Individualize Instruction, Remove Barriers, Track Student Progress: Some Tips for Making Distance-Learning Special Ed Work

NWEA Accessibility Scientist Elizabeth Barker (NWEA)

“Can you give an example of an online lesson that’s effective for students with disabilities?”

That’s the question Elizabeth Barker has fielded over and over as schools have prepared to reopen. But it’s the one question that Barker, a special education expert with NWEA, a nonprofit data and assessment provider, can’t answer.

Because students in special education, by definition, require individualized support, there is no such thing as a model lesson. She does, however, point to four ingredients for effective special education during in-person schooling that should guide educators as they look for ways to engage students with disabilities in distance learning.

1. Individual or small group instruction is crucial to successful in-person special education and will be key to making interventions effective in distance learning. Recommendations from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, part of the EdResearch for Recovery Project, include having paraprofessionals take over scoring exams and completing paperwork to free up special education teachers to use their specialized expertise in one-on-one settings.

Some states allow in-person supports for students with disabilities. In Maryland and California, some providers may visit children’s homes. In Washington state, some students can attend meetings and receive services in school buildings with proper social distancing.

2.  Schools should also consider Universal Design for Learning, a framework that reviews everything from technology to curriculum with an eye toward removing barriers for students with unique needs. This might mean providing an audio version of a text or allowing them to dictate, rather than type, an answer.

If a school or district is buying platforms or digital materials to use in distance learning, it’s crucial to push for materials that have features that make them accessible. This might include closed captioning for hearing-impaired students, magnification for students with visual impairments and the ability to navigate with a keyboard, versus a mouse or touchpad.

It will be interesting, Barker says, to see whether pandemic-era pressure for online lessons pushes vendors to make their materials accessible: “Prior to this, we looked and looked and looked” but found few.

Students with disabilities often take time — and quite a bit of it — to warm up to new technology. A student who can’t or won’t participate in a Zoom lesson may need to acclimate to a new device, “tour” the platform or get a preview of how a class or school day will take place.

“They need to get in front of a device and make it theirs,” says Barker. “Getting it a week before school starts is not going to do it.”

3. Teachers will need strategies for communicating clear learning goals to students, helping them to assess their own understanding, giving feedback and allowing time for students to redo assignments.

Some researchers fear that students with disabilities will lose more learning than their typically abled peers in the switch to remote schooling, but that has yet to be proven true. And even if it is true for some students, the urge to move as quickly as possible to shore up academic gaps is likely shortsighted, says Barker.

“We need to think about it as a marathon and have compassion,” she says. “The panic to catch up will actually put us behind.”

4. Teachers need some mechanism, formal or informal, of tracking student progress.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides funding for the EdResearch for Recovery Project and The 74.

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