Across the nation, equity and accessibility are two of the thorniest issues districts face as they rapidly move toward remote learning. Some states are delaying online learning for all students because they feel they are unsure how to provide it for some.
This may be a false choice, says Torrey Trust, Ph.D., an associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As students whose families have resources continue to learn at home on their own, those without will suffer even greater learning loss, exacerbating the learning gap.
“The point of public education is to try to provide equal footing,” says Trust. “It doesn’t have to be perfect in this emergency situation, but I want to see educators be creative in these times. Instead of shutting down, use technology as a resource."
“I’m hoping we can shift to UDL, whether high tech or low tech, because it will be so beneficial for making more inclusive learning environments at home as well as when students get back to the classroom,” says Trust.
Trust developed a slide deck, rooted in Universal Design for Learning, with seven things to consider as educators move quickly to set up emergency remote learning.
1. Multiple means of representation.
Give students the option of reading text, watching videos, listening to audio or examining images. Microsoft Immersive Reader makes text more accessible. For higher-tech options, virtual tours (check out the many offered by museums and national parks), augmented reality or digital 3D are exciting possibilities. For older students, Trust suggests sending students out to find their own ways to consume information.
2. Multiple means of engagement.
Looking at a screen all day may be hard for some kids, while others may need a more hands-on or project-based activity. Flexibility is especially important in the weeks ahead. Try developing a HyperDoc or create digital documents such as Google Doc with links to all the resources a student may need to explore on their own time and become fully engaged.
Activities can be as simple as allowing students to use a parent’s cell phone to take pictures of shapes around the house and email them to the teacher.
“We shouldn’t shy away from that option if it will reduce the digital divide,” she says.
3. Multiple means of action and expression.
Design open-ended activities where students choose how to demonstrate their knowledge. Students can write, create a podcast or video or use no technology at all. One example is students can build a 3D model in Tinkercad or just pull items out of the recycling and make a model using those.
4. Use open educational resource (OER).
Also known as openly licensed materials, OER are resources that are available in the public domain or introduced with a public license. Look for the Creative Commons License to see if something is an OER. They are free and can be remixed to your specific needs. The Mason OER Metafinder, OER Commons or OASIS database will help you find one to fit your needs.
Although many technology companies are making their products available for free to educators during extended school closures, not all these products have been vetted by educators for privacy and data usage requirements or for accessibility the way OERs have been, Trust says.
5. Design for accessibility.
Check that the videos you assign have closed captions or create your own and add captions in YouTube. If the audio files you assign don’t have transcripts, ask for a student volunteer to make one for extra credit. Most apps, such as Google Docs, have instructions for making your materials more accessible.
6. Stay connected with your students.
Just because you’re using digital means to communicate with your students doesn’t mean there is no longer a human aspect to teaching. Kids are stressed now, too, and any time you can find to connect with them through a video morning or a personalized text or email, that connection will mean a lot.
Trust has two chihuahuas that she dresses up and photographs for her students. As her classes moved to online over the second week of March, she dressed them up for St. Patrick’s Day and sent pictures to her students. Several responded that it was exactly the laugh they needed. Fun TikToks or memes will give everyone a mental break.
7. Connect with other educators.
Trust recommends ISTE Commons as a great place to learn what fellow educators are doing. To get answers to specific questions or advice about online learning, ISTE has created a COVID-19 Educator Help Desk.
“Educators need to get connected in these spaces,” she says. “It’s like a window into other educators’ practices and serves as a mirror to reflect on our own practices. The ideas, resources and tools that are shared is what will inspired your creative thinking and push your teaching to the next level.”
When this is all over and students return to the classroom, says Trust, this effort will pay dividends. A lot of educators are now using tech in ways they were not comfortable with before.
“Educators have been given a difficult challenge and they are going into these communities online and figuring it out,” she says. “When they come back to the classroom, I hope that willingness to try technology will come back with them.”