Zoom Differentiation and Accommodations

Though virtual learning is seemingly becoming less commonplace across the country, it’s still certainly around and likely will be for some time. And we all know that virtual learning has its challenges. Especially when it comes to differentiating in the virtual classroom. For students with special education accommodations, teachers will need to get creative in order to account for every student’s unique needs and optimize learning opportunities. Thankfully, there are strategies and methods for providing special education accommodations in Zoom—we just need to think outside the box and modify what each accommodation looks like in the virtual realm. Let’s take a look.

Zoom Chat

Since some are no longer physically in the classroom, proximity, prompting, and cueing accommodations pose a bit of a challenge for instructors. Yet, nothing has changed in terms of the student’s needs. In fact, students who struggle to focus and/or stay on task may need the prompting and proximity accommodations even more now that they are sitting in front of a screen. Online learning does not allow for physical proximity; however, teachers can utilize the chat function to maximize student engagement and provide an alternative form of proximity, prompting, and cueing.

Reaching out: The Zoom chat can be used to individually reach out to specific students with prompting accommodations to spur participation and to rephrase a question when necessary.

Clarifying: The chat also allows teachers to check for understanding by providing a platform for asking clarifying questions, follow-up questions, etc.

Advocating: Teachers should remind students of their chatting capabilities so that students with accommodations can advocate for themselves and speak up when they need assistance.

Tracking: The chat also acts as a data tracker; teachers can modify their settings in Zoom so that chats are saved. This allows for teachers to review correspondence with students and share questions and check-ins with parents. Teachers can also use saved chats to track the number of times a student initiates a task, asks clarifying questions, responds to polls or exit responses, etc.

Reminding: Teachers can use the Zoom chat as a method for reminding students of their extended time or reduced workload accommodations as well. This allows teachers to discreetly remind a certain student that his due date is extended without drawing attention to the student’s accommodations in front of the whole class. **Just be certain that, when chatting with specific students about these accommodations, you have selected the student’s name from the dropdown so that the chat remains a private, 1:1 conversation.

Breakout Rooms

The grouping function in Zoom can also be beneficial when ensuring certain special education accommodations are offered. Teachers have the option to manually assign groups, which means that students with special education services can be grouped with a para-educator or with other students who have the same accommodations.

Variance: Teachers should try to avoid always grouping special education students together, however, as to avoid drawing attention to certain small groups or stigmatizing students who need additional support.

Oversight: Teachers can randomly assign groups using the “automatic” option when creating breakout rooms. Then, while students work, the “host” can pop in and out of groups to act as a “check-in” for students with that accommodation.

Mobility: Teachers can also move the para-educator from group to group during breakout room sessions so that every student receives supports throughout the collaborative activity.

Discretion: Breakout rooms also offer opportunities for differentiation. Teachers can modify assignments and link adapted materials in the chat to send to specific breakout rooms. From the chat link, students can click on the shared Google doc to access the modified material. This function can provide students with resources such as word banks, sentence starters, outlines, graphic organizers, glossaries, etc. The key is that each student who receives these accommodations will have access in a discreet manner and can choose to use the materials as needed.

In short, there are many steps educators can take to ensure virtual learning provides differentiation and accommodation on a platform like Zoom. Though virtual learning may not be around forever, it still remains for some, and with that, educators must ensure they enhance the learning experience as much as possible.

How Real Is Zoom Fatigue

Distance learning is now the norm, at least for the remainder of this school year and for summer school. Now that many students, teachers, and communities have somewhat adapted to this “new normal,” we find ourselves engaging with screens and virtual platforms much more than we would have ever anticipated. Cue the new symptom or side effect of our post-pandemic circumstances—Zoom fatigue.

How is this real?

While it may sound melodramatic, this new form of lethargy can be scientifically explained. Zoom fatigue, as experts are calling it, happens when our day-to-day communications, whether they be for work, learning, or leisure, exist primarily in front of a screen and/or camera. These extended conversations and engagements on screen may seem like a passive form of communication. However, video chats, no matter what the purpose, involve much more than simply sitting in front of the screen.

