Students with Disabilities Still Need Online Options

In 2019/20, 17.3% of local students at UK higher education institutions said they had a disability. The actual number is likely even higher, as not all students self-report their disability. And although there are no official statistics on the number of young carers in higher education, this figure is also likely to be significant.

That said, these two groups are also underrepresented and face particular challenges in pursuing higher education. This is just one of the reasons why forcing all universities back to in-person teaching – as the UK government is apparently threatening, subject to heavy fines – is the wrong approach.

At my institution, teaching this academic year has been mostly face-to-face, with some large group teaching online and some hybrid courses. But while it’s good to be back on campus for both students and staff, universities must retain what they’ve 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 want to teach. Rather, it forces universities to offer alternative ways to access sessions for students who have genuine reasons for not being able to attend in person.

For lectures, this can be achieved through hybrid teaching, allowing students to join the session online. The advantage of this over simply uploading the courses to the virtual learning environment later is that off-site students have the flexibility to participate in any activity during the course.

Regarding workshops or seminars, an online option could be offered by universities for each of the sessions that students cannot access in person. The caveat is that it may not be possible to run hands-on workshops online. Also, students sometimes work together on group projects in back-to-back sessions, so moving to an online alternative, with a different group of students, wouldn’t work.

A recent scope review articles examining the experience of carers in higher education have found that universities have rigid rules and policies that do not provide the flexibility carers need. If someone has no choice but to stay home to help a loved one, they must have the option of accessing an online seminar.

For students with disabilities or chronic illnesses, they may not be able to attend in-person sessions due to ongoing medical conditions. So being able to engage in online teaching while having the option to come back in person when they can is also very helpful for them.

A survey conducted in 2021 by the United Kingdom Disabled Students Commission found that 36.3% of students with disabilities found the transition to online learning during the pandemic “very difficult”. However, technology has improved considerably over the past year to aid accessibility, and recent complaints to the UK Independent Adjudicator’s Office indicate that many students with disabilities enjoy the flexibility of choosing where they access education. Like noted by Ruth MurphyCoordinator of Disability Projects at the Technological University of Munster, online learning offers multiple benefits for students with disabilities, including reduced physical effort, promotion of autonomy and greater control of learning .

But the ability to access online education if needed would not only benefit students with disabilities or with family responsibilities. Anyone can get sick or have a family emergency, so flexibility would help everyone. And an Instagram poll by tab student newspaper earlier this year suggested that three quarters of all students would prefer a blended learning approach.

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

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

Meredith R. Wilkinson is an associate professor of psychology at De Montfort University.

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