Disabled students still need online learning options

Ditching digital provision will waste pandemic progress and make life harder for students who are disabled or carers, says Meredith Wilkinson

五月 21, 2022
A disabled student working at home
Source: iStock

In 2019/20, 17.3 per cent of home students at UK higher education institutions declared that they had a disability. The real number is probably even higher, as not all students declare their disabilities. And while there are no official statistics on the number of young carers in higher education, that figure is also likely to be significant.

That said, both these groups are also under-represented and face particular challenges in pursuing higher education. This is just one reason why forcing all universities to return to in-person teaching – as the UK government is apparently threatening, on pain of hefty fines – is the wrong approach.

At my institution, this academic year’s teaching has mostly been conducted face-to-face, with some large-group teaching online and some hybrid lecturing. But while it is good to be back on campus, for both students and staff, universities need to hold on to what they have learned from the pandemic and adopt a more flexible and equitable approach to their teaching.

Flexibility in teaching does not mean that students can choose how they attend sessions. Nor does it mean that staff can dictate how they wish to teach. Rather, it requires universities to facilitate alternative ways for sessions to be accessed by students who have genuine reasons for being unable to attend in-person.

For lectures, this can be achieved via hybrid teaching, allowing students to join the session online. The benefit of this over just uploading lectures to the virtual learning environment afterwards is that the off-site students have the opportunity to engage with any activities during the lecture. 

When it comes to workshops or seminars, an online option could be offered by universities for each of the sessions that students can’t access in-person. The caveat is that practical workshops may be unfeasible to run online. Also, students sometimes work together on group projects in successive sessions, so swapping to an online alternative, with a different set of students, wouldn’t work.

A recent scoping review of papers examining the experience of carers in higher education found that universities have rigid rules and policies that are not offering the flexibility that carers need. If someone has no choice but to stay at home to help a relative, they need the option of accessing a seminar online.

For students with disabilities or chronic illnesses, there may be times when they are unable to attend in-person sessions because of ongoing medical issues. So being able to engage with teaching online while having the option to return in person when they are able to do so is very useful for them, too.

A 2021 survey by the UK’s Disabled Students’ Commission found that 36.3 per cent of students with disabilities found the transition to online learning during the pandemic “very difficult”. However, the technology has significantly improved over the past year to aid accessibility, and recent complaints to the UK’s Office of the Independent Adjudicator indicate that many disabled students enjoy the flexibility of choosing where they access the teaching. As noted by Ruth Murphy, disability projects coordinator at Munster Technological University, online learning offers multiple advantages for disabled students, including reducing physical effort, promoting independence and enabling more control over learning.

But the option to access teaching online if required would not only be beneficial to students with disabilities or caring responsibilities. Anyone can get sick or be confronted by a family emergency, so flexibility would help everyone. And an Instagram poll by The Tab student newspaper earlier this year suggested that three-quarters of all students would prefer a hybrid learning approach.

If students want a fully online experience, they have the option of The Open University. But whatever the government may say (and more clarity is needed on whether the threats of fines also apply to universities that adopt hybrid approaches) there is no longer any good reason for any university to simply turn its back on the digital realm.

The Covid-19 pandemic presented significant challenges, but facing those challenges taught significant lessons. Universities now have the know-how and resources to offer greater flexibility in their teaching. And they have a moral responsibility to provide teaching that all their students can fully access – be it in person or remote – so that everyone can have a truly inclusive higher education experience.

Meredith R. Wilkinson is senior lecturer in psychology at De Montfort University.



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Reader's comments (3)

I would put it more strongly: universities are required by law to continue to offer an online option. Not doing so discriminates against people with a disability, as well as others, which is illegal in the UK, Australia, and many other countries. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2022/05/ditching-online-learning-option-is.html
This discussion assumes that online provision is generally as good as the in-person equivalent. In my experience it isn’t (unless it is purposefully designed and refined over time with appropriate expertise – as with the Open University or other higher quality distance learning providers). Online only provision during lockdowns was ‘good enough’ but not as ‘good as’ in person. Attempts to provide dual provision (some students in class, some remote) have revealed significant weaknesses with technology in many classrooms, the pedagogical challenges of giving both in-person and remote participants an appropriate quality of education. Investment in technology, training in the pedagogical complexities of dual teaching and addressing other practical obstacles could address this but that is some distance ahead for many, probably most, UK universities. Allowing disabled students to remain remote as things currently stand in many institutions does them a disservice, turns them into second class educational citizens and directs attention away from top quality education for those students (disabled or not) who are in the physical classroom. Unless/until these drawbacks are addressed it is far more honest (essential even in terms of consumer law) for universities to decline to offer a second class remote service and point students in the direction of top quality distance learning providers such as the OU.
"The real number is probably even higher, as not all students declare their disabilities." This may be true but it is also true that a large number of those disabilities are things such as dyslexia, where it is not clear that online provision is likely to confer any advantage. Very few would be a disability that would make it hard to physically attend.