If I didn’t have access to virtual classes in high school, I probably would not have graduated in four years. As a student with low vision and a then-undiagnosed chronic illness, I had trouble with receiving disability accommodations in the traditional classroom environment because of limited resources for assistive technology and overwhelmed teachers, and had to deal with several frustrating situations that could have been avoided if I was just given a digital copy of an assignment to begin with. My preference for accessing materials digitally naturally extended into a preference for accessing my classes digitally as well, and today I will be sharing more about my experience with virtual classes in high school as a student with low vision, and how I was able to thrive in the virtual classroom.
I took a total of 16 different virtual classes across all core subjects, including math, science, history, and English, as well as additional electives in gym, psychology, information technology, personal finance, and health education. My high school classes were hosted using the following learning management systems:
One of the school districts I attended had their own virtual program that could be accessed by students within the district, while the other school district I attended required students to have courses approved on a case-by-case basis. I took some classes during the school year as well as one virtual class per summer. I continued to take virtual classes in college as well- about half of my classes each semester in college were virtual classes, an intentional choice I made when putting together my schedule.
My favorite way to access information is with large print or text-to-speech tools, both of which can be generated almost instantaneously when working with digital formats. While I often struggled to get digital copies of assignments in some of my classes, one of my favorite things about virtual classes in high school was that all assignments were available in a digital format by default, usually a .docx file that could be edited to have a larger font size or read out loud using a screen reader or other text-to-speech tool. Having my assignments available at the same time as all of the other students and not having to wonder if I will receive an assignment in an accessible format helped to take away a lot of school-related stress and allowed me to focus on learning.
Of course, there were some situations where I had to deal with accessibility issues in online classes, such as the time I discovered I couldn’t use a screen magnifier with test proctoring software, but these issues were rare and I was able to work with my teacher and virtual learning supervisor to find solutions. I have a few posts on troubleshooting issues in virtual classes linked below.
While I started out taking virtual classes for some subjects, there were other cases where I was transferred into a virtual class from an in-person class during the school year because my teacher was unable to provide accessible materials. Some of the factors I considered when choosing to take a class virtually vs in-person included:
I was interested in taking a science class in-person at my high school, but the teacher told me that they did not feel comfortable having a student with low vision in their class as they felt they would not be able to reliably follow my disability accommodations. As frustrating as it was to hear this, I appreciated their honesty, and took the class virtually with a teacher who had taught multiple blind and low vision students in the past.
I prefer to take classes that require a lot of reading virtually, because I can complete readings at my own pace and in a more comfortable environment than in the classroom. For example, I can read novels assigned for class at home next to a lamp and in a comfortable chair with my eReader, instead of reading out loud in the classroom with bright overhead lights that make it difficult for me to focus later in the day.
I received textbooks from AIM-VA in high school, and also downloaded digital textbooks from Bookshare and Amazon Kindle for select classes as well. Having access to a digital copy of the textbook was incredibly helpful as I could easily enlarge the font size and search within the text, and I didn’t have to carry a bulky large print textbook.
Having strong tech skills is an important part of being successful in virtual classes, and I ended up withdrawing from a class when I discovered that the teacher regularly used videos with strobe and flashing lights to demonstrate class lessons without providing an alternative. Students that are less proficient with technology may need a tutor or other aide when first starting out in virtual classes to ensure that they can access materials.
During the school day, I would access virtual classes in the computer lab or sit at a table with my laptop and/or tablet and open the course website that way. One of my favorite features of virtual classes was that I could adapt how I accessed materials based on my fluctuating eyesight- as my eyes got more tired later in the day, I could enable a high contrast or inverted display, have text read out loud, or enlarge the font size of documents so it was easier to focus. I have several posts on other types of assistive technology for virtual classes linked below.
One of my strategies for balancing schoolwork with managing a then-undiagnosed chronic illness was working ahead in my virtual classes when I was feeling well, sometimes completing assignments 1-3 weeks before they were due. This helped me to focus on in-person classes more effectively since the virtual classes were out of the way, since my in-person classes did not offer as many flexible deadlines. Of course, there were also times I had to catch up on assignments I’d missed due to not feeling well, but the asynchronous nature of virtual courses made this easier to accomplish.
I have an entire post dedicated to ways I would practice self-advocacy skills in my virtual classes, but one of the most important ways I would do this is by explaining to my teachers how my IEP accommodations would be used in their class. Since my IEP was written with physical classroom environments in mind and my virtual teachers didn’t always get a copy of my IEP, it was up to me to figure out how my accommodations would be enforced in the classroom, whether that was asking for extended time on tests or making sure that I could get large print sizes for quizzes. These self-advocacy skills were incredibly helpful for taking virtual classes in college as well.
During my senior year of high school, my chronic illness made it difficult for me to attend school on a traditional full day schedule, and virtual classes provided me with the opportunity to have a more flexible schedule while still attending in-person elective classes. My schedule was configured so I would have virtual class periods every day at first and fourth period, and every other day at third period, with the option to work from home or come to school to work in the computer lab. This hybrid schedule allowed me more flexibility with attending school, and I would often work on assignments outside of traditional school hours if I had dealt with a migraine earlier in the day.
Taking a high courseload of virtual classes can be stressful, especially for students with vision loss who are more prone to developing eyestrain. Some of my favorite self-care tips for students taking virtual classes include:
By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com
Updated August 2023
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