At the start of the school year, our special education team established the goal to deepen the purposeful use of technology to support struggling students, especially for those with special education needs and disabilities. This goal was based on the belief that all students should have an opportunity to be a part of an inclusive learning environment, where diversity is embraced, celebrated and valued by all members of the school community.
To identify specific strategies and tools to improve learning for all students, we needed to prioritize students first and technology tools second. We initially focused our efforts on understanding the needs of our students by digging deeper into their learning profile, with careful attention on the students’ individual strengths and abilities. If we approached teaching and learning by starting with what each child could do, and then pairing it with specific technology tools, we believed we could reach all our learners.
It was also around this time that OneNote had become the most requested app for training and support by staff. The popularity of OneNote was likely a result of the previous year’s focus on increasing awareness and building staff capacity around Office 365. To this extent, classroom teachers had observed the benefit of OneNote Class Notebooks and wanted to learn more about the ways they could use it to personalize learning for their students.
In particular, the special education teachers understood how OneNote Class Notebook is a tool that helps organize and quickly access all their information for students. The students were also excited about how much fun it was to use OneNote for learning – and it being available for free at home was a bonus for parents. It was the first time in my career that I can remember everyone being excited about using the same app for learning. The versatility of OneNote is one of my favorite things. It provides something for everyone.
To make learning come alive through OneNote for both staff and students, we thoughtfully crafted our starting point based on the learner profile and focused on comprehension, memory, organization, planning, processing speed and information. Recognizing that many of the OneNote tools can be used for different purposes, we looked to see where overlap would exist because strategies and tools in one area will often support in other areas. For example, a student with organization and planning difficulties may have trouble keeping a physical binder organized, in addition to remembering where all the different assignments have been filed. Using OneNote, digital files can be easily stored, organized and accessed.
OneNote makes it easy to incorporate both visual and verbal information in one place to ensure information is accessible to all learners. Inserting pictures, embedding videos and typing or inking text on the same page reaches all learning styles and preferences. Being able to incorporate multimedia is highly engaging and supports students’ understanding of concepts, instructions and their ability to make connections to what they already know and apply it to new learning. With a OneNote Class Notebook, both teachers and students share the learning because of the ability to quickly share within the digital space.
Memory plays such a critical role for students, affecting every aspect of their learning. Having to remember instructions, concepts, procedures or recall prior learning to make sense of each situation can be incredibly demanding. For students who rely on their teachers or a peer to seek clarification, they can begin to take control of their own learning when the OneNote Class Notebook incorporates pictures, screen clippings and videos with to-do tags. These supports help walk students through the steps required for each learning situation. It could be the steps required for solving a math problem or a video explaining the outline of a news report. At first, students may need help accessing the sections. Over time, however, they will be able to independently access their OneNote Class Notebook and refer to the necessary sections and pages to clarify the expectations of a task.
There is an abundance of planning tools to keep work organized and quickly track down notes and assignments. Tables, tags, links and custom templates make it incredibly easy to chunk information, create checklists and stay on top of deadlines. OneNote Class Notebooks can hold numerous documents in one location that allow staff and students to quickly scan across sections and pages without having to open multiple files. The quick and easy access to work can reduce frustration and lost papers, and it allows students to get to work without worrying where they saved their files and the file name.
Some of our exceptional students understand, interpret and recall new learning without any difficulties, but the time it takes to process their thinking becomes the barrier for success. These students will take extra time to express their understanding. Whether it is through typing their thoughts or creating an illustration, written output is a challenge.
Using OneNote to ease the demands of the task allows students to better show their level of understanding. The Learning Tools dictation or use of recorded audio allows students to focus on their thoughts and worry less about how to express their ideas. Other students find it helpful to use pictures instead of drawing diagrams and then annotating using digital ink. By taking a picture, the demands of the task are reduced, and the student can focus on explaining what they know, because the task is about explaining their level of understanding, not how quickly they can draw.
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in the past year, for students who need additional support to be able to accurately interpret what they see and hear in the classroom, is OneNote’s Learning Tools Immersive Reader. Whether a student has trouble interpreting visual examples or struggles with too much language, the ability for the document to be read aloud and quickly customized with large or small font, or different spacing between letters and words being highlighted as it is read aloud, means each student starts with the same document, and they can independently personalize their reading experience.
Over the past year, Office Lens has quickly become the preferred app to digitize physical copies of handouts and notes to transfer to OneNote. But the most significant impact for students has been the recent addition of the Immersive Reader within Office Lens. This feature is reaching yet another group of reluctant readers. For example, a student who uses Office Lens on a regular basis mentioned how quickly he can start reading using this tool. “It helps to read long paragraphs because you can just take a picture of it and it starts to read for you.” Another student found Office Lens to be helpful because he understands things better when they are read aloud, instead of trying to remember and read in his head at the same time. “Being able to focus on what I am hearing helps to get my work done.” Office Lens does more than read words; it is opening possibilities for learning in a way that not only creates independence, but makes reading enjoyable.
Approaching teaching and learning with the belief everyone can succeed gives every student an equal opportunity to reach their full potential. Using OneNote, we have the confidence to reach all types of learners, who require a range of carefully selected tools based on their strengths and abilities. Our classrooms need to be inclusive places, where all students belong, can contribute and are empowered to achieve more. OneNote makes that possible.
Jameson Lee is the assistive technology coordinator of special education for the Catholic District School Board in Eastern Ontario.