Disability and the Social Element of Digital Learning

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

Disability Awareness

October is national disability awareness month, which might serve as a reminder to many of us to double check our course accessibility and usability. If you haven’t done so lately, this week might be a good time to run the accessibility checker on your pages and click on those Ally meters on your course documents. Now might also be a good time to remind yourself about the ways in which our students experience our online classes and how we are addressing the things they’re asking for in our course design and delivery, especially with regard to the social elements of our courses. If you use discussion boards, peer review, online office hours, or other social interactions, you might also want to check in on your students’ comfort levels in these areas.

Disabled Students Online

In April of this year, six UK researchers published the results of a study of disabled students in online courses and discovered three aspects of course inclusivity that especially concerned disabled students (Kotera et al., 2019). In a series of interviews addressing their direct experiences of digital learning, disabled students said they felt more engaged in courses that gave them more control over their studies and in courses where they could feel the instructor’s personal investment in the materials and interactions. They also emphasized the challenges they felt when engaging with the social elements of their courses.

These researchers remind us that disabled students often need to invest more time and greater effort to complete assignments and commonly require additional family or caregiver arrangements to stay on track in their courses. These additional elements can lead to disabled students’ experiencing more stress and higher levels of anxiety as well as reduced self-esteem, which, in turn, can reduce their well-being and hinder their academic performance. Furthermore, advise the authors, many disabled students are reluctant to disclose their disabilities because they don’t want to suffer the stigma or institutional prejudice often associated with disability or to appear to be asking for unfair advantages over their peers. Finally, the researchers caution that many disabled students may not be familiar with the process of identifying themselves, and many instructors may not be aware of or may lack the confidence and skills necessary to properly provide adequate accommodations or implement universal design in their course builds. Therefore, attending to this research is important whether or not instructors knowingly have institutionally-identified disabled students in their classes.

The Pluses and Minuses of Online Learning

In this study, the researchers interviewed ten students with a variety of disabilities, all of whom had at least one-year’s prior experience in online courses and were employed full time outside of school. In the interviews, students were asked why they enrolled in online classes, what advantages and disadvantages they thought online learning had over onground learning, what helped or hindered them in their online classes, and what they hoped might come in the future of digital learning.

The students reported that one of the significant benefits of online learning is that the accessibility, flexibility, and self-paced design of courses gives them great control over their study time and pace. They said that such control allowed them to better manage their work/study/life balance and to better control whether or not and to what extent they revealed their disabilities. The students also described how the more personalized the course felt, the more it helped them manage their mental health and the more motivated they felt. To this end, they highlighted their positive experiences with multimodal (combining images, text, audio, visual, and spatial) and organized content and authentic and practical materials. Several students also reported that they valued gaining and developing additional digital skills through online learning.

Finally, some students emphasized that they experienced some difficulties with online social interactions, such as collaborations and informal conversations, which they said can be easier in onground situations. They reported that sometimes peers were hard to reach online or difficult to keep on task online and that different time commitments complicated meetings and time management. One student also stressed the strangeness they felt working closely with someone over the course of an entire class without ever actually meeting them. As they explained, “It’s the mismatch of intimacy and disclosure that is hard to get right in a digital context” (15).

Looking Ahead

The report closes by discussing the importance of ever-increasing course builds emphasizing inclusivity and adherence to the social model of disability as well as further deploying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to develop more the positive aspects of online education. In order to succeed, students need to know there is a real, responsive human being at the other end of the online learning environment. To this end, reducing transactional distance and encouraging trust among students and between students and instructors is especially important with regard to disabled students. As well, reducing student insecurity and apprehension by addressing the gaps and isolating aspects of virtual and asynchronous classes is crucial in alleviating the achievement gap and retention issues associated with online learning. The problem may be that the mechanisms that make asynchronous, independent digital learning so effective might also be what makes it so ineffective. Online students often succeed in developing their autonomous, “self-learning ability” but also often fail to learn to trust, share, and cooperate (18). Facilitating the social as well as the individual elements of digital learning seems to be the next challenge in digital learning, especially with regard for disabled students.

According to several sources cited within this study, while the total number of disabled students enrolled in college courses worldwide remains smaller than we might expect, that number is increasing as we improve our course accessibility, flexibility, and accommodation. Currently, about 10% of college students in the USA identify as disabled. And, as we learn to better address our disabled students, we can expect that number to increase—either as more disabled students opt for online courses or as more enrolled students begin self-identifying. For now, we need to be aware of what we don’t know—of how many of students are disabled and how much our courses help or hinder their efforts. Disabled students find a lot of advantages in online learning, and with some tweaks, we can offer them more and more.

To Read the Original Article About Disability and Digital Learning:

Brian Bergen-Aurand is an Instructional Designer in eLearning and Faculty in Arts & Humanities. He specialized in questions of Digital Culture, Quality Standards (QOI, QM), and Course Review.

Last Updated October 24, 2020