Building Engagement with Distance Learning

Distance Learning Engagement
An Overview Framework

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

Building Engagement with Distance Learning provides a framework for supporting all students, including those with significant cognitive disabilities, to actively engage:

  • Engage with classmates
  • Learn grade-level general education curriculum
  • Learn other essential skills

Think about distance learning for students with disabilities as happening in phases. The First Phase is just starting. The focus is on getting something going for students, even if it is not perfect. The Second Phase is thinking more holistically about the students, how to embed learning opportunities in their home environments, moving forward with greater collaboration with team members, including parents and siblings, and using online tools to provide greater access and engagement. The Third Phase is when programs integrate the principles of quality inclusive practices and effective instruction into distance learning.  Eventually, there will be a time to pause and reflect on what we have learned during this period of significant change to understand how the knowledge and skills that were gained transfer back into the classroom. The TIES Center is focusing its work on moving forward to the Second Phase and then the Third Phase, particularly for students with significant cognitive disabilities. 

Please check out additional TIPS in this series for practical illustrations of how this can be done.  New illustrations will be added weekly.  We are also soliciting suggestions and questions via the TIES Facebook page.

A Framework for Building Engagement with Distance Learning

EVERY student, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, has the same inclusive environment right now. It is called home. At the same time, they need to remain connected to their larger inclusive community at school.  As we navigate this new norm, it is important to realize that learning opportunities are abundant and can be generalized across the day for all students. Focusing on IEP priorities within this new learning situation can be done successfully and inclusively.

Distance learning presents a myriad of teachable moments that connect to the primary underpinnings of inclusive education - its emphasis on access to and engagement with grade level, standards-based academics; communicative competence; relationships and belonging; and learning life-long essential skills in real places with real people. Capitalizing on the thousands of teachable opportunities that occur throughout a day can, in fact, reinforce the value of thinking about IEP priorities in terms of the whole child across the whole day. We know students are more than just learners for the 6-7 hours that they are typically in school. In this sense, creating distance learning in an inclusive way presents an exciting opportunity. We are able to structure learning and establish IEP priorities within the most natural and inclusive context, their home.

Looking at the learning opportunities that exist for all students across the day (Participating in Routines and Transitions, Engaging in Grade Level Academics and Other Essential Skills, and Interacting with Others), we can prioritize learning opportunities for students with the most significant disabilities. All of these examples can be modified or expanded upon depending on the individual student's strengths and identified needs. It is important to remember that engagement begins with the sense of community all students feel, even with distance learning.

Participating in Routines and Transitions

  • When the class is meeting online, a student is responsible for finding a quiet spot in the home, collecting appropriate materials and setting up a workspace for themselves, turning on computer/device, and logging into the virtual classroom on time with increasing levels of independence, with prompts as necessary (imagine them sitting at the kitchen table, what skills could they be learning that are lifelong and essential to be online, with their class, more independently?).
  • Following a schedule with increased independence (using high or low tech options such as online calendars and alerts, visuals, oven timers, handwritten list, or even post-it notes around the home) to plan, coordinate and engage in activities across the day; 
  • Begin, engage in and sustain work (especially non-preferred activities) for increased amounts of time, and work toward needing varied or fewer prompts.

Engaging in Grade Level Academics and Other Essential Skills

  • Engaging in universally designed academics to the greatest degree possible, with the assistance of graphic organizers, word banks, visuals, audio and speech to text options, project-based learning, and support from siblings and parents. 
  • Using technology in an increasingly independent fashion (e.g. use of Google Classroom or Schoology; Google Suite or Microsoft Office apps; Zoom; emailing teachers and peers about what they are learning, questions they have, turning in assignments and continuing the email conversation by checking in and responding. 
  • Using Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) systems to participate during online class discussions (preparing beforehand if necessary) and during home routines; use of a switch to show choice/preference; use of various devices such as iPad, Chromebook, laptops, watches.
  • Increasing self-advocacy skills through realizing they have an issue that requires assistance, identifying who they could ask for help (parents, teacher, peers, siblings), and then seeking assistance for the issue more independently across the day. 

Interacting With Others

  • Participating in small and large group learning with peers online (morning meetings, meetups, class discussions, peer partner opportunities, projects)
  • Learning how, and engaging in, age-appropriate means of staying in touch with peers and creating community with one another (e.g. text, FaceTime, other social media options, e-pals, recreation/leisure activities such as online gaming)
  • Using an AAC device to ask/answer questions during online discussions or classes; offer answers prepared in advance or in the moment; tell a joke of the day, or check in on people they care about.
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