The shutdown of thousands of schools across the country has forced a reckoning with the particular difficulties of reaching students with disabilities and alternative learning needs without being able to work with them in person.
In some cases, schools are holding off on offering remote learning to any of their students for fear of running afoul of state and federal regulations that require equal access for students with disabilities.
Adam Nemeroff, a learning designer at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, has assembled a guide for educators to what he calls "accessible teaching." It was written with higher education professionals in mind, but many of its lessons can apply to all K-12 students, not just those with special education needs, he says.
Recommendations in the guide include:
Present material in multiple ways: text, audio, video
When in doubt, over-communicate
Allow students to create their own goals
Offer several options for completing an assignment
Use sites like Wave to ensure that links are accessible
Ask students for feedback, and act on it
Education Week asked Nemeroff to explain the philosophy that motivated the guide.
What is "accessible teaching?" Nemeroff defines it as "trying to design your learning experiences for the widest variety of personas and needs that you can imagine." In the context of teaching remotely during COVID-19, that means learning about students' needs "as you teach them."
Nemeroff often uses the analogy of "curb cuts for learning," adding a design element that, for instance, might help a student who is low-vision or low-hearing, but might also be useful for a student who's distracted by siblings at home.
How should educators think about navigating inequities? Educators will find success, Nemeroff said, if they're clear about "goals and outcomes" for the next few months: "I need my students to be able to know and do X." An educator taking an accessible teaching approach would craft multiple resources or approaches to help achieve that goal.
"Start small, and add things as things work. Trying out all of the tools or all the different approaches [at once] won't work," he said. "You have to think of your course in shorter sprints."
During a time of unprecedented chaos, educators will need to make a concerted effort to express interest in their students as human beings, and to acknowledge the challenges they're facing. Nemeroff recommends sending a Google form to students urging students to communicate their needs. "We all need to be flexible and accommodating right now," he said.
What lessons will be learned once things return to something resembling normal? Being humane, considering students' needs and offering multiple paths to completing a learning objective don't need to stop once school resumes normal operations. "Accessible teaching is good teaching," Nemeroff said.
Several people have told him his guide to accessible teaching could easily be renamed "effective teaching practices." Maintaining clarity and structure is important for students with accessibility needs, but it's equally important for all other students as well.
Nemeroff also published a guide for educators using Zoom, and he recommends checking out this additional accessible teaching guide from Aimi Hamraie, an assistant professor of medicine, health, and society and American studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.