Access and Barriers to Online Education for People with Disabilities

Dr Mike Kent, Curtin University.
Executive summary
This paper reports on a study conducted in 2014 and 2015 that explored the accessibility of eLearning for students with disabilities studying fully online in Australia. The study looked at students studying through Open Universities Australia (OUA). OUA brings together 15 different independent higher education institutions to teach students fully online across a number of different fields. This diversity of institutions allowed a number of different eLearning environments, technologies and learning and teaching strategies to be canvassed.The study had two phases. Firstly, a survey that explored students’ experience related to the accessibility of online learning and teaching platforms, and students’ approach to disclosure of their disability and the effectiveness of any accommodation offered by the different institutions. The survey had 356 responses. The second phase of the research consisted of a series of 143 interviews that expanded on the information collected in the surveys and also explored the accessibility of different approaches to learning and teaching and assessment.

Open Universities Australia invites students to nominate one of eight broad impairment categories when they identify themselves as a person with a disability these categories – mental illness, medical impairment, mobility impairment, hearing impairment, learning disability, vision impairment, acquired brain impairment (ABI) and intellectual disability – were used in the survey and interviews to provide different perspectives from students with these different impairment types. Each of these eight broad categories is individually addressed in this report.

There was an unexpectedly high incidence of students with a mental illness (44.9% of survey respondents) and medical impairments (39.2% of survey respondents), with mobility impairments rounding out the top three categories (25.3% of survey respondents). The finding of this prevalence was one of the major findings of this study, along with the impact of different impairments on learning technologies, learning and teaching strategies and attitudes towards disclosure.This report has highlighted the existing experience of students with disability studying online. An overwhelming majority of these students recommend this as an effective way of participating in higher education. It is hoped that these recommendations can further enhance the appeal and accessibility of this type of learning environment both through Open Universities Australia and more generally across the higher education sector.

The report presents a number of recommendations related to policy and compliance, staff training, unit design, and assessment design and implementation. It also calls for further directions for research including the development of universal design in eLearning, and the need for further research to provide a voice for staff at universities in relation to access for students with disabilities.

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Kent, M. (2016). Access and Barriers to Online Education for People with Disabilities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Some citations from the recommendation chapter

11.4. Staff training

One area where this disability welcoming and accommodating environment can break down is when staff are inadequately trained or lack awareness of university policy in relation to students with disability. ……

As well as making sure staff are trained in university policy teaching staff should also receive training in the appropriate use of online technology, appropriate unit design approaches and effective learning and teaching strategies that can best engage and make accessible eLearning environments for students with disabilities. This is particularly important in the context of the findings of this report that the main impairment categories in the institution are not necessarily what they would appear from looking at the officially released statistics.

11.5.Unit design
11.5.1. Learning technology
Ideally all technology used in eLearning should be utilised following the principles of universal design and ensure that no student would need any special accommodation. This is unfortunately not always the case and staff when planning the use of technology need to be aware of the potential to exclude different students with different impairment types and ensure as much as possible that there are alternative paths for these students to access and engage with learning content. The use of different online platforms for learning and teaching needs to be both flexible and accommodating.

11.5.2. Multiple paths to access
ELearning presents the possibility for content to be presented in multiple formats. The Echo 360 lecture recording system for example comes with a rarely used captioning system that makes lecture material available, not only to students who have problem hearing the spoken lecture, but also more broadly to a range of students ranging from those who have English as a further language to those who have a learning style more suited to the written word, to those that access the lectures when an audio track might not be available or appropriate. Students accessing the internet through a Braille tablet also rely on information in a text based format.

Providing audio and a textual version of the same content helps all students, not just those with disabilities and this should be encouraged and enabled wherever possible.

11.5.3. Learning and teaching
There were a number of learning and teaching strategies that came in for criticism as inaccessible for students from different impairment types. Some found asynchronous communication most effective, others (although less) found synchronous real time communication most effective. Again providing flexible alternatives is important. Many students also mentioned how inaccessible they found group work. This is an area that needs to be seriously considered. There are times when this is an effective and appropriate tool to deploy in learning and teaching, but this needs to be balanced against its potential to exclude students with disabilities and alternative paths offered.

11.5.4. Trigger warnings
A few students, particularly those with mental illness, observed that sometimes the unit content itself can be challenging. ……….

While university learning should ideally challenge students on different levels, this report recommends reviewing content that may cause some students distress and making students aware of this beforehand. …………

11.5.5. Pace and control of learning
A number of students in the interviews highlighted the value of being able to control the pace of their own learning. …………………

This demonstrates the value of unit design that allows students to work through the unit’s learning materials at their own pace, and as they are able, rather than through a prescribed weekly release of information and withdrawal of discussion points. This obviously presents problems when trying to keep all students engaged in a particular weeks discussion points, but the potential for greater inclusion for students with disabilities and others who would benefit should override these concerns when thinking about inclusive unit design.

11.6.Assessment design and implementation
11.6.1. Exams
………….. The first recommendation in relation to this form of assessment is that the line of communication seems to sometimes breakdown between the instructions provided for student needs from a disability office and the staff at the point of examinations. This needs to be an area of priority to reduce its incidence.

Secondly where possible alternatives to the standard examination need to be explored and offered to students who will not receive an assessment that fairly reflects their learning in standard exam conditions.

11.6.2. Essays and assessment pacing
While in general there was a preference for essay style assessments, a number of students in the interviews commented on the stress a few large essays can cause, and on the value of a more evenly paced out assessment structure across the study period to avoid this. These are both areas that need to be taken into consideration as part of assessment design.

11.6.3. Group work assignments
There was a common theme throughout the interviews of students who found group work assignments difficult or in some cases impossible to work with. Like group work used as a tool for learning and teaching group work used as a form of assessment needs careful evaluation of its pedagogical value, and alternatives offered in order to accommodate students from a number of different impairment types.