What causes the fatigue?

Believe it or not, the “face time” can become exhausting. Consider this: In normal social settings and conversations, we do not maintain 100% front-facing, continuous eye contact. As social beings, even when attending a lecture or work conference, we have a tendency to glance around, examine the surroundings, check in and out of the speaker’s presence, whisper to our neighbor for clarification, take notes, etc. We are actively engaged and listening attentively, even when our gaze is elsewhere.

However, with Zoom and other video conferencing platforms, the camera holds our gaze captive. Participants, with a desire to appear 100% engaged, overcompensate while on camera. Am I sitting up straight? Was that a joke? Should I be laughing? Can people see my half-eaten lunch? Are my kids screaming in the background? 

Furthermore, since we are able to see ourselves during these calls, we become acutely aware of where we are looking, how we are looking, and how others are seeing us. It becomes a very inorganic way of communicating that consumes us with this idea that we are broadcasting ourselves in some sense. It is no different for students, either.

In addition to the overwhelming sense of engagement that kids might feel compelled to present, Zoom fatigue is also caused by the multi-tasking nature that the platform affords. While semi-focusing on the teacher’s explanation or instructions, students are likely scrolling through email, responding to texts, chatting in the Zoom chat, eating a snack, and/or listening to the television in the background. This level of stimuli makes it nearly impossible for kids to be active listeners. They may be sitting in the camera frame, but their minds are elsewhere. This is especially the case when Zoom meetings run long or when students sit through multiple Zoom calls throughout the day.

Because of the tendency for students and teachers to experience Zoom fatigue while attempting instruction and learning, its use requires a bit of strategizing in order to ensure full engagement. So what are we to do? Check out part II, where we will discuss strategies for warding off Zoom fatigue. We will also provide instructors and tutors with tips for checking for and maintaining engagement throughout classes and tutoring sessions.

How to combat Zoom fatigue

  • If possible, limit Zoom meetings to 1-2 per day. If parents are finding that their children are attending Zoom meetings consistently throughout the day, it’s time to step in. As a guideline, teachers have been instructed to provide 1-2 hours of “live instruction,” aka Zoom meetings consisting of instructional content, per week. This means that I personally am “live teaching” for two, 30-minute sessions per week. If teachers follow this expectation, students will be spending more time with hands-on, experiential learning as suggested, and less time honed in on a screen or video chat.
  • Parents who notice that Zoom meetings are occurring back-to-back or for prolonged periods of time should reach out directly to teachers and copy administration if necessary.
  • Parents can also suggest that their child only spend as much time as necessary in the Zoom meeting to gain clarity, ask questions, and receive feedback.
  • Similarly, teachers should set the expectation that Zoom participation, while strongly encouraged, is not required for the entire session. This means that students should feel comfortable signing in and logging out as they please.
  • A good suggestion for teachers to make every so often during a Zoom meeting is to remind students that, if they don’t have any questions about the assignment or content being discussed, they shouldn’t feel as though they have to stay in the Zoom meeting. Keeping things fluid allows students to advocate for their needs, while ensuring that time on digital platforms is minimized when possible.
  • To spur engagement during Zoom instruction, teachers should suggest that students take free-flowing, unstructured notes while the teacher is reviewing material or answering questions. These notes, in the form of free writing, have several benefits:
    • Note-taking ensures that students are actively listening and grasping important concepts.
    • Note-taking also helps solidify important information into memory.
    • Students are able to hold themselves accountable with their notes; if the page is bare, they know that they weren’t paying attention.
    • Jotting down rough thoughts or questions during an instructional session allows students to keep track of questions that they want to ask or concepts that require more clarity.

Teachers and tutors can also encourage engagement by enlisting an old classroom technique—random calling. Just as we would in the classroom, teachers can reach out for student comments and responses throughout the session to keep students on their toes and to check for understanding.

Teachers should be sure to provide wait time for student answers and then open the question up to the group if a student falls silent. The point of random calling is to get and hold students’ attention, not to embarrass anyone or put them on the spot with a tricky question.

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