The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives. For the disability community, the health risks of getting COVID are just one of many challenges from the pandemic. The pandemic has made it difficult and risky to meet in person, particularly for those with certain chronic health conditions or compromised immune systems.
Many disability service providers and community organizations have pivoted to meeting online. These virtual meetings have actually presented some benefits for the community.
Benefits of online learning for students with disabilities
People can access classes and online events all over the country, and there is no longer the challenge of coordinating transportation to in-person meetings. Self-paced classes like Spark 101 can be completed on your own schedule. And you can pause and replay video recordings from virtual meetings as needed.
Meeting virtually can eliminate the need for instructors to wear masks, which can make it easier for students to connect with their instructors… Virtual meetings and recorded videos can also be transcribed or captioned to provide greater accessibility.
Challenges of online learning for students with disabilities
For all the unexpected benefits of online learning, there are still many challenges. Losing the routine of getting up and out the door for school or events can be a major struggle. It’s often tempting to skip virtual meetings because you feel like you’re not really going anywhere.
It’s easy to fall behind in self-paced classes without a set schedule or someone holding you accountable. That’s why we have bi-weekly instructor check-ins for our Spark 101 class. Large virtual meetings can be overwhelming if others are chatting by text or asking questions out loud while the instructor is presenting. Even with these challenges, we encourage online events and classes, to help keep you learning and growing.
Ways to facilitate online learning for students with disabilities
Here at Celebrate EDU, we were offering online entrepreneurship classes before it was cool. Here are some of our favorite tips for facilitating online learning and virtual events for students with disabilities:
1. Focus on one activity at a time.
It can be hard for students to process multiple streams of information at the same time, such as the instructor’s video feed, questions in text chat, and other people talking. You can designate specific times for questions or breakout rooms. This has the added bonus of varying the pace of the meeting so you don’t have to be talking too long.
2. Prepare students for classes.
Send slides or notes ahead of time. This gives students and their support network time to review the materials or translate them to alternative formats. Make sure to let students and their support network know ahead of time if they will need to access other technology during the class, such as a review game on an app or digital whiteboard. Everyone won’t always have access to multiple monitors or a laptop, but a notice ahead of time can help them prepare better.
3. Keep meetings brief and relevant.
Use your precious meeting time and energy on interactive discussions, answering questions, or reviewing work. You can prerecord informational videos for students to watch ahead of time or play a recorded segment during a meeting.
4. Offer supportive technologies and resources.
Zoom now offers closed captioning and live transcription for their meetings. Loom is a screen and video recording software that also has live transcription. The transcripts are generated by artificial intelligence so they won’t be perfect, but it’s a start. You can also provide alternative text for screen readers and ensure that your presentations are easy to read. If you’re providing recordings of virtual meetings, make sure the replay settings allow stopping and starting as well as different playback speeds.
For web-based courses, there are accessibility plugins you can install directly onto your website. We use Userway, which can read the screen, change the text size or contrast, and provide other accommodations for our community.
For students and support persons
1. Create a schedule and routine.
Even if you’re working through a self-paced course, choose a consistent time every day or week that you work on that course. If you can, set up an at-home “classroom,” even if it’s just a specific seat at the kitchen counter. When you have a set time and place for learning, it will help you get into learning mode.
2. Set action goals for yourself and rewards for meeting those goals.
We don’t give grades for Spark 101 or any of our other online business classes. But you can still set goals and rewards for yourself! We recommend setting SMART goals for your online learning. We also suggest rewarding yourself for achieving your goals. When you write down your goals, don’t forget to add a reward for your hard work!
3. Advocate for your needs.
It’s not always easy to learn virtually. If you need transcripts to read or recordings to replay later, ask for them. If possible, offer suggestions for tools your instructor can use or accommodations they can make to help you learn more easily.
We can’t wait to meet in person again. But we’re also grateful we’ve been able to expand our impact and reach students in more states than ever this year. Let us know how we can support you with your online learning experience!