In the summer, I supported two students from the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln, Joanne Copson and Heather Groves, to complete a research project on the impact of the pandemic on disabled students’ experiences, with a particular focus on online learning. They have written this blog post to summarise their findings, which have also been written up in a longer report.
This research project was completed by two University of Lincoln students, Heather and Jo, in the summer of 2021. It was funded by the College of Arts as part of the University’s Summer Festival of Learning. Heather is a third-year history student within the School of History and Heritage and has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Dyslexia, and Development Coordination Disorder (DCD or Dyspraxia) along with mental health issues that cause issues with attention, academic success and engagement, and motor coordination. Jo is a postgraduate Classical student in the School of History and Heritage and was diagnosed with hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (previously known as EDS type 3) which impacts their joints, nervous system, and digestive system mostly.
For the sake of our research project, the term ‘disabled’ included anyone with physical or invisible disabilities including mental health conditions that the student believed impacted their ability to effectively access learning.
Our questionnaire had a mix of open-ended and closed-ended questions so that we could gather a blend of qualitative and quantitative data.
In total, the questionnaire had 46 responses with participants being from various year groups and disciplines but predominantly from the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. Additionally, 54.2% of responses were from non-disabled students and 45.8% of responses were from disabled students.
37.5% of participants stated they had an invisible disability, 8.3% stated they had a physical and invisible disability, 54.2% stated they did not consider themselves to have a disability. No participants selected the option for physical disability.
4.17% of lectures were delivered face-to-face and 88.33% online. Students with invisible disabilities were the group who found online lectures the least accessible as 88.89% of them rated the accessibility of lectures during the pandemic at 6 or above (out of 10), compared to the 100% of students with both invisible and physical disabilities and the 96.15% of non-disabled students, who rated pandemic lecture accessibility at 6 or above.
Participants were asked about the benefits of online learning. The results for students with invisible disabilities and non-disabled students were very close: both thought that being able to work at their own pace was a positive element of online learning.
Disabled students reported that not having to walk to the university and the ability to work from the comfort of their own home helped to reduce pain flare-ups and sensory overload. In addition, the accessibility of lectures, including the ability to pause recorded lectures and work at their own pace was a major benefit and was mentioned positively by 27% of disabled respondents.
This flexibility regarding workload and the accessibility affordances of online learning seems to have helped to generate a sense that disabled and non-disabled students were operating in an equal working environment. Overall, 72.23% of students with invisible disabilities rated being able to work at their own pace during lectures at 6 or above (out of 10) while 72% of non-disabled students gave a rating of 6 or above. Of the 72% of non-disabled participants, 31% of them recorded how much they benefited from learning at their own pace.
However, participants also highlighted some negative aspects of online lectures, one of the main being the lack of adequate captioning for lectures. 25% of all responses asked for lecturers to continue to record their lectures and 17% asked for correct subtitles:
I find it easier to follow what I am listening to if there are captions, and it helps with information retention… the main suggestions were to keep recording lectures even when face to face learning resumes with a posted transcript, but also have shorter concise lectures with accurate subtitles.
When asked about how students would prefer lectures to be delivered when face-to-face teaching resumes, 58.82% of students with invisible disabilities would prefer to have lectures online (rated 6 or above out of 10), compared to the 43.49% of non-disabled students who would prefer to have continued online lectures (rated 6 or above). Recording live lectures or uploading lectures recorded from previous years would positively impact the experience of disabled students.
85.42% of students stated that seminars were experienced online and 6.25% of students had face-to-face sessions. In terms of accessibility, 77.78% of students with invisible disabilities found seminars accessible compared to 84% of non-disabled students.
Disabled participants noted that the positives of online seminars included the ability to work from the comfort of their own home, which helped increase their attendance and grades. Also, the increased accessibility of online seminars through tools like the chat function was mentioned by 18% of disabled participants.
There has been more content to go through I feel. Resources like Padlet and Talis have still given our seminar groups ways to interact with one another and have given ways to interact with resources that we may not get to look at/have time to go over in person.
Non-disabled students also mentioned the positive side of working from home, with some participants saying that their confidence to participate in seminars increased due to the option to type responses instead of speaking.
[Seminars are] More comfortable rather than in public, as I fidget and it can be distracting. I ‘an switch the camera off and not look at other people as I get distracted too much. I can look back on recordings as I haven’t got the best memory.
However, both disabled and non-disabled students raised concerns over lack of engagement from other students and other problems with online seminars like technical issues.
When asked what participants would like their university to implement to make seminars more accessible the main suggestion from all participants was to retain some aspects of online learning when face-to-face teaching resumes. This was suggested by 55.56% of students with invisible disabilities, 75% of students with both physical and invisible disabilities and 52.81% of non-disabled students. Others suggested recording face-to-face seminars for those who couldn’t attend.
It is important to note that disabled and non-disabled students rated their level of adjustment to online learning similarly, with 61.11% of students with invisible disabilities stating that they adjusted well to online learning compared to 60% of non-disabled students This is interesting as it points to online learning being somewhat of an equalizer in bridging the gap between disabled students and their non-disabled peers. This highlights the potential benefits of online learning as a tool to bolster accessibility.
Campus accessibility pre and during the COVID-19 Pandemic:
Participants were asked about their experiences of accessing campus pre-COVID-19 and during the pandemic. Issues that students highlighted pre-pandemic life included when lifts are out of order and also the lack of online options for students who needed them.
During Covid, the consensus among both disabled and non-disabled students was that accessibility on campus decreased. For both groups, the social isolation of online learning was a major issue:
I found the isolation of the pandemic meant that for someone with anxiety like me it was very difficult to reach out for help from university services or even to know where to reach out to.
Remarks on isolation from both disabled and non-disabled participants offer an insight into a crucial negative of online learning that needs to be mitigated – the lack of social interaction.
Another concern raised was the lack of motivation participants felt, exacerbated by feeling less able to utilise campus resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, we asked participants what they thought their university could implement to better support them. Responses ranged from offering financial support, reducing the administrative burden of applying for extensions, increasing library e-resources and offering better mental health support services. A significant number also mentioned maintaining aspects of online learning. For example:
A recorded lecture means students are more likely to get the most out of the information and it doesn’t exclude those who may not be able to show up on occasion due to ill health or a flare-up… being able to complete some of the seminar prep to submit before a seminar through online tools is something that should continue.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Disabled students are often disadvantaged during their time at university but our research suggests that the pandemic-driven introduction of more online learning opportunities resources has allowed them to access the same level of education as non-disabled students.
- We recommend that the accessibility of online resources should be a priority. Subtitles are needed that many (if not all) students can access lectures effectively. Academics or those supporting their work should include a video recording as well as the recorded lecture slides (to enable lipreading) or an accurate transcript or subtitles to maximise accessibility.
- We propose that academic institutions consider retaining certain aspects of online learning to support disabled students further when face-to-face teaching resumes.
- We note that asynchronous activities are considered to have proven effective in online learning and it would be beneficial that these activities should be retained.