Over the last thirteen months of the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant quarantine in the United States, we’ve all had to make a lot of adjustments in how we live, work, teach, and learn. As we look ahead to vaccinations, herd immunity, and the end of lockdown, many people are eager for a “return to normal.” But there are many people who have benefitted, even flourished, from remote working and learning. In education, strategies for remote learning can make classes far more accessible for some disabled students.
Remote Learning & Accessibility
One of the biggest benefits of remote learning is having recorded lectures. Whether it’s a pre-recorded video or a recording of a live lesson, these recordings have completely changed the landscape of accommodations. According to AccessibleNU, they’ve almost completely stopped peer note-taker accommodations. Rather than asking another student to share their notes from a classroom session, students can now pause, rewind, and replay lectures as much as they need. They can take their own notes, focus on what’s important to them, all at their own pace.
In addition, recorded lectures allow for captioning. Zoom and Panopto both have auto-captioning features built-in, and after a video is recorded, the instructor can easily go in and edit the transcript for greater accuracy. This helps students who are d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing, as well as students with attention disorders and auditory processing disorders. It also helps students who are non-native English speakers, or even those who’d prefer to read a transcript rather than watch a video.
Another benefit for students is asynchronous learning. Disabled students, especially those with mobility disabilities or chronic conditions, may really struggle to be at a specific place at a specific time. If there’s only one elevator, a wheelchair-using student may have to plan to be on campus significantly early in order to get to class on time. And if a student with chronic pain is experiencing a flare-up, they may have to choose between their education and their physical needs. But with asynchronous options, students can do classwork when they’re at their best.
Asynchronous learning also benefits a wide variety of students. “Traditional” college students–that is, 18-24-year-olds attending college full-time–are actually now the minority. The majority of students enrolled in college are balancing jobs, family commitments, caretaking responsibilities, and more. Asynchronous options allow all of these students to focus on class when they actually have the time to focus.
And of course, remote learning itself is a benefit. The students who benefit from asynchronous learning also benefit from remote learning, for many of the same reasons. They don’t have to deal with an inaccessible campus or a time-consuming commute. Instead, they can sit down at their homes, log in, and immediately be in the classroom.
An Accessible Post-Pandemic Future
How do we balance these accessibility benefits with those who want and need to get back to in-person learning? Many students haven’t flourished in remote learning: they don’t have access to necessary technology or internet bandwidth, they’re in distracting home situations, they can’t use inaccessible course technology, or they simply miss being around their friends and peers. (Faculty and staff can no doubt relate!)
Fortunately, there are options that can strike a middle ground between fully remote and fully in-person.
You may not be able to record all your classroom lectures, but consider pre-recorded mini-lectures covering key topics or complex subject matter. These can be brief, 3-5 minutes long, and easily posted to your class’s Canvas site. You can also post your lecture notes for students to review after class.
You can also consider flexible attendance policies for your courses. Many, many classes have strict limits on how often students can be late or absent. This can put disabled students or students with numerous outside responsibilities in the painful position of having to sacrifice their own health, their job security, or their family’s needs in order to attend a class. And a student who is anxious about any of those things is not a student who is focusing and absorbing the class content. By allowing more flexibility in attendance, while still requiring that students complete the reading and coursework, this source of stress can be reduced. (In fact, many instructors are looking into hybrid courses, in which students only attend in-person a few times, while the rest of the course is online.)
Another way to incorporate asynchronous learning into an in-person course is the use of discussion boards or online quizzes. Discussion boards don’t have to replace in-person conversation, but it can be another option or supplement. Students who aren’t able to attend or who have difficulty speaking up in public can still have a chance to share their thoughts with their peers. Similarly, instructors can utilize online quizzes and allow students to take as much time as they need to complete a test. These quizzes may need to be open book or open notes, but that means the quizzes should focus on analysis, synthesis, and creativity, rather than memorizing and reciting information.
You can even build on those concepts to implement a flipped classroom, a strategy in which traditionally in-class activities, such as lectures and quizzes, are completed online and asynchronously. Classroom time is used for students to discuss and collaborate on projects and assessments.
The key theme here is to identify and utilize the strengths of the digital and physical classroom spaces. If an in-person class is just the instructor lecturing for ninety minutes while students occasionally ask questions, that isn’t a much different experience than a ninety-minute Zoom lecture while students type questions into the chat. Meeting in-person has a great many values and benefits. Make sure you’re using that time where everyone is in the same space in a way that truly benefits learning. And similarly, your Canvas course site has a lot of incredibly useful tools and options! Find ways to integrate them into your course so that all students can benefit.
We may be returning to in-person learning at some point this year, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon the lessons and benefits of remote education. We can find a path forward that brings out the best of both worlds.