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REL Pacific

Integrating Distance Learning with Student Learning Supports

REL Pacific
Kirsten Miller, Jason Victor, & Jeanette Simonsen-Gurolnick
June 15, 2021

Online English teaching during Covid 19 lockdown stock

The challenges that have surfaced in remote and hybrid learning environments within the last 15 months have made it even more important—and perhaps more difficult—for educators to stay attuned to students and their needs. In the prior two blogs of this series, we discussed how the fundamentals of design thinking allow us to remain flexible while addressing new challenges in distance learning and how to apply design thinking when selecting education-driven technologies for distance learning courses. In this blog, we'll discuss how we can provide additional supports to students within a distance learning context.

Design thinking is an iterative approach to problem-solving that focuses on fully understanding the real-world implications of a problem and considering and testing multiple solutions.1 The design thinking process begins with empathy: considering a myriad of student needs and then iteratively determining how to best meet those needs. And while many of the considerations that go into designing distance learning mirror considerations for in-classroom instruction, such as setting learning objectives, others, such as integrating existing or additional student supports into instruction, may require creative solutions.

Research has found that distance learning can be as effective as traditional instruction when the methods and technologies used are appropriate, when there is student-to-student interaction, and when there is timely feedback from teachers.2 Additionally, effective distance learning is learner-centered, flexible, multi-sensory, interactive, and includes a focus on equity. 3, 4, 5 These characteristics, while important for all students, can provide a particularly useful framework for designing distance learning for students who may need additional supports, whether formal, as in an individualized education plan, or informal, during students' day-to-day interactions with their teachers and peers.

Delivering Instruction

Approaches to distance learning content delivery will differ depending on factors such as age or subject matter—older students may be more self-directed and younger students might need more synchronous oversight. Additionally, students in career and technical education (CTE) programs may still require hands-on training to develop the technical and occupational knowledge necessary for their chosen program, even when distance learning.

When designing distance learning, the processes used for delivering content can help determine the extent to which students are able to meet their learning goals.6, 7 Content delivery methods should be accessible to all students, but even accessibility technologies may require some modification for students who need supports. For example, online courses via Zoom or Google Classroom are generally already accessible to students who use assistive technologies. But a student with a sensory processing disorder may struggle with norms for online classes, such as keeping their video on and sitting in a chair at a desk or table. One solution might be to allow that student to sprawl on the floor instead, or build in breaks where all students stand up for a two-minute round of “Simon Says.” Teachers may also need to develop supplemental materials to help support students during distance learning. For a CTE student in a science program, for example, teachers might provide instruction online, supplemented by take-home kits for students to conduct in-home experiments (if they can safely do so), or may ask a student in an agricultural track to create a mini-garden out of recycled household materials.8

Regardless of the resource, it's important to build in touchpoints to create opportunities for interactions between students, between students and the content, and between teachers and students. Immediate and continual feedback throughout the learning process can correct misconceptions and help students understand difficult concepts, 9 and providing opportunities for students to give feedback to teachers can allow for mid-course adjustments to help support student learning.

Assessing Student Learning

Assessing student learning can also be challenging in an online or hybrid environment, particularly for students who may require additional supports. Online assessments should be examined and selected with consideration for all students, especially those with special needs, with limited access to technology, and who are English learners (ELs).

When designing assessments, consider both the type of assessment (for example, whether the assessment is formative or summative and the medium of delivery (for example, students demonstrate their knowledge via portfolios, concept maps, graphic organizers, etc.). Should the assessment be online? Via a print packet? Synchronous or asynchronous? Whatever type and medium of assessment is chosen, students should practice using any accommodations or support features available to them, such as text-to-speech in the home language or pop-up glossaries. It's important to provide ample practice time so all students are comfortable with the format and unfamiliar technology or test platform features before any assessment is administered.

Other strategies to help students become comfortable with the assessment platform include:

  • Work through the test platform together as a class and practice varying item types.
  • Use a think-aloud to model how to answer a question, including use of accommodations where available.
  • Allow students to practice in pairs, with students noting their questions—on both the platform and the content—to discuss with the class.
  • Debrief with students after practice sessions to determine what worked well for them and what they found challenging.


Although a return to full in-classroom instruction in the fall is becoming more likely, it's also clear that distance learning is here to stay, whether as a primary model of instruction or to supplement student learning when in-classroom instruction is not possible. And whatever schooling looks like as we start the next school year, keeping our focus squarely on student supports is likely to yield dividends moving forward.



1 Dam, R.F., and Siang, T.Y. (2020, July). 5 stages in the design thinking process. Interaction Design Foundation.

2 Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., and Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. U.S. Department of Education. Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. Policy and Program Studies Service. ED-04-CO-0040

3 Simonson, M. R., Smaldino, S. E., and Zvacek, S. (2019). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (7th ed.). Information Age Publishing, Incorporated.

4 Simpson, O. (2018). Supporting students in online, open and distance learning. Routledge.

5 Smith, B., and Brame, C. (2020). Blended and online learning. Vanderbilt University.

6 Common Sense Media. (2020). Family & teacher center. Wide Open School.

7 Egbert, J. (2017). Supporting student e-learning. Methods of education technology: Principles, practice, and tools. Press Books.

8 CTE Policy Watch. CTE distance learning: Hands-on learning at home. 2020/04/cte-distance-learning-hands-on-learning-at-home.html

9 Thalheimer, W. (2008, May). Providing Learners with Feedback—Part 1: Research-based recommendations for training, education, and e-learning. Learners_with_Feedback_Part1_May2008.pdf