The Learning Accelerator Blog/3 Ways to Improve Accessibility in Virtual Learning Environments

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3 Ways to Improve Accessibility in Virtual Learning Environments

by Nate Kellogg on June 30 2023

For students with disabilities, accessibility is a critical issue, but technology has played a significant role in improving access and working to ensure all students get what they need. Given assistive technology’s effect on improving accessibility, virtual learning is assumed to be even more accessible than in-person learning. But in The Learning Accelerator’s (TLA) work with school systems across the country running virtual and hybrid programs, accessibility has surfaced as a consistent area of concern for virtual and hybrid programs; in our Strategy Lab cohort team assessments of virtual and hybrid learning, just seven of the 20 school systems felt that they consistently ensure that, “Our tools, materials, and supports are universally accessible so that ALL students can interact with them using screen readers, dictation tools, translators, etc.” Through their work with peers, experts, and coaches in Strategy Lab, a number of those school system teams explored ways of improving accessibility, shedding light on key actionable ways to address this critical need. Here, we share three areas of virtual learning that can support virtual, hybrid, blended, and other tech-enabled learning programs to achieve their potential as accessible learning environments: the technology base, communication, and learning design.

Leverage Technology Infrastructure to Advance Accessibility

All schools – not just virtual ones – must ensure that every student has access to learning with high-speed internet access and an adequate device, as TLA’s Digital Equity Guide highlights. But virtual learning programs have a heightened need here: since the student's entire learning experience could be in a virtual learning environment, these programs have to ensure the "boxes and wires" are in place but, crucially, create opportunities for flexibly accessing learning. TLA’s research on what works in virtual and hybrid learning environments highlights the important role that technology plays in ensuring virtual and hybrid programs are effective, equitable, and engaging: “In remote environments, technology serves as the bridge between the learner, content, teacher, and peers. As such, it is the basis upon which any remote learning experience is enabled.” A high-quality technology base allows for one of the hallmarks of virtual learning to thrive – flexibility – as it enables anytime, anywhere learning; this is the first place for virtual programs to look, specifically in creating opportunities for adding flexibility and increasing accessibility.

Beyond boxes and wires, an accessible technology base is designed to equitably meet the needs of each student. For Strategy Lab member Novi Community School District in Michigan, this means designing their program to be accessible from literally anywhere in the world. Through their work in Strategy Lab, Novi identified the need to better support their multinational students who frequently travel abroad and therefore have trouble attending live classes from vastly different time zones. The Novi team piloted layering in asynchronous assignments that allow all their students to continue their education from thousands of miles – and multiple time zones – away by completing assignments when it works best for them instead of requiring them to attend live sessions. By leaning into their robust technology base and allowing for asynchronous work, Novi added new flexibility that increased the accessibility of their virtual program to support their students’ learning wherever they are.

Create Accessible Learning Experiences

According to our research, quality virtual and remote learning relies on technology and a foundation of self-directed learning. While students may enter virtual schools with varying degrees of prior experience with self-direction, virtual schools must support all their students in developing their self-direction and independent learning skills for them to access virtual learning. From an accessibility lens, the Universal Design for Learning guidelines recommend that learning experiences be designed to support “Self-Regulation.”

One simple but critical way virtual schools can make learning experiences more accessible – and support students’ self-direction – is by establishing explicit expectations, including routines and processes for collaborating and seeking help. In our Strategy Lab cohort, the greatest improvement area over the past year, as shown in the team assessments, has been establishing clear expectations in virtual and hybrid programs – a relatively low-lift problem with a wide-reaching impact. By ensuring students have a consistent experience between classes with materials, assignments, and content organization, schools can minimize distractions and support students in accessing learning. For example, two of our Strategy Lab teams – Madison Metropolitan School District and A School Without Walls in New York City – focused on establishing and communicating clear expectations to families and students as part of their pilots, exploring more equitable program design. In concentrating on understandable expectations, both programs were able to better support students’ self-direction and ultimately make learning more accessible.

Ensure Accessible Communication

Virtual schools face an uphill battle with communication. Unlike brick-and-mortar schools, there is no virtual equivalent to putting flyers in a backpack or running into a parent at carpool. Instead, many virtual schools focus on email communication, which relies on parents or guardians to have a reliable internet connection and device to access email, along with the digital literacy skills to navigate both. Without consistent, reliable, and accessible communication, families of students in virtual schools can fall behind or miss out on important opportunities to support their student’s learning.

Despite this, virtual schools are primed to take advantage of the accessibility in communication made possible by technology. Language is a simple starting point, as tools like Google Translate make it easy and efficient to translate text into different languages, while school websites can use built-in translation tools to allow any individual to select their preferred language. Additionally, the rise in generative artificial intelligence tools creates an opportunity to make language more accessible for families. School leaders can prompt generative AI to modify communications to different reading levels, ensuring that communication is easy to digest for families with varying reading levels. By ensuring communication is accessible, school systems like Novi, Madison, and School Without Walls can implement their new strategies for more accessible learning, as students and families are more likely to engage with the improved flexibility and expectations.

Virtual schools should be exemplars for accessibility and support for students with disabilities and varied learning needs. But work is needed to create fully accessible virtual learning environments that enable students to reach their full potential and for virtual schools to fulfill their promise as a flexible option within a learner-centered education system. By intentionally using tech infrastructure to improve accessibility, increasing student agency through accessible learning experiences, and ensuring communication and expectations are understandable, virtual, hybrid, blended, and other tech-enabled learning programs can utilize virtual learning’s capabilities to design learning experiences for all students.

About the Author

Nate Kellogg is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. With a decade of experience in schools, Nate leverages his expertise in innovation for equity to support school- and systems-level improvement to accelerate transformation.