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Answered by Jennifer Wotherspoon, OCT, Student Success Lead Teacher, Halton District School Board

When the Ministry of Education announced it would require students to take online courses in order to graduate, there was concern about whether students with learning disabilities (LDs) would find success. In response to this concern, the Ministry amended their original plan and announced that students with LDs could be exempt from online learning. This has sent mixed messages to students with LDs and their parents and may have convinced many that online learning is not possible for students with LDs.

The needs of students with LDs vary widely from person to person. Some students with learning disabilities require structure and routine, while others require a constant change in pace in a less structured environment. Students with LDs should therefore not automatically opt-out of online learning. Differentiated instruction and lessons, accommodations and modifications to materials, with a variety of resources are available and can be provided online, just as they have been in classrooms.

Online learning provides the opportunity for all students to develop and practice skills such as discipline, resisting distraction, responsibility, and initiative. As online learning provides the freedom to move about and take breaks as necessary during class time, students are able to work towards strengthening their self-discipline and the ability to resist distraction in an environment that is typically not associated with learning.

A student may consider an online course, if...

  • They prefer working outside of a traditional learning environment
  • They enjoy working at their own pace
  • They are able to work independently
  • They are able to follow written and/or verbal instructions well
  • They interact with peers and the teacher in a positive way
  • They are willing to communicate and ask questions when they don’t understand
  • They are able to start a task with a positive attitude

For students with LDs, it’s important to remember that what is being taught is less important than how it’s being taught and what supports are provided to facilitate their learning.

A student may consider opting out of online learning, if…

  • They are behind by multiple credits
  • They require a change in learning environment to refocus (ie: going from home to school)
  • They lack support at home (ie: help with homework)
  • They struggle severely with self-discipline (logging on; reminders to break and then refocus)

When practicing a skill set, students require support both at home and at school. If a student with an LD finds themself with limited support at home and/or requires changes in environment to refocus, learning online may not be in their best interest.

Students with LDs can handle online learning

Every student is different and finds success in their own way, on an individualized pathway. All pathways have obstacles that students must overcome in order to find success. Learning how to adapt and be resilient when facing challenges is something that students with LDs work towards on a daily basis. These students likely already have a skill set that can help to support their success in an online environment. Some students with LDs have the option of being exempt from taking online courses due to the accommodations they require. However, this may not be what this student wants or what they need. Adapting to new environments and overcoming difficult situations are in large part what prepares our students for post-secondary education, work and/or apprenticeships; all of which may require a skill set further developed by taking an online class.

Resources are available to support students with LDs

As we continue to get used to differentiating online instruction, we must continue to explore the online resources that are available to support students; Brightspace, Google Meet (with captioning), JamBoard, text-to-speech programs, Mindomo, Virtual Classroom, the list goes on. I work in a school where students have had success while being supported virtually with these online tools and resources. Google Meet Breakout Rooms, for example, are used with music playing in the background, a video playing on a shared screen to explain a math concept, an audiobook or podcast playing with students commenting in a chat or on a discussion board while they listen, creating communal notes or group discussions.

Oftentimes, students with LDs struggle to concentrate in environments that interrupt their focus and create distractions, but online learning provides an opportunity to create malleable lessons to accommodate all students.

Benefits of online learning for students with LDs

In addition to supporting student success, online learning also creates safer learning environments for some students. For students who suffer from anxiety, online learning reduces the pressure caused by traditional classrooms. By teaching to different learning styles, students, particularly those with anxiety, may feel more at ease and have more motivation and greater class participation. Rather than attending school in-person, online learning provides less intimidating means of participation and greater anonymity. In addition to having more flexibility within their schedule, students may feel more comfortable online when asking questions and communicating with their teacher and peers. Online classes provide a level of comfort for students with LDs in providing an opportunity to sit out of class participation by turning off your camera and/or microphone. This provides more autonomy and improves self-advocacy, allowing students with LDs to explore different methods of learning, with confidence, that are absent from traditional classroom settings.

When the Ministry announced that students with LDs could be exempt from online learning, it sent the message to many students with LDs and their parents that online learning is not possible for students with LDs. Some students with LDs will undoubtedly benefit from the opportunity to opt-out of online learning due to specific accommodations or because they require additional in-person support. However, before opting out of online learning, students with LDs should consider the benefits before the obstacles. Online learning can allow students with LDs to explore methods of learning with the confidence that they would not have before in a traditional classroom setting.