Since March of 2020, I’ve been teaching students with learning disabilities in an online environment. I’ve been wondering how well the online learning environment supports the needs of students with learning disabilities.
As a special education teacher of a contained learning disability classroom, this has been a question that’s been tricky to answer. In addition, I’ve got “skin in the game” as I also have a learning disability and can place myself in my students’ shoes.
As with all debates, there are always two sides and I’ll try to capture the main points of each side.
Online learning supports students with learning disabilities
As online learning is technology based, students can access their tools of technology by using talking word processing and many applications that support their lack of phonemic awareness and reading ability in writing and comprehension. My students seemed to thrive in this area as online learning promoted their use of technology to complete assignments. In addition, the forum also allowed them to explore new ways to present their work that did not focus on text.
For my students, some thrived as they preferred working on their own or collaborating via video with another student. One student stated that they would like to learn online all the time. Note that this student had excellent learning skills and support at home. I had my doubts as they would have missed developing the skills needed to work with others face to face. I felt that the student was missing the opportunity to develop the critical soft skills such as collaborating with peers and in building the essential friendships students need as they grow into adults.
Online learning does not support students with learning disabilities
Although I only have a small sample size of students in which to reflect on this statement, I will summarize what I noticed in this last year.
Students with learning disabilities need a great deal of teacher support to develop their reading and writing skills in order to eventually thrive in a mainstream classroom. The challenge with online instruction is that students must have some level of independence to complete work. Further, their teacher must be able to assess when to support the student and when to let the student work alone.
In Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, teachers must provide just enough support to let the student learn on their own without getting frustrated. As a teacher, teaching online, I was challenged by finding this golden spot as I could not use my senses to determine where the student was in their learning. As learning is linked to emotion, I use my senses and empathy to determine students’ level of success or frustration. Without being able to access this skill through a video link, I noted that students became increasingly frustrated before I was able to sense their distress. This is never good as students usually shut down at this point. This is where learning stops.
During online video lessons, I also noted that students with attention deficits had a great challenge attending to lessons. Often, this resulted in me calling their name several times. In a classroom, when watching students, I can redirect those who are off task. Despite presenting my very interesting online lessons, several students became disengaged. This was especially true for students with learning profiles that were tactile in nature.
Further, online learning does not provide the many accommodations needed to support students’ learning needs. Some feedback from students noted “I need to move around when I learn”, “I like to work beside my friend so we can help each other”, “I prefer doing work with a pencil instead of typing things” and “I really need to go for a walk right now.”
Online learning needs and skills specific to students’ profiles
Success in online learning depends on support from home, adequate technology, and students with good learning skills. Due to managing multiple agenda’s, parents are not always able to support their child online. This includes literally sitting beside their child to help them attend to online lessons. Many students lack adequate technology and/or reliable internet access leaving them at a disadvantage to their more resourced peers. Further, not all students have the learning skills to successfully attend and complete work online, instead needing another person to support them in their work. I’ve included a list of considerations to be made when making decisions to learn online.
Students with learning disabilities may consider online learning if they:
- are able to follow written and/or verbal instructions effectively
- enjoy working at their own pace
- are able to work independently
- are able to interact with peers and the teacher in a positive way
- have good online manners
- are able to communicate and ask questions when they don’t understand an assignment or directions
- are able to start a task with confidence
- have parental support
- have adequate technology and internet to support learning online
- have adequate executive function to attend to online lessons
- have adequate self control to not play games or watch videos while online lessons are occurring
- get one-on-one time with their teacher to support learning on an individual basis
Students should consider not participating in online learning if they:
- need significant instructional support from teachers and/or educational assistants
- have challenges attending to lessons online
- need support to follow through and complete assignments
- lack adequate support at home to stay focused
- have challenges negotiating the online environment (i.e. finding assignments, resources, etc)
- lack support at home (i.e. help with homework & completing class work)
- have poor learning skills
- enjoy the social part of school and working with others
- are behind in multiple high school credits
Teaching online is draining
From a teacher’s point of view, I found teaching online extremely draining. It did not help that at several points in the pandemic, I was teaching synchronously online and in class using the hybrid model. Without being able to use my intuition and empathy to read my students needs and feelings, I felt blind. I was only left with my visual and audio senses which became taxed very quickly.
In online learning, teachers must attend to all students, all at the same time. In an in class environment, teachers can focus on one student at a time, while others work on assigned tasks. With my students online, there were simply too many things to attend to … leaving me little energy to focus on specific individual students’ needs.
Online learning does not support the needs of most students with learning disabilities
In the end, I strongly believe that students who have learning disabilities MUST be taught in an in class environment. This means that teachers can assess, if and when students need support. Further, in class instruction allows teachers to assess and focus specifically on what one student needs to support their learning.
In this pandemic, online learning has been a stop gap to provide students with a classroom environment that is just a hint of what happens in an in class environment. Online learning does not promote collaboration and the occasions to play and interact with other students. It lacks the fundamental need, of students, for opportunities to build social skills and make friends. And I believe these skills are what make us most human.
Deb Weston, PhD