Person looking at an open laptop with multiple options on the screen

Supporting Peer Interactions Online

Author: Nicholas J. Hoekstra;

A long-standing argument for inclusive education is the social benefits it is said to produce. In fact, the 1994 Salamanca Statement and Framework on Action in Special Needs Education – a global call for the promotion of inclusive education – clearly recognized the role of inclusive schools as that of combatting discriminatory attitudes and building welcoming communities. Yet studies have found interactions between students with and without disabilities can be infrequent, even in inclusive classrooms, if not encouraged.

One way to encourage more interactions within inclusive classrooms is through the use of peer support. Students are one of the most valuable resources in any classroom – and perhaps one of the most often overlooked. In peer-mediated interventions, students with disabilities are partnered with peers from among their classmates. These peers provide academic, social, or behavioral supports in the form of assistance, instruction, encouragement, and friendship. Evidence has found these types of peer supports or peer mentorship programs can have positive benefits not only on the academic and social development of students with disabilities but also on their peers.

With the growing interest in online education – and especially after the global COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the world to turn to online education – how can we continue to support peer interactions?

Advantages of Online Learning

In 1997, Burgstahler and colleagues provided one of the first investigations into the benefits of the internet for promoting peer relationships for students with disabilities.  Researchers analyzed internet use among high school students participating in the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (Do-it) program. Participants included students with mobility impairments, hearing impairments, visual impairments, health impairments, and specific learning disabilities.

Researchers found students with disabilities reported the online format of the program helped students communicate with peers who their disability would otherwise make it difficult to interact with. For example, electronic communications helped students more easily chat with friends without the need for an interpreter or other speech-to-text technology. Other students reported the online format gave them the sense of “getting together,” which would have otherwise been difficult due to physical impairments.

Finally, the program also allowed students with disabilities themselves to take the role of tutors, mentors, and role models.

How to Support Online Collaboration

Just because an online format can support students with disabilities, this does not mean every virtual classroom is set up for success. Johnstone and colleagues (2014) highlight that virtual environments can’t just offer the option for peer-to-peer collaboration but must encourage and develop it. In particular, a successful program must take into account learner variability, design variability, and context variability. This means:

  • Considering the strengths and challenges of differing students,
  • Building in flexible design to account for multiple means of communication, and
  • Modeling and providing opportunities for peer collaboration.

Without designing with variability in mind, an online classroom runs the risk of excluding those students – with or without disabilities– who don’t take the initiative to participate. One framework that can help educators design flexible online classes is the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.

Providing pre-service educators the opportunity to participate in these chats, illustrates several of the UDL principles, including recruiting interest, comprehension, and use of multiple modes of media for communication. Beyond providing them access to the content that you are trying to teach, you are giving them the opportunity to engage with in-service teachers and promoting the expectation for continued professional development, through informal means.

Now be our Peer Support!

The Center for Innovation, Design, and Digital Learning (CIDDL) is all about educators supporting one another. Do you have experience using peer supports in your classroom, whether it be online or in-person? How has technology facilitated peer-to-peer work? Tell us about it at the CIDDL Community page.