Making online learning inclusive for all

Simon Barnes, CEO and founder of TLC LIVE, on how to ensure online learning remains engaging and accessible to a wide range of students

For most students, the shift to online learning earlier this year was a new and unfamiliar experience. But it has long been an effective way to reach those who are unable to study in a classroom for physical, personal or mental health reasons. Both online and face-to-face tutoring methods have their strengths and weaknesses, and to reach every student, specifically ‘silent’ students, online educators must adapt and use online learning to its full potential.

The government’s welcome investment, although regrettably taking too long to implement, in subsidising catch-up tutoring , under the sector-led National Tutoring Programme, plus the risk that localised lockdowns may force schools to close again, has made online learning an integral part of the education system. No longer to be treated as a last resort, we need to start exploiting its enormous potential to prove that the virtual classroom can be a secure, inclusive space for all. Qualified teachers play an integral part to ensure its success.

Applying the tech

Teaching online offers a rare set of tools to make it as engaging as face-to-face interaction, if not more so. But for inclusivity to succeed, teachers must leverage these potencies to serve the individual needs of each student better.

Interactive whiteboards and live chats are essential tools for students who don’t feel comfortable speaking aloud or who suffer from anxiety. They feel less pressure, and it allows them to exchange ideas more freely. At TLC LIVE, we’ve found that permitting students to communicate via the chat functionality when necessary resulted in a sharp increase in attendance figures – up to 100 percent in some instances. Many of the students who initially only wanted to communicate through the ‘chat’ function eventually develop enough confidence to engage in direct conversations with the teacher.

To optimise the technology, it’s also important that all the relevant resources are available online at the click of a button. Such a seamless online experience keeps the student engaged, removes distractions and helps them get the most from their allotted time.

Picking up new clues

It’s often thought that a student’s attention, engagement and frustration are detected more easily in a face-to-face setting through their body language and demeanour. An online environment requires slightly different cues, and tutors need to develop their toolkit so they can adapt the lesson as necessary. Using qualified teachers who have the training and experience to interpret these signals is therefore decidedly critical.

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To be successful, teachers must sharpen their focus on digital forms of verbal and non-verbal communication and assess the student’s engagement continuously. If, for example, a student is sluggish with verbal responses or answers in monosyllables but offer prompt, detailed responses when typing, the teacher can most likely correctly deduce that they are uncomfortable speaking.

Screen sharing offers new opportunities for teachers to step into a student’s mind. For instance, a teacher can see if a student is repeatedly changing their answer, or pausing at a particular part of the question or hovering over the help option. Teachers who pick up on these cues and adjust their teaching approach accordingly, will have highly rewarding interactions with students.

Establishing rapport

Online tutoring is at its most effective when the student and teacher share a strong rapport. It makes the student feel comfortable and confident, which is a prerequisite for successful learning.

Online learning is a stimulating variation to face-to-face teaching, and teachers should kick off by establishing a positive relationship with students. It creates common ground such as likes and dislikes or hobbies and makes the student used to talking online. Getting the student comfortable with the format, even if it takes a few lessons for some, will lay a strong learning foundation.

It becomes even more critical to strike a balance between challenging and engaging the student to maintain momentum when teaching online. For it to be inclusive, teachers must get to know what works for each student. Becoming familiar with the student’s tone and idiosyncrasies will establish a clear baseline against which teachers can determine whether they are struggling.

Making it work for everyone

Online learning has become an essential option with significant benefits to students who may struggle in a mainstream school environment. It is not an inferior imitation of the ‘real’ classroom. To ensure that all students benefit equally from online tutoring, we must strive for flexibility and provide each learner with a tailored experience suited to their needs. Ultimately, inclusivity means that students need to have their voice heard too, and therefore should be allowed to communicate in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

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