, ever. Or they never depict someone with a learning disability. It’s terrible. Young people wouldn’t want to engage with that, because they’re not represented, or represented well.”
Provide students with choices
One way to give students more pathways into lessons is to actually create multiple options that all lead to the same learning goal, said McAlvage. That process also gives students more choices to demonstrate their own learning by allowing them to pick from options that perhaps engage them more, or options that feel more accessible to them.
“Really look closely at the instructional content itself and the assignments,” McAlvage said. Giving students choice, she said, improves not only accessibility but also students' motivation and commitment to learning. "One challenge we see in remote environment is self-regulation," she added, saying students may not want to sit for hours doing worksheets or watching videos. "Maybe they could choose to watch a video or read an article or a story, and have options on how to complete that assignment. You’re creating choice.”
In one way, McAlvage believes remote learning may actually end up benefiting select students, particularly if educators create multiple choices and avenues, with some that dovetail to the particular learning style that allows individual pupils to excel.
She notes, for example, that when students are in a classroom, there can be a timing issue. A teacher will give a lesson often at the start of class, and then students break apart into small groups or work on their own to complete that assignment. But some students may need more time to process the original information and may want to hear that lesson two or three times more to process it before they can move forward.
Online, today, that’s easily possible through a video that be watched multiple times, or a written lesson that can be read or read aloud more than once. And these are options educators can provide without ripping apart their curriculum or even changing what they want students to learn overall.
“We’re not saying throw out learning goals and objectives,” McAlvage said, adding that the goal is still to tie together teachers' objectives with the materials. “But there are lots of different ways to get students to that ultimate goal objective, and giving them multiple ways to get there is going to support their learning.”