Distance learning: 6 UDL best practices for online learning

Many schools have moved to distance learning because of the coronavirus. Schools are taking many different approaches. Some are providing synchronous (real-time) virtual learning via videoconference technology. Others are trying fully asynchronous (not real-time) learning through documents and worksheets designed to enhance at-home learning. 

Whatever the approach, distance learning can be a challenge. Teachers and students will need time and practice to get used to it. It may feel daunting to include all students when your classroom is a videoconference.

Luckily, the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can help. When you plan with UDL in mind, you proactively reduce barriers to learning so all the students in your class can engage. Here are some best practices for distance learning with UDL. 

1. Explicitly teach expectations and engagement. 

Video and distance learning is a totally different medium of teaching and learning. Both you and your students may need time and support to learn how to learn and engage effectively in this space.

Assume that students have a wide range of skills when it comes to technology for virtual learning. That includes learning with digital materials and connecting for learning through virtual conferencing. And the technology students have access to for distance learning will vary.

Explicitly and systematically teach how to use new instructional media. Co-create and share expectations for how to engage in this learning environment. Give opportunities for practice.

Know, too, that there will be a learning curve for everyone. It may take some time and repeated support for all students to get the hang of how to interact and learn in this new environment.

2. Allow for asynchronous learning. 

Some of your students may not be able to watch a livestream, whether it’s due to timing, internet access, or the ability to focus on a lesson via a videoconference. And some students have trouble processing information when it’s presented only in auditory form.

If you’re delivering live instruction via video, record it for students to review or access later. You can upload the video to a space like Google Classroom or send it to your students via email.

You can also use apps like Otter.ai to generate transcripts from your audio. (Otter.ai offers 600 minutes of transcription free per month.) Other video streaming applications offer live captioning, which may be imperfect, but definitely useful. 

3. Assign note-takers.

It’s harder for many students to “watch” instruction via video livestream than in a live classroom. It can be challenging to focus, feel connected, process information, and identify key ideas.

Older students (middle-schoolers and high-schoolers) can work together to help each other. Consider assigning students to take notes for the class using Google Classroom applications.

Along with transcripts and recordings, good notes are really important and helpful to all students. They’re especially helpful to students who have trouble with focus, reading, writing, and other challenges that make it difficult to multitask.

4. Make materials accessible. 

It’s not just video that needs to be accessible. Think, too, about how to make images and digital documents available for all students to access. Here are some best practices to use when creating materials. 

  • Create short text descriptions of images and videos you use during video and distance learning. 
  • Avoid using inaccessible image-based PDFs for handouts and other digital materials. Use Word, Google Docs, or another accessible format instead. (Those formats have optical character recognition (OCR) for screen reader access.) 
  • Check written materials for screen reader accessibility with tools like WebAIM.

If you’re not already using these practices in your classroom, try to approach this situation as an opportunity to learn how to be accessible for all. Once you get used to doing it, it’s easy to bring these practices into everyday, live learning settings.

5. Embrace your students as teachers.

You can provide them with a sketch and initial thoughts about how you think learning and teaching might work virtually, but create activities that let students provide feedback on your plans. Give them the chance to co-create what teaching and learning will look like now that you’re all working remotely.

Communication is extra important when you’re working at a distance. Ask your students regularly about their needs and be ready to be flexible and responsive to their concerns.

Remember that many students are digital natives. Ask about their preferences and innovative ideas on how to approach online learning. This supports learner agency, self-determination, and motivation to learn in this environment.

6. Actively build a supportive community.

When you’re not in a classroom together, it’s not as easy to check in with students about their emotional and physical well-being. Build time into your teaching and learning to reduce social isolation and support feelings of connectedness and belonging.

Integrate small group video discussions (in addition to the whole group) and use discussion boards for older students.

Some video applications, like Zoom, allow you to create separate “rooms” for breakout discussions. (Zoom is temporarily lifting the 40-minute time limit on free basic accounts for schools affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Learn more about how to get access for your school.)

If possible, try to set up weekly (or more frequent) individual virtual check-ins or short phone calls with each of your students. Most of all, encourage engagement to help your students feel like they have agency in this online space. After all, this is their learning community, too. 

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