Guest post by Robin Lowell. Robin Lowell is a Microsoft Innovative Education Expert, and a special education, science, and mathematics teacher, as well as teacher of blind and visually impaired students. She partnered with the Microsoft in Education team to deliver this accessibility training for members of the Microsoft Educator Community.
As a special education teacher, I am constantly trying to create an environment for my students with learning differences that is personalized, differentiated and yet as close to their peers’ experience as possible. In this inclusive classroom, all students work and collaborate throughout the day as much as possible. This takes planning, tools and creativity. When I work with my students and determine how to meet their needs, I think a lot about their accommodations rather than their modifications. The outcomes for a student can have a very dramatic effect on their learning.
What are accommodations and modifications?
Accommodations are tools and strategies that personalize learning, provide greater access to content, and encourage independence without changing the content or materials; whereas modifications are strategies and tools that change the content and materials a student receives, altering the students’ learning. Modifications are important and valid, but can compromise the richness of the content and student learning.
How do accommodations and modifications differ? A student receives an assignment to read a chapter from one of their textbooks. While this assignment may be challenging for any student, it can be a real struggle for students with a print disability such as dyslexia. A modification would change the content of the reading, possibly by shortening the amount the student must read, or focusing in on very specific pages, paragraphs, or sections. An accommodation would be a tool or strategy that allows the student to complete the assignment by consuming the content in an accessible and preferred format, such as the Learning Tools Immersive Reader. In this example, an accommodation has been provided but the content itself is unchanged, or, unmodified.
The impact that accommodations and modifications can have on a student can be tremendous. I had a student, Allie, who was a senior when her vision suddenly began to change. She could no longer read the large print Algebra 2 book and was not proficient in Braille. This was both emotionally and academically very challenging for her. We brainstormed ways to provide her materials and instruction in a timely way that fit her needs, as she was not on campus. We determined that OneNote was our best option. Every day, Allie would connect to class via Skype and I would write or type the problems into a shared OneNote notebook in a large font for her. Using document co-authoring, we collaborated on the problems in real time even though she was 100 miles away. The content of the class was not changed, we did not modify anything, but added accommodations that provided access to all the materials, her peers and her teacher.
In another example, while I was teaching at the Washington State School for the Blind, we used a virtual classroom to successfully deliver college prep level math to visually-impaired students throughout the Western United States. Using Skype and OneNote notebooks, we delivered a rigorous and challenging program tailored to the individual needs of each student. Check out the video below to learn more how we did it:
In my current role, as a high school special education teacher, I have a diverse learner population that spends a lot of time working independently or collaborating with peers, and not in a lecture or classroom setting. Accommodations have been a critical part of student success in our environment, enabling them to access all materials, research, collaborate and communicate effectively without compromising their individual needs as learners.
With Windows 10 and Office 365, which is free for teachers and students, I have found ways to enable many of the accommodations that I need for making consumption of materials, content creation, collaboration, and organization possible for students using the same technology and tools as their peers.
Using the tools in Office 365 and Windows 10, have changed my student’s educational experience. A former student who is now in graduate school said through his experiences working with technology and math related projects it gave him the skills to start working to design his own music label and brand from the ground up. When students graduate from high school, and either enter college or the workplace they are equipped with productivity and collaboration tools and skills they will use throughout their lives.