March 30th, 2020

Learning during Covid-19: How to Survive Digital Learning with LD

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen the COVID-19 health crisis force universities and colleges to close their campuses and move to virtual coursework. Professors, staff, and students all are facing this new reality together. Virtual learning offers great opportunities for continued learning despite school closures — as well as potential unintended consequences and challenges, particularly for students with disabilities and their federally protected rights and accommodations. 

We wanted to hear directly from students and experts about these challenges, identify potential solutions, and provide guidance and support to students and families going through this together. Last week, NCLD spoke with our Young Adult Leadership Council members about their experiences with virtual learning and remote teleworking, to understand what they face in this new digital learning world. We then interviewed Elizabeth Hamblet, a college learning disabilities consultant, to identify how colleges and universities can address the challenges students with disabilities face in the current situation and to offer solutions for students and families. Below is a helpful Q&A for students and professors.

NCLD: What difficulties have you faced during this uncertain time regarding your academics? 

Adam: “My professor changed the format of the class since we are no longer meeting in person. We are now required to write summaries about the weekly readings. These summary pages take a lot of time due to my processing speed. How should I talk to my professor about creating alternative ways to demonstrate my understanding of the readings?”

Elizabeth Hamblet: Professors are now having to find different ways to run their classes, and this is all new for them. Those who aren’t holding classes online may be thinking that this means students can use what would have been class time to write their responses. You can try asking your professor whether they are able to schedule a video chat with you so you can show your understanding in a conversation with them. (Remember that professors may have their own home situations that may make that challenging.) If you are unable to arrange for a video chat with the professor, you can ask for an extension of an extra day. 

Professors may not be open to changing their assignments, or they might be willing to do it only if such a change is approved as a disability accommodation. If you were not granted the accommodation of an alternative assignment format before school moved online, you can contact your disability services coordinator to see whether they would consider you eligible for this accommodation in these new circumstances. (This may need to go through a review process, so don’t wait to ask!) If they agree it’s reasonable and find you eligible, then ask how your approval for an alternative assignment will be communicated to the professor. The Ohio State University offers their students answers to some FAQs. Their answers only apply to students at OSU, but you can ask your own coordinator the same questions.

Atira: “My three-hour classes are now all held by videoconference. It’s very hard to pay attention to a video for that long with ADHD. Do you have any recommendations on how to stay engaged or things professors can do to change the format? 

Elizabeth Hamblet: Wow — that is a long time to be on a call! 

  • Start by trying to set up your environment to help you focus. If possible, be in a room away from family members (and pets!), with the door closed.
  • If you can’t be in a room by yourself, set up a wall of books or cereal boxes around yourself and your computer to create a virtual “carrel” to block out visual distractions. Ask family members to limit their activities and conversations in that room, if possible.
  • Use headphones so you’re not distracted by noises in your home, and try to have some fidgets handy. (Grab a rubber band, or even make yourself some homemade play-dough.)
  • If you’re worried about getting restless, you may want to log on to the call from your phone. That way, you can shift locations or even walk around the room to keep yourself refreshed. If you’ll need to type comments and you have a laptop, walk with it carefully.
  • You may find it helpful to take a long walk or exercise before these calls to get your extra energy out. You may also want to do the same after these calls, if you managed to sit fairly still during them.

For Educators & Professors 

  • It would be ideal if professors could reduce the time of calls. They could make some of the class time a video discussion and then ask students to add a certain number of comments to a written discussion thread. They could offer the option for students to record themselves responding to discussion questions, too. 
  • It would also be helpful if they could break the three hours into two or three shorter calls, but that may be too challenging. Professors could record their lectures and allow students to view them at a convenient time and/or in shorter chunks and write a response.

Gavin: “I have a test coming up and I haven’t received guidance on what it will look like now that classes are fully online. How should I communicate with my professor to make sure I’m prepared and have access to the accommodations I need?”

Elizabeth Hamblet: You should email the professor right now so that you can find out what the test will look like. Once you have that information, you should contact your disability services coordinator and ask how they are handling accommodations for the kind of test you’re taking. You should also ask your coordinator whether they’ll be communicating with your professor about your test accommodations or if they expect you to do that. If you’re supposed to talk to professors and are anxious about what to say, ask your coordinator to help you compose an email to your professor about your accommodations for the next test.

Ben: “Do you have any recommendations on how professors/universities can check in on students virtually?”

Elizabeth Hamblet: It would be great if professors could offer virtual office hours by Zoom or another platform so that students can ask questions. Or they could email students to encourage them to send their questions so that professors can respond when they have time. If professors are running their classes by conference call, they can stay online after class to respond to questions.

NCLD: YALC members, do you have any tips for college students with learning and attention issues?

Gavin: “I’ve been setting a lot of alarms to keep me on schedule. They make sure I keep to a routine and ensure I don’t miss a lecture online.”

Lia: “If you’re having trouble using a videoconference, ask a friend to jump on it with you. You can test it out together while also getting some social time!” 

Savannah: “My university’s disability services office reached out to us right away to make sure we have everything we need. They are doing video meetings with students who request it. If your school is offering that service, it could be an incredible resource to talk through problems that arise.” 

NCLD: Elizabeth, what other guidance and support can colleges and universities offer to students at this time? 

Elizabeth Hamblet: I think communication is really important right now when things are changing quickly and students are understandably anxious. There are some questions universities can’t answer yet (e.g., whether classes will start on time in the fall). Students will have to be patient with that. In the meantime, schools should be sharing as much as they can about how students will be graded, whether or not fall registration and housing selection will be happening on schedule, and other important issues. They should make sure students know whether services such as tutoring and counseling are available remotely, so that students can continue to receive supports. 

A great way to do that is to set up a page that serves as a central location for updates and information. That way, students won’t get overwhelmed with emails and will know where to go whenever they have a question.

See my tips for virtual learning here:

(Send me your own tips at echamblet@LDadvisory.com and I’ll add them and credit you!)

Join the NCLD movement