How Can the Education Community Better Support Students with Different Learning and Thinking Abilities During COVID-19?
By Manju Banerjee, Ph.D.,
Vice President of Educational Research and Innovation
In early March, online learning became a forced choice for much of the education community. It was an emergency response to an unforeseen pandemic. But since then, we have had time to recalibrate our thinking. We have learned much about online learning, particularly for students who learn differently.
It is important to acknowledge that special education services and legal protections still hold true and cannot be dispensed with just because of the changing circumstances. What is more challenging, however, is identifying what works. Best practices for fully online learning are still emerging and probably will do so for quite some time.
For a long time, many within the education community have held onto the belief that online learning is not conducive to students who learn differently. Many of these students have executive function challenges such as difficulty with organization, time management, task prioritizing and so on. Often online learning can be asynchronous, and students must be self-disciplined to keep pace with the course. It is imperative for the education community to design online learning in ways that support and scaffold those who learn differently. Every crisis brings opportunities, and so it is with COVID-19.
The time is opportune for teachers and educators to rethink barriers to online student success. The following section makes three recommendations for teachers to consider.
1. Course design
We all know that simply digitizing learning material from a face-to-face class does not constitute an online course. Neither does a series of group synchronous class times per week. At Landmark College, we use a scaffolded backward design approach. Course design starts with a course map which is a visual representation of the course, and consists of modules and microunits. The course map is developed in partnership between the subject matter expert (typically, the teacher) and instructional designer. Course design can be deliberately embedded with learning cues and study guides to make is easier for students who learn differently. For example, if a course is hosted on a learning management system (LMS) such as Canvas or Blackboard, one should be aware of visual crowding which can be distracting for students with attention issues. Another example is providing course instructions that are simple and intuitive and often repeated.
A potential barrier to online learning is the use of traditional assessments to gauge student learning. Many students experience test anxiety, which has been heightened by this sudden pivot to online learning. Although accommodations such as extra time on timed tests and modifications such as alternate test items are useful, they may not be enough for many students with learning differences. Online learning provides us with the opportunity to look at creative assessment options that can counter test anxiety and allow students to truly demonstrate learning mastery. Assessments that are grounded in the principles of gamification—using elements of games to increase engagement and intrinsic motivation—is one such approach. Students engage in a quest rather than a literature review or receive grades such as “novice,” “apprentice,” “intermediate,” or “master” on a test, rather than a letter grade. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project notes that neuroscientists say gamification elements “can cause feel-good chemical reactions,” alter human responses to stimuli (increasing reaction times, for instance), and in certain situations can improve learning, participation, and motivation.”
It is time to rethink the statement, “We have never done it that way.” Many rules and protocol that we follow in education are simply in place because of historical precedence. For example, we require students to follow a fairly prescribed curricular sequence and plan of study. In a fully online world, it is possible to be nonlinear in one’s plan of study. Students in grade school can explore online college courses through online dual enrollment. Students are looking at flexible options for learning, and online has boosted earning of badges and micro-credentials. Some in the education community are definitely paying attention to flex-plans and alternative routes to resume building.
David Rose, the co-founder of CAST, once said, “What we do for students at the margins ends up benefiting everyone.” It is important to rediscover the message in these words. At Landmark College in Vermont, our COVID response includes offering courses online to all neurodivergent students. We take pride in debunking the myth that online learning and learning differences do not mix by designing the courses with built-in scaffolds and supports for executive function challenges. There are many pathways to online success for students with different learning and thinking abilities. COVID-19 may just be the needed the catalyst for innovations that allows us to embrace the future. We must decide which legacy traditions we need to discard and which innovations we want to pursue.