Throughout the last year, Covid and the subsequent restrictions have led to digital learning courses becoming more and more popular with learners from all walks of life. However this form of education isn’t as accessible as it could be to users who have some form of impairment which means that the onus is on digital learning providers to improve the ease with which their courses can be accessed. With this in mind, we asked a number of digital learning experts for their thoughts on how this can be achieved.
John Holden, Managing Director at Online Business School
Dr. Sean McCready, Director of Education at ICS Learn
Sarah-Jane McQueen, General Manager of CoursesOnline
Samantha Rutter, CEO of Open Study College
What have you done to ensure that users with disabilities can access your learning content? Do you have any extra support options available for users with disabilities?
John Holden: Online Business School is an inclusive educational provider; we provide courses for all abilities, nationalities, ethnicities and levels. Our students have up to 5 years to complete a course. This can also be extended depending on the student’s circumstances. This flexibility removes the pressure of deadlines. Our students have unlimited tutor support and this takes place mostly over email or Zoom. This helps students suffering from mental health issues as face-to-face communication can seem daunting.
We also have a dedicated student support team who provide emotional welfare and career guidance for our students.
Sean McCready: During the initial enrolment stage at ICS Learn, our course advisers discuss student accessibility needs to ensure they are choosing programmes in which they will get the most benefit. This involves a discussion about additional educational needs or reasonable adjustments which we need to be aware of at the start of the programme, as this helps us better prepare candidates for the assessments they will ultimately undertake.
We use an online learning platform with an accessible layout which is fully compliant with W3C standards. When designing our online resources, we take care to ensure they are as accessible as possible. For example, our online material can be downloaded for use in screen readers outside of the learning environment using the student’s own software for this.
For assessments, students with specific disabilities or with a need for reasonable adjustments, we discuss these with the ICS Learn tutor team, who will then provide a tailored support approach.
Sarah-Jane McQueen: As the go-between that facilitates connecting those looking to learn with course providers we don’t control the content of the various courses ourselves. Rather we rigorously assess the providers that we work with both before we partner with them and then throughout the time that we work together. We constantly pay attention to the feedback that our partners receive and if there are a lot of comments regarding a lack of accessibility then it’s something that we would raise as an aspect for them to focus on.
Samantha Rutter: At Open Study College we work with all of our students who require additional support on a case by case basis. It could be providing additional time to complete their studies, extra check-ins from tutors and our support team, or offering our course materials in larger fonts. Our courses can be studied with a physical study pack, or via online access, where they can also be read by screen readers for those with visual impairments. Most of our courses can be completed entirely online; it offers flexibility to students with physical disabilities that may restrict their movement.
Do you get a decent volume of inquiries from those with disabilities? What more can be done to encourage them to look into online learning?
John Holden: Yes – we receive inquiries from all abilities. Prospective students may have the misconception that distance learning means that they are alone. This is not the case, and our tutors and student support team are with you every step of the way. The overall student experience is our top priority. In order to aid and enrich student experiences, we’ve created support Hubs. Our Hubs include resources such as mental health support and career development. Our Buddy Hub is designed to ensure user inclusion in the learning process, creating a social learning environment.
Currently, we are in the process of adding subtitles to our webinars so our courses will be accessible for hearing-impaired students. We can provide tools like braille keyboards and voice-to-text software to help students with visual impairment.
Sean McCready: The benefit of online learning is that it is often more accessible than classroom learning to those with disabilities as much of the learning can be done at home, using their own equipment and in a flexible way to suit their own timings. This is extremely beneficial and helps to overcome a greater range of needs. It can also be less threatening to those with disabilities as there are fewer physical barriers to overcome.
Sarah-Jane McQueen: I think to encourage anyone into online learning the key is, as John points out, to highlight the fact that it’s not simply you pay for access to course content. What you get is also access to a whole community of teachers and other learners with whom you can discuss any issues if there is something that is causing particular concern. Online learning has also become more popular with everyone, especially over the last year as people come to realise that being physically present isn’t a necessity for a complete learning experience.
Samantha Rutter: Our aim is to make education accessible to everyone. In a recent survey we conducted, around 15% of our students referenced having a mental or physical disability as a factor in deciding to follow the distance learning route.
Raising awareness that education is no longer based solely on the premise of being face-face is incredibly important to us, as we know that many neurodiverse individuals have negative experiences at school or college. There are many different ways education can be accessed, particularly via remote learning, ensuring that people with disabilities can also receive an education and develop themselves, either in their career, or simply to broaden their minds at their own pace.
How can course providers be better at anticipating the needs of disabled users when designing future content?
John Holden: It’s important that course providers recognise that no two students are the same. At Online Business School, we know that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. When designing future content, it’s important to provide resources that are accessible for all. Course content must be tailored with all kinds of vulnerabilities in mind.
At Online Business School, we recognise that increased online learning will benefit students who experience obstacles to accessing traditional face-to-face modes of delivery. Purchasing assistive software could be expensive for students. Course providers could consider offering access through their own software licences.
Sean McCready: Greater awareness is the key. The range of technology now available, even compared to five years ago, and the relatively low cost of such technology, means that more people ought to be able to access online education. We therefore need to ensure we promote this as much as possible and ensure those with disabilities gain the same access to such educational opportunities.
Sarah-Jane McQueen: For us the key is to always be listening to user feedback so that we can better predict potential issues before they arise and become problematic. Making it easy for learners to communicate back what they perhaps found challenging about your existing content is vital and should be fed directly back to whoever is responsible for putting the courses together. You have no better resource for finding out what people want than your existing audience so don’t be shy to make use of them. Being so receptive to their feedback is a great asset when it comes to cultivating a loyal user base who will come back to your site again and again.
Samantha Rutter: We pride ourselves on our personal approach and the relationships we build with our students. For us at Open Study College, talking to students and asking for feedback at every stage is crucial when it comes to anticipating the needs of all learners, especially disabled users. No two students are the same, so using these learnings to continuously improve has been instrumental when it comes to inclusivity and planning for the future.