Providing personalised learning support for students with additional learning needs, and collecting a myriad of data and evidence is no easy task. Learning support staff and teachers across Australia have been silently tackling these challenges in a classroom environment that is ever-changing.
Just as schools adjusted to the challenges of moving to a new data driven learning support model a few years ago, the current learning environment now demands they adjust to a whole new set of challenges associated with remote learning.
Under legislation, all Australian students with disability must be able to access and participate in education on the same basis as their peers. In addition to this, the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (NCCD) is a government initiative that requires Australian schools to collect specific data about students with disability. This means the entire learning support process must be documented and recorded from start to finish.
But how are Learning Support staff now supporting and tracking students online?
Current environment of online learning
Now more than ever schools are facing challenges with the shift to online learning – and learning support is no exception. Since the global shift to online learning, the subject of providing reasonable adjustments and collecting evidence (under the NCCD requirements) has never been more confusing. We spoke to some learning support experts about how they are adjusting to this change.
Learning support students often end up feeling isolated at the best of times, let alone when online learning, whether it’s connecting with content, technology or instructions and directions.
Gillet-Swan, stated in the Journal of Learning Design that developing learning materials for online students is not as straightforward as it used to be.
“In changing between and across modes, a one-size-fits-all approach is often used… However, there is a significant problem with the one-size-fits-all approach for external students who feel or experience isolation.”
Karli Anderson, SIS Database Administrator at King's Christian College, confirms this approach.
“Learning support is so specific to every student. They don't all fit into a single model and so it's hard to develop a system that works for everyone.”
Teacher’s at Mt St Michael’s College are facing this challenge by adjusting their teaching styles to suit online education.
Dr Aranza Blackburn, Curriculum Leader - Diversity and Differentiation at Mt St Michael's College, says:
“Teachers are being more mindful with wording of instructions to insure they are clear and direct – with features such as bolding, highlighting, and colouring text for emphasis and attention. We are also introducing new features of technology such as Immersive Reader or Read Aloud in a purposeful context.”
Jolene Thomas, Learning Enrichment at Redlands College, comments on the nature of providing adjustments online.
“Online adjustments would include, individual instruction by the teacher or TA, rephrasing and repeating of directions by the class teacher, use of simplified language, and tutoring. Much the same as face to face adjustments but via zoom.”
The new learning environment impacts parents just as much as the students themselves. Parents have found themselves taking on a new role, resulting in a newfound appreciation for teachers and what they do.
Looking at social media, the volume of parents with school aged children sharing their woes of home-schooling is substantial. Perhaps it’s time to ask: What are we doing to support parents of kids with learning difficulties?
We spoke to a mother of three from Brisbane who is currently home-schooling two students to gain some insight into how parents are adjusting to their new role as a full-time support teacher.
“It’s just a whole new experience and I think we have put way too much pressure on kids in such a short period of time to navigate an online world. My daughter has really struggled, and she was losing confidence in her ability.”
Describing her daughter as a visual, hands-on learner, the parent recounts how she approaches online learning in a way that best suits her child.
“Day to day I’m following the lesson plans somewhat, but instead of downloading these chunky lesson plans designed for both the teacher and the students (overwhelming for a seven year old), I am pulling out the concepts of the lesson and she searches on YouTube topics that covers those concepts. This is giving her the freedom to self-learn instead of sitting and listening to a teacher talk at 20 students.”
This comes back to the one-size-fits-all approach – in the classroom, teachers are the ones ensuring that adjustments are made to fit a child’s individual needs, at home parents can take on a similar role.
It is important to keep in direct contact with the parents of students identified with additional learning needs and work with them to develop the best learning approach for the student. You may be surprised with some of the creative solutions they could offer.
“I have also set up a board where she can pick the tasks from the lesson plan and once they are completed move them to a ‘completed’ section so she has some sense of what she has accomplished. After implementing these changes, she is a completely different person when sitting at the table.”
Take the time to consider what resources (videos, guides, apps) and support (emails, phone calls video conferences), you can provide parents as they take on this new environment.
Lack of understanding of new technology is a problem for all students, especially those who require extra support. De Fazio, Gilding and Zorzenon, authors of ‘Student Learning Support in an Online Learning Environment’ acknowledge the learning curve.
“The Internet and the accompanying online technologies introduce new skills and knowledge. We now require students to develop new levels of computer literacy and communication skills arising out the use of computer facilitated communication.”
Dr Blackburn says their teachers are being met with a fear of new technology in some students, as well as fear of being left behind from the rest of the class when technology fails, which can lead to a feeling of isolation. They faced this challenge by taking the time to teach these new technologies to students.
“Initially, just as much time was spent teaching students to navigate the online environment as teaching content.”
To ensure that learning support students who require extra understanding are supported, you may wish to provide IT staff with a list of these students so that they are aware they need an extra hand with technology issues.
Also consider providing further training for learning support students on navigating the new platforms they have been introduced to, such as Microsoft Teams. Workshops are a great way to provide that extra training for students and their parents who may need to assist.
Studies have shown that the online learning environment affects the student teacher relationship. Student difficulties in particular are less evident from a remote point of view and following up on unengaged students is sometimes a challenge.
“It is important for visual contact to happen regularly,” says Dr Blackburn. “As well as being available to students in chat, to relieve embarrassment about asking a question and to ensure the student feels heard/supported,” says Dr Blackburn.
Learning support requires one-on-one contact and conversations with students. Visual opportunity to gauge body language and demeanour is necessary in determining how comfortable or stressed a student is. Dr Blackburn adds:
“Setting up additional channels for learning assistance (the equivalent of ‘small group work’ in the physical classroom) [has also been useful].”
Karli shares King’s Christian College’s communication approach.
“Our learning support staff personally send emails to learning support students frequently to check in, if they don't receive a reply, they call. If the kids aren't checking in on Teams with their teachers, they're being followed up.”
The classroom is an ever-changing environment and teachers, support staff, students and parents are all doing their part in ensuring that students with disability are never left behind, now or in the future.
TASS would like to thank all the learning support, IT staff and parents who were willing to share their experiences for this month’s blog. As well as all the schools who helped contribute in the development of TASS’s own Learning Support module. If you would like more information and best practice tips on NCCD, download our free guide below or visit nccd.edu.au.