Maximizing Online Learning

A group of 30 fourth graders squirming on an 8am Zoom meeting may not be exactly what we want to carry into the new normal. Also, not all facets of special education and therapy can happen remotely, and certainly we see the evidence of a “digital divide” more clearly now than ever. Nevertheless, online learning accommodates students with a variety of disabilities for many reasons:

  • Students can move at their own pace: fast, medium, or slow.
  • Students can work when they have the mental and physical energy to do so.
  • Students have access to instructors gifted in teaching in their best style of learning.
  • Students are exposed to new areas of study without significant effort.
  • Students have opportunity to meet more diverse students with whom they relate.

Continuing remote learning as a viable option going forward, whether in conjunction with in-person instruction or in-place of it, can open an array of opportunities for students with disabilities. Many resources are already available; I found a huge list of around 130 online educational resources in this article on Daily Mom Military (noting that military students have similar needs to connect as students who are homebound due to illness or disability).

Key to any inclusive success, however, will be the accessibility of these tools – that is, meeting standards such as those in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This takes software designers and developers who are knowledgeable about accessibility, but unfortunately many are not and thus many popular applications are not accessible.

Take for example the popular digital study tool, Quizlet. If you use a mouse then the system is easy; but if you have an impairment where you use just the keys on a keyboard because you can’t hold and maneuver a mouse or use a trackpad, then the application is not as user-friendly. In the common flashcard feature I found “Keyboard Shortcuts” (pictured below) but I couldn’t activate them – nothing happened when I pressed the recommended buttons. Instead, I had to use the typical interaction of pressing Tab from the top of the page down through all the clickable options to the “Reveal” and then “Next” buttons, but starting back at the top of the page with every new card. There was no quick shortcut for advancing through the cards like with a mouse, nor an easy-to-see indicator of where I was on the page with the keyboard known as “visual focus”, and unfortunately this type of oversight is more common than not.

Web version of Quizlet's flashcards shows top navigation to Search, Browse, Create, then Flashcard options in a left panel including Play and Shuffle, then the card in the center that reads "studying" with left/right arrows below to advance the cards and a card to "flip" to see the other side. An expanded menu is highlighted to show the list of "Keyboard Shortcuts" such as Term - 1, Definition - 2, and Flip - Space.
The study tool Quizlet shows a list of keyboard shortcuts but they didn’t work when tested. Instead, a keyboard user has to press Tab from the top of the page through all clickable options to flip and advance the card – for every card.

The good news is, if educators, technologists, and content creators make inclusion a priority as well as take time to learn the standards, we can turn around the prevalence of inaccessible software and, in turn, provide every student every opportunity to learn the best way they can.

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