Across the country, many TVIs have been using virtual instruction to reach students who are physically located in hard to reach areas or to be more efficient with their time by eliminating travel time. In some cases, virtual instruction is used to bring in an “expert” to teach skills such as technology, higher math or STEM classes. Due to the fast spreading Coronavirus, many K-12 schools and universities have temporarily closed and students are assigned work to be done at home and/or virtual instruction. While there is a difference between “virtual instruction” and “virtual classroom”, these terms are often used interchangeably.
Virtual Instruction is defined as a course which is taught solely online or when components of face-to-face instruction are taught online such as with Blackboard and other course management systems. Virtual instruction includes digitally transmitting class materials to students. Many of our students have already participated in virtual instruction a.k.a. online courses.
Virtual Classroom is an online teaching and learning environment where teachers and students can present course materials, engage and interact with one another, and working groups together. The key distinction of a virtual classroom is that it takes place in a live, synchronous setting.
While a student with visual impairments may participants with his sighted peers in virtual instruction and/or virtual classroom, this student may also participate in a 1:1 virtual classroom with his/her TVI or ‘expert’. Often this student may need specialized training that his TVI is not able to provide or there may not be a local TVI available. This training could be on any subject, including braille; however, most often the training is for assistive technology such as learning how to use JAWS or a combination of learning how to use technology for STEM goals, such as using JAWS to do advanced math.
A number of school districts are temporary closing schools due to the Coronavirus. Most schools are requiring teachers to create a plan in the event of school closures. General education teachers are being asked to prepare online assignments as well as materials that can be sent home. While individual districts may have varying requirements, most districts are working to establish online assignments through platforms such as Blackboard or Canvas. In order for students who rely on a screen reader to access materials through these platforms, the materials (Word documents, PowerPoints, etc.) need to be made accessible before the classroom teacher uploads them to the platform. If the platform is not fully accessible, classroom teachers should provide an alternative method for sharing the documents with the student; this method could be through cloud (such as Dropbox or Google Drive) or emailing the materials directly to the student. the TVI should also have access to these materials. If necessary the TVI should be given materials ahead of time in order to prepare braille copies or to make tactile graphics. These tactile materials will need to be sent home with the student before the school is closed or mailed to the student.
For students who are using technology to access materials, the TVI should make sure that the student has access to the school-provided technology, such as a laptop, tablet, braille display, etc. and that the device is loaded with the required software for both the student’s accessibility needs and to access the virtual instruction/classroom. This may include adding an app like Zoom so that the student and TVI can connect virtually for 1:1 home instruction. Students with VIB should regularly take the technology home and should already be responsible for charging and caring for their technology. The student will need to take the tech home – including chargers – during school closures.
The student with VIB should already know how to use his/her technology and the software required to access his/her assignments. If using a new application, such as Zoom for virtual classroom, the student should be introduced to the new software and become independent with the software prior to the school closure.
If the student is not independent with the device/software, then support may be needed at home. The level of the support may vary depending on the student’s age and their skills. The student may only need assistance to access/learn the new software (i.e. setting up Zoom the first time or two) or the student may need ongoing support as he/she learns the new educational content. As always, the goal is to limit the amount of support and to eliminate the support as soon as possible.
The student may need a designated quiet place at home when participating in a virtual classroom.
The TVI/classroom teacher should prepare and send home written instructions on how to use the device (such as how to log-in to the school’s platform and the teacher’s page). The parents may need specific instructions about using the assistive technology, including a quick reference sheet of screen reader commands. If possible, TVIs can create or find a video tutorial to assist the student and/or family member.
If the student is older, the student should be able to talk the family member through any setup that requires vision.
The student/family should have contact information on how to reach the classroom teacher, the school’s tech person and/or TVI during the school closure in case they need assistance. The student should also know when it is or is not appropriate to contact school personnel.
In order to access a virtual classroom, the student will need Internet access at home. If no Internet is available, many assignments and materials can be downloaded to the device at school – while on school Internet – and accessed offline at home. The student can complete the work at home, then upload the word to the platform or share the work directly with the teacher when back at school. Students should be given time and opportunity once school is back in session to share work or complete any work that he/she was not able to get done at home without Internet access.
The general education teacher will have discussions about virtual instruction with his/her class and will establish expectations, procedures, and details. The TVI should also be a part of these discussions and should prepare any additional materials that the student may need at home in order to complete the assignments. This might include math manipulatives or additional devices, such as a graphing calculator. The TVI should also establish the expectations, procedures and details for the virtual VI class, which may be 1:1 instruction through Zoom. If 1:1 virtual instruction is provided, the TVI may establish dates and times prior to the school closure. Be sure to take in account the family member’s schedule if the student requires assistance during the 1:1 virtual class.
The TVI may establish virtual 1:1 classes (or small group classes) during school closures. Establish a date and time for these sessions; be sure to consider the schedule of the family member, if the student requires support during the virtual class. Carefully choose IEP and educational goals that are practical in a virtual classroom. This is a wonderful time to work on technology skills of all levels! Set up Zoom or other virtual meeting software so that you, the TVI, can view what the student is doing. Virtual classroom is a wonderful way to keep students moving forward with learning during these unusual times. It is also one way to keep working and limit the amount of make-up time once schools are back to normal. Virtual classrooms are also a wonderful teaching method during normal times!
In recent discussions with TVIs and other service providers, I have learned that many TVIs and therapists have been regularly using virtual classrooms with students who are VIB, including speech therapists and COMS. During normal times, these educators often recommend a combination of face-to-face instruction paired with virtual classrooms. I would love to hear how YOU – or your colleagues – are using virtual instruction or virtual classroom, virtual classroom lessons, and your experiences of what worked and did not work. Please share your experiences with us and/or consider writing a post on this timely topic!
By Diane Brauner