Today’s Innovations are Tomorrow’s Practices: Adapting Learning to Meet Students - Digital Promise

Today’s Innovations are Tomorrow’s Practices: Adapting Learning to Meet Students

Teenage girl with hearing aid having online school class at home

June 23, 2021 | By

When COVID closed the door on in-person schooling in spring 2020, one of the biggest concerns for school districts was how to address the needs of students who experience cognitive learning challenges and/or physical disabilities.

In-person schooling provided an environment for students with cognitive or physical challenges to be fully supported with personalized instruction, tailored supports, and customized technologies. According to the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, there are signs that the disruptions from COVID-19 may be exacerbating long-standing disability-based disparities in academic achievement. Yet as a sort of silver lining, the pandemic offered an unprecedented opportunity to center on each individual student’s needs, with districts across the country striving to innovate by focusing on how to reimagine engaging and supporting learners virtually and within their homes.

Since its inception, Digital Promise has been researching and designing approaches, in partnership with school districts across the country, to enable schools and teachers to create and implement strategies to support learner variability, an initiative currently led by our Chief Learning Officer, Vic Vuchic. At the core of the approach is the goal of building relationships by understanding each student’s variability in their backgrounds, cognitive development, and social-emotional capacities.

In partnership with the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA), we hosted a roundtable with district and organizational leaders to understand how students with learning differences were supported during remote learning necessitated by the pandemic, and to imagine the future. From the conversations, the following big ideas emerged:

Student agency is paramount.

As a sector, we have been espousing and advocating for student agency and personalized learning for years. The pandemic amplified an opportunity for school districts to truly enable students to participate in the design of their own learning. Here are some ways that participants leveraged technology to make learning more accessible, and to create opportunities for student agency regarding when, how, and what they learned:

  • There was an increase in the development of competency-based learning approaches that recognize a student’s ability to create their own learning paths and to own the mastery of their learning.
  • Districts created flexible opportunities for students to receive support when they needed it through office hours or in the evening, as some students had to work and/or support families during the day.
  • The virtual environment supported students with ADHD who might need to move around while learning. It enabled students with autism to ask and answer questions in the chat, if it was more comfortable, and to work with students in smaller groups in breakout rooms.
  • Districts designed scavenger hunts for students who are non-verbal communicators.

The creativity and openness to adapt-to-fit to the student was a clear result of the experience of the past year.

Teachers are designers of learning systems.

While we acknowledge that the transition to teaching virtually was incredibly challenging and exhausting, teachers were able to engage their creative and innovative mindset to design learning experiences for students with learning differences. Teachers utilized a combination of technology, one-to-one engagement models, and supporting parents with in-person resources to create learning systems. To support teachers in design, districts offered flexible professional development models offered in multiple modalities, centered in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practices and peer-collaboration approaches to support teachers in creating and engaging students.

New approaches should center families.

The value and importance of creating a seamless connection between schools and families was amplified during the pandemic. Districts are thinking quite differently about parent engagement—moving beyond the parent-teacher meetings to creating channels for parents to understand the pacing of instruction and student progress in real time. During the pandemic, many districts reported that family engagement in IEP meetings increased dramatically, because the virtual platforms provided flexibility and opportunities to share in more depth on student progress and support. Districts shared the perspective that the education system would benefit from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and UDL as the anchors for how we address student learning broadly, because the models natively require knowing who a student is, their family and environment—and to develop personalized plans and tools for understanding progress. Essentially, every student should have a personalized learning plan which will help to enrich family and community engagement.

Districts and teachers began to design the future of learning over the past year, and were able to reimagine how to support students with learning differences in multiple ways by combining the benefits of the flexibility and adaptability of virtual learning with research-based approaches to creating a healthy, supporting learning environment. We must continue to build upon the progress and skills built during the pandemic to make personalized, student-driven learning education’s new normal.

Read blogs on other roundtables hosted by Digital Promise, SETDA, and CoSN:

Roundtable Participants

  • Leigh Bozard, Director of Special Projects, SELF (Special Education Leadership Fellowship)
  • Joel Coleman, Superintendent, Utah School for the Deaf and Blind
  • Cynthia Curry, Director of Technical Assistance & Project Director, National AEM Center, CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology)
  • Val Emrich, Director of Digital Teaching & Learning, Maryland State Department of Education (Maryland)
  • Pete Just, CTO, Wayne Township School District, Indiana
  • Kat Kelley, Lead SEL Facilitator & National Board Certified Teacher, Austin High, Texas
  • Jennifer Kelsall, Superintendent, Ridgewood High School District 234, New Jersey
  • Alexis Mays Fields, Special Education Coach for Center City Public Charter Schools, D.C.
  • Janice Mertes, Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning-Digital Learning, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (Wisconsin)
  • Matt Miller, Superintendent, Lakota Public Schools, Ohio
  • Justina Schlund, Senior Director at Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
  • Chris Rush, Sr. Advisor for Innovation & Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education
  • Jean Tower, Director of Media and Digital Learning at Needham Public Schools, Massachusetts
  • Nick Williams, CTO, Bartholomew School District, Indiana
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