How to Improve the Accessibility of Online Learning

3 min read

Elise Hodge

The digital learning sector has grown dramatically over the last few years and the statistics show that the market isn’t slowing down. In 2017, approximately 77 percent of US corporations used online learning with 98 percent planning to incorporate it in their programs by 2020. If 2020 has shown the higher education world anything, it is that flexible learning options are needed more now than ever before. However the COVID-19 Pandemic has brought questions of online learning accessibility to the forefront.

A study by the UK’s National Union of Students found that over a quarter (27 percent) of students enrolled in a UK university were unable to access online learning during the COIVD-19 lockdown. The findings suggested that disabled students and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds encountered the most challenges. In this article, we look at the challenges with accessibility to online learning as well as the solutions required to continue adapting to the ever-evolving digital world.

Create accessible video and audio solutions for online learning

In a class where students have vision impairments, it is important to be aware of adding audio descriptions to videos. While Zoom has its own offering of accessible hotkeys and shortcuts that can help students, these are not always comprehensive. One simple way to tell if a video requires an audio description is to try listening to it without watching it. Does the content make sense without a description? If it does not, you may need to add in descriptions about the setting, actions and facial expressions used.

For students with hearing impairments, accurate captioning is also important for lesson accessibility. The problem is that some automatic captioning tools do not pick up on speakers’ accents. This means that lecturers may need to pay extra attention to the automatic captioning that they use to ensure it is accurate before sending it out. One tool that has a high accuracy is Google’s Recorder app, which transcribes audio in real time. Of course, a look over the transcript to ensure there are no strange translations is helpful too.

Improve digital technology infrastructure

With the quick move to online learning earlier this year, many universities did they best they could with the existing technology they had. Now, there is time to reflect on what worked, what did not work, and what can be improved. One area that is key to online learning is the type of digital technology used by a university. Digital technologies should be made available for students in different time zones and international contexts. Tools should also include accessibility features like enlarged cursors, closed-captioning, keyboard shortcuts, alternative text, high-contrast themes and text-to-speech capabilities.

Startups like Graduway or Teacherly are partnering with universities to provide students with digital-first academic support and accessibility, as well as smart assessment and new types of curriculum in specialized areas such as languages, science or coding.

Facilitate a flexible approach to student engagement

Online learning creates a different experience than on-campus learning. However this does not need to come at the expense of student support and engagement. Where three-hour lectures may be viable in person, they may prove too long for a student to concentrate via a screen. These lectures could be broken up into project-based activities, workshops, group meetings, and more to encourage participation. Further, student support may be offered through set online “office hours” with the lecturer or course facilitators. Student study groups may also be created and facilitated through Facebook Groups or other online forums.

Adopt teaching strategies that are culturally inclusive

When teaching online, it can be easy to adopt a one-size fits all approach in an effort to get lessons in front of students as quickly as possible. However it is important to keep equity at the forefront by making a conscious effort to value all students’ experiences through designing courses that engage students’ cultural backgrounds. By doing this, you will ensure that students feel seen, heard, appreciated and loved, even if they are learning from a distance.

Provide flexible fees and tuition

Learning from home not only requires space but it can demand access to different technologies like computers, software, curriculum, eBooks, and more. This can create an unexpected additional burden on students, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. With this in mind, it is important to facilitate students’ access to financial aid through scholarships or grants so that they are able to access the right resources. While this may not be a viable long-term solution, providing additional aid during the pandemic can be a welcome relief for students.

Above all, accessibility can be fostered when higher education providers listen to the concerns and desires of their students and make changes accordingly. By doing this, they can ensure course content is truly meeting the needs of all students and helping them achieve their desired learning outcomes.

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