Opinion: During COVID learning, don’t let technology interfere – New Canaan Advertiser

During the rapid transition to remote learning, it became apparent how much curriculum lacked accessibility. Though there were several, two categories of accessibility issues that were brought to light were technological and disability-related issues. Exploring these areas, educators can learn from, study and enhance the way that educational material is communicated to maximize the success of all students.

The most immediate problem that teachers faced when closing schools is that many students lacked the proper resources to access their newly online classes. Without access to computers at the school library or computer labs, many students immediately fell behind. Thankfully, students know how to work within their means and often surprise educators with what they can accomplish with a smartphone. As such, educators should do their best to ensure that they are communicating course content in a way that can be accessed on smartphone.

Simple things like embedding videos into the learning management system so that students do not have to worry about an additional app on their phone can be extremely beneficial. It is also important that those videos have closed captioning enabled. Instructors should use campus-supported software. Do not require students to learn, download and/or buy something when they already get it for free from the university. If there is an app of the university approved technology/software, take the time to explain to students how it works. Instructors should also familiarize themselves with these apps insomuch that they know the strengths, required modifications for use and deficits.

Commendably, many schools worked hard to provide devices for students who lacked the proper technology, but there were limited initial resources, forcing students to wait. It is worth noting that students also had to admit to their instructors or the administration that they did not have the finances. Research should be conducted to determine the psychological impact of having to disclose that type of information to people of power. How many students feared stigma, shame or something else that prevented them from ever coming forward? Is there a large population of students that failed simply due to lack of disclosure? Depending on the results of these types of questions, it may be necessary to modify these procedures.

When exploring financial disparities among students, implications go beyond lack of technology. For instance, students may have a computer and the ability to record presentations or log in to live web sessions, but they may be too embarrassed to show their backgrounds. A simple way to overcome this is to teach students how to use virtual backgrounds. If virtual backgrounds are not able to be used, consider not requiring video participation and accepting audio-only. Policies like that will also aid students who may not have the technology for video calls.

Another way to battle this is to encourage synchronous meetings but not require them. Record and post those meetings onto the system so that students can view them when they are able. Instructors can even have students submit questions anonymously that can be answered during the meeting. That way, students who may not be able to ask or participate “live,” can make meaningful connections to the material and get the answers that they need.

The added benefit to recording live sessions is that they can be posted with closed captions. For students who are hearing impaired or struggle with auditory processing, a regular in-person class session can spell disaster. Remote learning provides the unique advantage of being able to provide transcripts for all posts. Resources can be selected based on their ability to serve this function.

Along a similar vein, remote learning exposed the lack of accessibility of the material used in the day-to-day classroom. For instance, class handouts are not fit for immediate use with “text to speech” software. It is easy to forget to magnify an image or font to ensure those with visual impairments have the same learning experience. Remote learning has reinforced the need for instructors to be accountable for keeping their course material accessible.

The bottom line is that the core of all future curriculum choices needs to be about accessibility. It is unfathomable that good students are failing simply due to lacking access to course material due to technological or disability-related issues. Instructors can rise to the challenge and transform our classrooms into ones that do not leave students behind.

Melanie Savelli is a professor of communications at Southern Connecticut State University.

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