George Lucas Educational Foundation
Online Learning

Creating Digital Lessons That Support Learning Differences

As schools closed and lessons moved online, one immediate concern for teachers was how to support students with learning differences.

April 14, 2020
Teacher creating remote learning lesson at home with her laptop
franz12 / iStock

The extended school closure has teachers searching for ways to support their students. As more teachers move toward creating and distributing assignments digitally, an important question arises: How can we best support students with learning differences during times of remote instruction?

The general ideas I try to keep in mind are:

  • Be flexible: Anticipate that students are going to need time to adjust to their new daily routine, and know that lessons may not run smoothly at first.
  • Even if the student has daily access to technology, find a way to mix digital lessons with physical activities, such as drawing or something that gets them up and moving.
  • Incorporate some life skills work around the house to provide variation to academic and screen-based work. Working on a device all day can be exhausting for students, and being at home provides opportunities to do other types of assignments that were previously not possible, such as chores and household tasks—things students will need to do as adults.
  • Support students’ emotional needs by offering check-ins when needed. Google Meet is an easy way to hold these informal meetings.

Below are some further considerations and strategies I’ve been working on—many of these are things I was already doing with students in my classroom. They worked well when students had me in the room for support, and they continue to be valuable as students are pushed to be more self-directed while learning at home.

Recording Accessible Screencasts

Screencasts have become a common way for students to access content asynchronously. For students with disabilities, it’s important to consider the length of a screencast. Videos should be concise and direct. One common piece of guidance on length is to limit yourself to one minute of video per grade level, but I try to make my videos no longer than three minutes for my middle school students.

Pairing visuals with narration is a great way to promote understanding. An ideal strategy is to use the camera and the screen recorder simultaneously. With this setting, the teacher’s entire screen can be captured while a smaller, pop-up window in the corner displays the teacher through their camera.

Keep all of your screencasts in one place in your learning management system and keep the labeling of those resources consistent to make new videos easy for students to find.

When providing any type of direct instruction through video, focus on a single skill at a time. This allows students to go back and review a single resource when they need support, without having to filter through a long video.

Screencasts are a great way to walk students through the completion of an assignment, as you can model the steps that the student should take. Modeling videos can also be essential in showing students how to use different technology tools and platforms.

Designing With Accessibility in Mind

While educators must provide the appropriate modifications and accommodations in a student’s individualized education program (IEP), students may need additional support. Here are some accessibility strategies teachers should consider when designing and distributing digital content.

Use closed captioning and video transcripts: When selecting a platform for live or recorded video, activate closed captioning. Google Meet has this option built-in. If your screen recorder does not have this option available, consider using Web Captioner for the duration of your screen recording. It also generates a downloadable transcript after your session to share. YouTube also has transcripts available for many of the videos on the site.

Add alt text for images: If you provide students with an image resource, adding descriptive alt text makes it more accessible to students using a screen reader. Alt text may not appear on screen but is attached to the image, so the screen reader picks up on it.

Avoid fancy fonts: A curvy, scripted font may look nice on a bulletin board, but it is harmful when students are trying to read on a computer. Select easy-to-read fonts, and use no more than two different fonts within one resource. Arial, Times New Roman, Verdana, and Helvetica are commonly recommended typefaces.

Ensure PDF accessibility: The quality of a scanned PDF can impact a student’s ability to use a screen reader. To make sure that your PDF is accessible, try highlighting some text on the document. If you are able to highlight text, the words should be picked up by a screen reader.

Describe hyperlinks: When you embed hyperlinks in a file, it’s important to clearly indicate what is at the link. Using “Click here” as a hyperlink description does not provide any context for a person with a screen reader. Instead, the text should accurately describe what is being linked.

UDL Planning Tips

Using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework is a great way for teachers to address the various needs of all learners and guarantee flexibility within their lessons. The framework provides a way of thinking about instructional design by considering the needs of all learners. Rather than assigning one avenue for learning the content, students have options. Teachers can provide students with multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression, so students have more choice in their work.

In introducing new content, allow students to choose how they learn the material by providing it in short video clips, an article they can access with a text-to-speech feature, and a detailed infographic. If possible, try to find content related to student interests—in a history class, for example, allow students to explore resources to discover more about an area of the topic that interests them.

When determining the outcome of a lesson, or the product a student will complete to demonstrate their understanding, consider using multiple methods of action and expression. Provide students with a choice board of options to show what they have learned or let them propose an idea. Instead of having all students write a paragraph, consider allowing them to record a screencast, design a visual, or construct something to show what they have learned.

In this time of uncertainty, following these guidelines can increase students’ access to the content.

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  • Special Education
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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