Overcoming barriers to accessible and inclusive digital learning

Tim Coughlan offers three key strategies that help to make digital learning more accessible and inclusive, each relating to technology, study support and pedagogy

Tim Coughlan's avatar
The Open University
23 Jun 2021
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Advice on overcoming barriers to accessibility and inclusivity in digital learning

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Making online learning accessible for students with disabilities
Online course design and delivery tips that ensure accessibility for disabled students

With institutions across the sector adapting to online and blended approaches, barriers to accessibility and inclusivity have come into sharp focus. Effects have been mixed. Many students need different support from their on-campus studies and struggled to get this in place. Others argue that they have gained greater flexibility that removes many of the barriers to learning they used to face.

Many people succeed in online and blended learning because it offers more flexibility around how and when study takes place.

Almost half of UK adults believe education will be more accessible and better for people with disabilities in the future, while more than two-fifths agree that online learning is physically accessible and opens up high-quality education for all, regardless of constraints, research from FutureLearn’s The Future of Learning report revealed. However, recent shifts to using online and blended learning have led to negative experiences for disabled students and serious concerns about the equity of education that has been provided.

We should not assume that accessibility is the responsibility of other staff members with specialist knowledge, who will be there to help disabled students who join the course. If we all design our teaching with accessibility in mind, there will be a smoother and more empowering experience for all.

Students may still need to access specialist support, but any time that they don’t need to spend asking for help or adjustments is time that they can spend learning. Indeed, the administrative burden involved in securing support can present a major problem for disabled students, according to the recent Arriving at Thriving report from Policy Connect and the Higher Education Commission.

Accessibility brings together knowledge from different areas such as technology, pedagogy, disability, regulations and policies, and strategies for study support. In creating a new course to provide a foundation in Accessibility and Inclusive Learning, we wanted to weave these together as much as possible to build a foundation for educators and professional staff in higher education.

Here are three strategies that can help to make digital learning more accessible and inclusive. These each relate to technology, study support and pedagogy.

Make the structure of your web pages, documents and presentations clear

Documents and web pages will be easier to follow and navigate when using the in-built features designed to structure them. Use plenty of subheadings to break down the text into manageable chunks, and use the features to make these recognised as headings. Don’t just mark them in bold or with a different size font because this won’t be recognised as a heading. When heading features have been used correctly, the computer will be able to work with the structure of the document and can do a lot of helpful things for the students who are navigating it. Once you get into the habit, you will find it makes your life easier, too.

There is a temptation when creating a presentation to add lots of text boxes and images spread around each slide. You still have the freedom to make use of space and make the slide deck accessible, but you need to ensure that there is a clear order to how the slides should be read. If you use PowerPoint, try the built-in accessibility checker. This guides you to check through your slides, helping you to identify missing titles and areas where it is unclear in which order items should be read, and prompting you to add text alternatives for any meaningful images. If there are images that are purely decorative, you can mark them as such, and they don’t need describing.

Make course materials available for download and study when offline

A lot of assumptions are made about online learning. Thinking everyone has consistent access to the internet and particular specifications of technology is one of the most common assumptions that we should always question. Study will be more inclusive if materials can be downloaded for use. This is essential for those whose internet access is limited. Collecting the course materials together into downloadable documents or files also helps students to search, review and annotate course materials more easily.

Students should still be guided to engage with the online activities wherever possible, but having the materials available to download really expands the ways in which they can study and empowers them to overcome hurdles that can get in the way of spending enough time on study.

Build awareness of features and challenges in synchronous and asynchronous activities

When first moving to online teaching, many educators tend to focus on using platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to replicate their in-person classes. Synchronous sessions in these platforms can bring a sense of togetherness and responsiveness, but they might not be the best mode for much of your online teaching.

Supporting students to learn at their own pace and at times that suit them can make a huge difference for students who, for example, struggle with lengthy periods of concentration or with health conditions that lead to fatigue. Discussion activities through forums can allow flexible engagement with educators and other students.

Platforms for synchronous and asynchronous learning have features that can aid or obstruct learning for disabled students. For example, many students with hearing impairments use lip-reading to support their understanding in face-to-face settings. Without high-quality video of a speaker’s face, they will lose this in a synchronous online session and it could substantially limit their comprehension.

On the other hand, exciting new features can help to make synchronous learning more accessible. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams now provide in-built automated captions for speech. While these should not be relied upon to be fully accurate, they can make a big difference to a student’s comprehension of a teaching session.

Forum-based asynchronous activities usually put less time pressure on learners than synchronous activities. However, care still needs to be taken to make them inclusive. Large numbers of forum posts can be overwhelming, and many learners will struggle to quickly scan or review these. If you are creating an activity based on reviewing and responding to posts made by other learners, try to ensure that you expect them to read only a small sample of posts.

Digital learning offers opportunities to teach differently and address many of the barriers to inclusion that students commonly face. Learning to embed such strategies into our teaching is a great way to fulfil our responsibilities to make education more equitable.

Tim Coughlan is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University.

This article draws on topics covered by the Open University’s Online Teaching: Accessibility and Inclusive Learning course, which guides educators to develop skills needed for delivering accessible and inclusive teaching.

FutureLearn’s report The Future of Learning presents research on current trends in education as well as shifts and challenges to come.

The Arriving at Thriving report from Policy Connect and the Higher Education Commission gives insight into current issues for disabled students in higher education.


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