Adapting to the realities of remote schooling has been challenging. Since the COVID-19 pandemic sent our province into a state of emergency, many students have had to turn bedrooms into offices, kitchen tables into classrooms and parking lots into hotspots. While all Ontario learners have had to adapt to overcome barriers, those barriers have been amplified for many students with disabilities.
Imagine for a minute that you have low vision and require a screen reader to navigate online platforms like Zoom. Imagine you’re logging in for your first remote lecture of the semester, excited to be back in the (virtual) classroom. To encourage participation, your instructor begins by inviting students to pose questions using the chat feature. As your instructor dives into their thought-provoking lecture, your screen reader starts reciting aloud questions and comments posed by your peers, drowning out the instructor’s voice.
A student recently described a similar scenario to us. “I ended up getting two things coming at me at once, which was distracting and very hard to follow,” they shared. Being new to Zoom, this student wasn’t sure how to disable the chat or pose a question or comment themselves.
It’s but one example of how uniquely challenging remote learning can be for many students with disabilities and other accessibility needs. To learn more about the types of supports that students, especially those with disabilities, will need to succeed in an online learning environment this fall, we have been interviewing student representatives, faculty and staff at Ontario colleges and universities, as well as community advocates. We have also surveyed more than 600 students- about 200 of whom have a self-reported disability. We will be publishing a report later this summer that summarizes the data we have collected and shares practical advice with institutions for supporting student success during the pandemic and recovery.
Though we are still in the process of analyzing the data, we’d like to share a few of the recommendations for supporting accessibility that have surfaced so far. We hope these recommendations will assist faculty and staff as they prepare for the fall term:
Lean on your colleagues
In the example above, we described a student whose experience would drastically improve if the chat function were disabled during the lecture or if they had access to instructions for navigating course platforms (e.g. how to use Zoom with a screen reader). In either case, addressing this student’s needs requires empathy and strategic thinking ahead of time – both things that support staff at colleges and universities can help faculty with as they design and deliver courses.
Time and again, our interviewees stressed the need for collaboration between faculty and staff in creating accessible learning environments. With their advice in mind, we encourage instructors at Ontario postsecondary institutions to draw upon the expertise of local Teaching and Learning Centres (e.g. Teaching & Learning Consultants, Curriculum Development Specialists, Educational Technology Specialists) as well as Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) offices and offices for students with disabilities. These specialists are often experts in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and can help in the design and delivery of courses for the fall, which can help relieve the burden for students (and faculty) who might have otherwise needed to seek out accommodations.
Empower students to make choices that suit their needs
While UDL can certainly help optimize learning for most students, it’s unfortunately not always possible to design and deliver courses in a way that suits the needs of all learners at once. The good news is that by being upfront about both course format and what’s required to participate and succeed, instructors can empower students to make course selections that suit individual learning goals and needs (provided disability-related accommodations are available).
The student representatives we interviewed identified a variety of personal preferences and needs. For example, a student who is Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing may prefer to watch asynchronous lectures with Closed Captioning rather than synchronous lectures taught over Zoom. A student with a cognitive disability who appreciates the ability to pause, slow down and rewind content might have a similar preference, especially if access to accommodations like notetaking is hindered by the pandemic. For another student, having a set schedule of live lectures and discussion groups might help with motivation.
Students know what works for them. If there are a variety of course formats to choose from, and the details of course delivery are communicated clearly in the course catalogue ahead of the semester, students can select the courses that best suit their needs.
Instructors should also strive to share information about course requirements and participation expectations as soon as possible. This way students can obtain resources in an accessible format (i.e. texts with enlarged print) and/or arrange for accommodations, if required. Sharing information about expectations early can also help alleviate student anxiety about what to expect, supporting well-being and retention.
Enable transferable skill development
Lastly, most of our interviewees reminded us that all students, not just those with disabilities or accessibility needs, will require specific transferable skills to be successful with remote and online learning. Skills like digital literacy, time management, self-efficacy and organization will be essential this fall and they’ll also come in handy after graduation.
Instructors can facilitate the development of these skills at the course-level by providing suggested timelines for completing assignments, especially for asynchronous courses, and models or templates for time management in the context of their course.
Institutions and instructors should also consider sharing learning strategies with their students, either in-class, or through co-curricular activities like workshops, online videos or tip sheets that nudge students to adjust and apply some of their learning strategies for an online context.
We will have lots more to say about this important topic in our upcoming report. We will build upon the recommendations above and share additional advice about the practicalities of delivering remote and online content in an accessible way. We have also heard a lot about the positive aspects of remote learning from an accessibility standpoint and we will share those as well as thoughts about how to play up the positives.
In the meantime, we acknowledge that this is a stressful time for instructors. Students themselves have told us the same. They understand that moving courses online is a lot of work, especially during a global pandemic. That’s why we encourage you to lean on the supports at your institution, take comfort in the idea that (with full information) students know what works for them and share ideas amongst your peers (as we’re seeing instructors like Dr. Campbell do on Twitter) rather than re-inventing the wheel. By working together institutions and instructors can ensure all students are able to succeed this fall and thereafter.
Jackie Pichette is director of Research, Policy and Partnerships at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario; Jessica Rizk is a researcher.