H810: Positive attributes and barriers to online learning

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This post is a response to Activity 11.1: Advantages and barriers to elearning for disabled students

Online learning offers significant opportunities for disabled learners, while simultaneously creating barriers. Below is a summary of initial thoughts from the point of view of disabled students accessing online learning mainly through a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

The positive attributes of online learning include:

Accessing course materials (move away from a reliance in print materials)

Course materials can be accessed through the use of generic technology (materials can be produced as text, audio, video which will suit different learners. When course materials are made available electronically,  specialist/assistive technology can render them suitable for certain learners (screen reading software, text to speech). Outside of hardware and software fixes, materials can also be fixed pedagogically, for example substituting text descriptions with diagrams to illustrate a concept for learners with dyslexia.

Convenience and flexibilty
An always-on access to a course site or a VLE can promote learner agency through:

  • remote access to the VLE using mobiles and tablets
  • access to lecture notes, articles, books and other reading on VLE to download
  • access to collaboration tools such as  discussion boards or online chat
  • multimedia elemets such as podcasts, videos and recorded lectures for asynchronous access

Online communication promotes efficiency such as email for assignments, feedback and notes which can be stored and read electronically through generic or assistive technologiies. This saves time that would be spent visiting a physcial library or resource.

Support & Organisation
Online/VLE alerts and reminders can help students plan and feel motivated. Online environment can promote a scaffolding and sending out of supplementary material. Online social and collaborative tools can promote a virtual community, social presence and motivation. Learners have electronic access to discussions and conversations.

Assessment and feedback
Formative assessment is possible through quizzes and self-checks. Assessments can be submitted online with record of submission. Agreed adaptations of assessment (for example oral/recorded/multimedia rather than text) can be supported in a virtual environment.

Despite these positive attribites of online learning for many students including disabled learners, there are many factors that can act as barriers that prevent these positive attributes from being realised:

Inflexible course material: Lack of notes and lectures (prevents planning and flexibility) and disadvantages many disabled students who need the extra time and format to be prepared
Similarly, a lack of videos and capture of lectures (prevents review and catch-up), which disadvantages students who could not attend or could not note take.

Poor design of VLE: Lack of consistency and user interface, inaccessible design making generic or specialist software inefficient or unusable. VLEs often privileges reading (on screen/discussion boards etc) – for students with dyslexia this can be can be problematic as face to face contact may not be avaialble.

Inconsistent use of VLE by institution or instructors: becomes time consuming to ask for things and get things done and need to ask for one-off alternatives. Some instructors may choose to use their own website or other resources.

Lack of support and training: for students and staff, leading to abandonment of assistive technologies even where investment might have been made.

Individual needs of disabled students: any resource wil have varying levels of accessibility and so may still be inaccessible to certain learners.

On balance the learner-centred approach of online learning gives disabled students (and all students) more flexibility in how they learn to achieve their potential in any particular course, which may lead to higher completion rates, higher application and admission rates and a better overall experience. Poor design and a lack of skills, will and strategy on the part of the institution, instructors (and possibly even students at times) are key barriers to the potenial of online learning.

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