Using What We Know
Robin, just like millions of other educators, is moving her way through this new teaching experience. As a high school English teacher, though, she’s very used to taking attendance, grading papers, and giving assessments. During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, Robin shares how this has shifted. But something else that she said also caught my attention:
While I don’t have a lot of experience teaching remotely, I do have a lot of recent experience as a student learning remotely. So, I’m reflecting back on what I found worked for me and what my professors offered me in terms of engagement and making sure I had access, and the like.
Robin is going with what she knows and building on that. But if you don’t have recent experience of learning online, how are you moving forward? Where are you finding your guidance?
Advice for how to teach online abounds. Good or bad, the advice has come out like throwing spaghetti at the walls. It creates an unpredictable pattern. Some of it falls off while some of it sticks. But even the stuff that sticks is based on popularity rather than quality.
Content specific ideas are intermingled with suggestions for digital teaching tools and rarely do the two align. Here’s where my thoughts come in; let’s break this down a bit using some of what we know about UDL. I call accessibility, flexibility, goals, choice, and rigor the underlying components of UDL (Nelson, 2017). Without those, you cannot meet the needs of your variable learners. Below is a mix of resources and guidance on how to consider each of these areas while designing your lessons and online environment.
From Monday, March 30th through Monday, April 20th, the National Center for Accessible Educational Materials is hosting free webinars on access and distance education. All of these are recorded, so you can return to them. Plus, these area ideas that should be woven into any digital environment all of that time, so bookmark these!
The website, Distance Learning for Special Education is a beautifully organized repository of resources, tips for families, tips for professionals, and frequently asked questions around the education of students with significant disabilities.
We’re all under extreme pressure right now, which means our executive functioning (decision-making, choice-making, planning, and execution) isn’t doing so well either. Where learners might not have needed this kind of support a month ago, assume they need it now (e.g., checklists, step-by-step instructions, graphic organizers, consistent check-ins, feedback that guides them, not just praises them). We all do. This is part of accessibility to learning.
Now that we’re all operating in the digital environment, it would be easy to assume that we’re providing flexibility to our learners. Not true. You’ll find information related to this tucked under accessibility, but just how Robin examined her own learning experiences, examine your own and build on them. Put yourself in your students’ shoes and ask:
- If I can see text on my screen, can I also listen to it?
- Can I magnify the text or images?
- Can I choose the font?
- Can I highlight the text or choose how the text is highlighted?
The difference here is that the learner has control over these things. You provided them to make the learning accessible to all learners. Flexibility comes in when learners choose how and when they are going to use the tool.
When we have all of our learners in front of us, we can read the goal out loud together and talk about it. Online learning, especially asynchronous learning, doesn’t provide that important connection, but goals are even more crucial now. Many are discovering that they need to break the overall goal down into bite-sized sections (a goal for every 15 to 30 minutes of instruction and smaller chunks for younger children or students who need more support). You can communicate more clearly what the outcome should be and they can see that the outcome is possible.
Often seen as the star of UDL, choice actually hinges on accessibility, flexibility and goals. If you aren’t providing accessibility and flexibility and aligning those with the goals of your lessons and online learning environment, then you cannot provide the level of choice necessary to meet the needs of your variable learners. Choice is the gateway to empowerment and self-determination for our learners, and learners need those skills to grow as expert learners, but that opportunity needs to be provided universally.
Online learning can go down the tragic path of information delivery with a few quizzes thrown in here or there. From the learner point of view, there is a ton of input (what they are taking in), but the output is less and feels more like regurgitation. Give your students the time, space, and tools to talk about how they are making sense of (a) the world right now, and (b) what they are learning. That’s an incredibly important first step. Next, have them share the patterns they are discovering. Have them put on screen how they are they organizing this information (they can take a picture of something they draw or write or they can create an online representation). Those are just the first two steps Robin Jackson talks about and are the perfect way to begin your journey to developing some rigorous online learning opportunities.
Most of us are new to creating online learning opportunities and we’re doing it under extreme pressure and within a stressful environment. We also know our learners are under stress, but we are a source of consistency and promise for them. Just being there each day adds to that consistency. As you begin to find your footing, add in the above components and you will continue to move your learners toward becoming expert learners.