Learning Anywhere, Anytime and For Anyone: Back to School During COVID-19
Back to school is an exciting time of year. Students reunite with the friends they have not seen over the summer, meet a new teacher, and adjust to life in a new classroom. This year may be a little different. For many, school will start with remote or hybrid learning, where most of the learning may take place online. The National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST (AEM Center) and Center on Inclusive Technology and Education Systems at CAST (CITES) — both funded by the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs — have a few tips and resources to ensure all students can succeed in these learning environments.
Planning for Success with the Four Cs
One key lesson from the pivot to emergency remote learning in the spring is that we all need to work together to ensure learners continue to receive a quality education, regardless of the setting in which learning takes place. CITES developed a webinar series focusing on the four Cs that need to be addressed in the implementation of remote learning as a response to COVID-19: Coordination, Collaboration, Communication and Continuity. The webinar series shared experiences and lessons learned with panelists from different parts of the country. We encourage you to watch the recordings and explore the related resources as you plan for the new school year.
Accessibility as a Foundation
Remote learning is often delivered through a learning management system (LMS) that provides a course shell to which materials are posted and shared with students. Regardless of the LMS that is selected, it is important to ensure any materials added to the course shell are accessible and will work with the accessibility features many students use to interact with the content.
For example, not all PDF documents are created the same: some are scanned as images and do not include any text that can be selected by the student and read aloud with text-to-speech technology. Providing information as text (either by adding it into the course shell itself or uploading it as an accessible document) can go a long way toward ensuring students have the information in the format that works best for them.
The AEM Center provides guidance on the creation of accessible documents and slide decks that are compatible with access technologies. An accessible source document created with Microsoft Word or Google Docs is more likely to result in an accessible version of the document when it is converted to PDF or EPUB for sharing with students. For additional tips and resources to help you create the best experience in your remote learning courses, visit the AEM Center’s Access and Distance Education page. There you will find links to the recordings from our spring webinar series focusing on learning supports for reading, writing, math, and more.
Design Tips for Remote Learning Courses
In addition to ensuring that the content shared in an LMS is accessible, educators should also consider instructional design practices that make for a better experience for all learners. Many of these tips come from the CAST UDL Guidelines, a research-based tool for implementing the UDL Framework in any learning environment. They are not specific to any single learning platform, and include:
- Ensure there is a clear starting point (“Start here”) for every lesson or module to direct learner attention and guide processing of the information in a logical manner.
- Use guiding questions at the beginning of each module and module summaries at the end to highlight big ideas, key concepts and important relationships (the “must know” information).
- Organize the information into sections that include descriptive headings highlighting the key idea for each section. This is known as “chunking,” and it can make it easier for students to quickly skim the content and determine how information is organized. When the section headings are marked up with styles (as opposed to just selecting the text and making it larger and bold) they also improve navigation for users of assistive technology.
- Use a variety of formats (images and video in addition to text) to provide multiple representations of the content in order to accommodate the variability learners bring to every learning experience. These additional formats should include text alternatives (image descriptions, captions and transcripts) to ensure they are accessible for everyone. The AEM Center’s Teaching with Accessible Video and Creating Accessible Video pages have additional information to help you with the creation of accessible videos that enrich learning for everyone.
- Release content as it is needed to reduce the cognitive load that can result from presenting learners with too many options at once. Many online learning platforms have a feature for scheduling the release of modules over time.
- Include knowledge checks at regular intervals to provide opportunities for learners to reflect on their learning and consolidate key ideas/concepts before they move on to new content.
With a solid plan based on the four Cs, online courses built with accessibility in mind, and the information about access technologies shared on the AEM Center and CITES websites, your students will be ready for a great school year no matter where instruction takes place.