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Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Navigating an Online Coronavirus Landscape: College Academics

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired

By: Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager

Each month the College Success Program hosts a webinar with topics of interest to students who are blind or have low vision. This fall, we are taking on the ways in which COVID-19 has altered the landscape for students in all facets of life: academic, personal and professional. This month, CSP mentor Glenn Dausch talked with two of our other mentors, Tabitha Brecke and Preston Radtke, about navigating the academic landscape.

In case you missed it, here are the top takeaways from this informative webinar. You can also view this webinar in its entirety by clicking here.

General tips for academic success

  • Plan ahead. Before the semester starts, find out what platforms each of your classes will use so you can start understanding and practicing with it. This might not always be possible, but if it is, it's a great practice to help familiarize yourself.
  • Communicate. With professors, faculty, your disability services office. Open the lines of communication and keep them flowing.
  • Stay on track. Utilize your calendar and scheduling apps to stay up to date on assignments, class times, and meetings.
  • Be professional. Treat your online classes as you would in-person classes. Be on time, be respectful of professors and peers, and ask questions when you need to.

Tips for succeeding in online meeting platforms like Zoom or Google Meets
  • Practice, practice, practice. Ask a friend to hop on a practice meeting with you and give you feedback in real time as you learn how to navigate the platform.
  • Try it on different devices. Each platform may look different and have different capabilities on a desktop vs. mobile vs. a tablet. For example, screen sharing or access to the chat may not be easily usable on one device but are much more accessible on others. Become familiar with the platforms on all the various devices you may be using so you know what you can and cannot do when using them.
  • It's ok to cheat when it comes to key commands. Find a list of key commands online or create your own and keep it close at hand. Until you're really familiar with the platform, you'll want to reference this list frequently.
  • Mute your microphone and turn off your camera to maintain control. Maybe you have a dirty pile of laundry in the corner of your room or your roommate likes to practice their yodeling at the same time as your statistics class. Your professors and peers don't want to see or hear either of those things. Configure your settings so that your microphone and camera are off when you first enter the meeting platform. You can turn either of these on and off as you feel comfortable. If you're not speaking, be sure to mute to eliminate background noise.
  • Be proactive about screen sharing. Professors may utilize the screen sharing feature of the platform, which may be convenient for them but makes the content inaccessible for students using screenreaders. Ask your professor to send documents or links beforehand so you can access them while they're sharing their screen, giving you a more equitable experience.
  • Utilize the recording feature (if your professor okays it). This will allow you to go back and review any content you may have missed. You may want to consider working with your disability services office to get this as an accommodation. You can also use a recording to gauge how you sound or how your camera is positioned, so you can make any necessary adjustments for the next call.

Apps that can support your college journey
  • To access books try BARD Mobile, Read2Go, Voice Dream Reader, and of course, Learning Ally.
  • For assistance with the world around you try Seeing AI, Aira, and Be My Eyes.
  • For help with productivity try Glean, for note taking, and the calendar app on your device to keep track of classes and assignments.
  • For help on campus try TransLoc Rider, if you're using campus transportation, and campus apps for food service, which often have menus that are more accessible than other formats they're provided in.
  • For assistance with transcription try Otter Voice Meeting Notes and Just Press Record. Keep in mind that your transcriptions, with any service, will only be as good as the recording, so be sure to have your recordings as clear and understandable as possible.

Services and resources
  • Notetaking assistance - You can continue to lean on your disability services office for notetaking assistance. They may have some new approaches to notetaking that could be especially beneficial in a remote environment.
  • Student services - Student services from your college or university are still available, just in a virtual capacity. Tutoring, counseling, the career center, even student clubs and organizations, are all still ready and waiting for you to take advantage of them. There are plentiful resources within your university; it may not be the exact same experience as in-person, but they're still valuable.
  • Mentoring programs - Outside of the college environment there are mentoring programs such as Learning Ally's College Success Program, where you can connect with someone who is more than willing to assist with your college journey. They can point you to resources within the CSP as well as others you may not be aware of.
  • Student divisions of blindness organizations - Many organizations like American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind, have student divisions that can be especially beneficial as they are made up of your peers going through the same experiences and challenges. You can also look into divisions of these organizations that focus on specific professions to start connecting with mentors and students in your field of study.
  • Assistive technology - For those that use assistive technology and need resources in that area, you can visit the websites of the vendors and dive into the documentation they provide. There are also user groups of the various technology that you can join as well.

Continuing existing accommodations and identifying new ones
  • Re-evaluate your accommodations. Many accommodations will carry over from your in-person courses, but talk with your disability services office early to confirm how they'll be offered. Things like extended time may remain the same, but if you need a quiet testing environment, you will most likely need to provide that for yourself.
  • Think everything through. Each student's situation is unique, but when considering what accommodations to request for your online classes, it's important to think through what you need for a virtual learning environment. For each task, ask yourself, "how am I going to complete it?" It is important to do this well in advance and not to wait until a project is due or the morning of a test, when it can be too late.
  • Voice your concerns. If you're using a new online tool, whether it's to access your courses or complete a project, approach your disability services office with any concerns. They can loop in the professor or even an instructional designer to address any issues and come up with a solution, including the possibility of a new accommodation or an alternative tool.

Communicating with your professors
  • Be up front. Communication with your professors is vital to your success. Building rapport with them will also ensure that your needs don't come as a surprise to them when they arise.
  • Make a list. When reaching out to your professor, whether it's via email or office hours, prepare a list of issues you want to address. This will help you organize the conversation.
  • Be a record keeper. Follow up each conversation with an email detailing what you discussed and the outcome or next steps. This gives both you and your professor the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings. You will both have a written record of the conversation in case any questions come up later.

Working in virtual groups
Even if you're spread across the country, your professor may still require you to work in a group with other students.
  • Be clear with your communication. Make sure everyone knows and understands who is doing what.
  • Have a clear "agenda", even if it's just for yourself to follow. This should include all the things you want to accomplish during each meeting.
  • Play to your strengths. Acknowledge to the team the things you may not do well but also elevate tasks you are good at. This will show your initiative to take on projects and do your fair share, while working in a way you feel comfortable.

Disclosing your visual impairment
A question that often comes up when working in groups is whether and when to disclose your visual impairment. In some cases, you may never need to tell your classmates. But if you find that some of the work required is more difficult or isn't as accessible in an online environment, you should have an honest conversation with your team. It can feel awkward, but remember that others appreciate honesty and your assignment will turn out better for it in the long run.

When preparing for this conversation, it's important to think about what you are contributing, now what you can't do. This will give everyone on the team an opportunity to share the work.
For those with low vision, you can learn more about whether and when to disclose your visual impairment in our recent webinar - BTW, I Have Low Vision: The Pros and Cons of Self Identifying Having Low Vision. You can access the webinar recording here and read the top takeaways from the webinar here.