Jackie Pichette and Jessica Rizk – Three recommendations for accessible remote learning

Adapting to the realities of remote schooling has been challenging. Since the COVID-19 pandemic sent our province into a state of emergency, many students have had to turn bedrooms into offices, kitchen tables into classrooms and parking lots into hotspots. While all Ontario learners have had to adapt to overcome barriers, those barriers have been amplified for many students with disabilities.

Imagine for a minute that you have low vision and require a screen reader to navigate online platforms like Zoom. Imagine you’re logging in for your first remote lecture of the semester, excited to be back in the (virtual) classroom. To encourage participation, your instructor begins by inviting students to pose questions using the chat feature. As your instructor dives into their thought-provoking lecture, your screen reader starts reciting aloud questions and comments posed by your peers, drowning out the instructor’s voice.

A student recently described a similar scenario to us. “I ended up getting two things coming at me at once, which was distracting and very hard to follow,” they shared. Being new to Zoom, this student wasn’t sure how to disable the chat or pose a question or comment themselves.

It’s but one example of how uniquely challenging remote learning can be for many students with disabilities and other accessibility needs. To learn more about the types of supports that students, especially those with disabilities, will need to succeed in an online learning environment this fall, we have been interviewing student representatives, faculty and staff at Ontario colleges and universities, as well as community advocates. We have also surveyed more than 600 students- about 200 of whom have a self-reported disability. We will be publishing a report later this summer that summarizes the data we have collected and shares practical advice with institutions for supporting student success during the pandemic and recovery.

Though we are still in the process of analyzing the data, we’d like to share a few of the recommendations for supporting accessibility that have surfaced so far. We hope these recommendations will assist faculty and staff as they prepare for the fall term:

Lean on your colleagues

In the example above, we described a student whose experience would drastically improve if the chat function were disabled during the lecture or if they had access to instructions for navigating course platforms (e.g. how to use Zoom with a screen reader). In either case, addressing this student’s needs requires empathy and strategic thinking ahead of time – both things that support staff at colleges and universities can help faculty with as they design and deliver courses.

Time and again, our interviewees stressed the need for collaboration between faculty and staff in creating accessible learning environments. With their advice in mind, we encourage instructors at Ontario postsecondary institutions to draw upon the expertise of local Teaching and Learning Centres (e.g. Teaching & Learning Consultants, Curriculum Development Specialists, Educational Technology Specialists) as well as Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) offices and offices for students with disabilities. These specialists are often experts in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and can help in the design and delivery of courses for the fall, which can help relieve the burden for students (and faculty) who might have otherwise needed to seek out accommodations.

Empower students to make choices that suit their needs

While UDL can certainly help optimize learning for most students, it’s unfortunately not always possible to design and deliver courses in a way that suits the needs of all learners at once. The good news is that by being upfront about both course format and what’s required to participate and succeed, instructors can empower students to make course selections that suit individual learning goals and needs (provided disability-related accommodations are available).

The student representatives we interviewed identified a variety of personal preferences and needs. For example, a student who is Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing may prefer to watch asynchronous lectures with Closed Captioning rather than synchronous lectures taught over Zoom. A student with a cognitive disability who appreciates the ability to pause, slow down and rewind content might have a similar preference, especially if access to accommodations like notetaking is hindered by the pandemic. For another student, having a set schedule of live lectures and discussion groups might help with motivation.

Students know what works for them. If there are a variety of course formats to choose from, and the details of course delivery are communicated clearly in the course catalogue ahead of the semester, students can select the courses that best suit their needs.

Students know what works for them. If there are a variety of course formats to choose from, and the details of course delivery are communicated clearly in the course catalogue ahead of the semester, students can select the courses that best suit their needs.

Instructors should also strive to share information about course requirements and participation expectations as soon as possible. This way students can obtain resources in an accessible format (i.e. texts with enlarged print) and/or arrange for accommodations, if required. Sharing information about expectations early can also help alleviate student anxiety about what to expect, supporting well-being and retention.

Enable transferable skill development

Lastly, most of our interviewees reminded us that all students, not just those with disabilities or accessibility needs, will require specific transferable skills to be successful with remote and online learning. Skills like digital literacy, time management, self-efficacy and organization will be essential this fall and they’ll also come in handy after graduation.

Instructors can facilitate the development of these skills at the course-level by providing suggested timelines for completing assignments, especially for asynchronous courses, and models or templates for time management in the context of their course.

Institutions and instructors should also consider sharing learning strategies with their students, either in-class, or through co-curricular activities like workshops, online videos or tip sheets that nudge students to adjust and apply some of their learning strategies for an online context.

We will have lots more to say about this important topic in our upcoming report. We will build upon the recommendations above and share additional advice about the practicalities of delivering remote and online content in an accessible way. We have also heard a lot about the positive aspects of remote learning from an accessibility standpoint and we will share those as well as thoughts about how to play up the positives.

In the meantime, we acknowledge that this is a stressful time for instructors. Students themselves have told us the same. They understand that moving courses online is a lot of work, especially during a global pandemic. That’s why we encourage you to lean on the supports at your institution, take comfort in the idea that (with full information) students know what works for them and share ideas amongst your peers (as we’re seeing instructors like Dr. Campbell do on Twitter) rather than re-inventing the wheel. By working together institutions and instructors can ensure all students are able to succeed this fall and thereafter.

Jackie Pichette is director of Research, Policy and Partnerships at HEQCO; Jessica Rizk is a researcher.

One response to “Jackie Pichette and Jessica Rizk – Three recommendations for accessible remote learning”

  1. Kudos to HEQCO for this timely and relevant report!

    As colleagues in universities and colleges across Canada begin to prepare for the fall semester of predominantly remote instruction, insights are emerging from interviews, surveys and analysis of the experience of remote teaching from lock-down to now. Tony Bates has provided a detailed summary of eight of the studies and others are beginning to offer their analysis.

    One thing is clear. The sudden shift to remote instruction has highlighted inequality of access to higher education, especially in remote and rural communities, as a significant issue. Not all communities have affordable access to broadband – 40% of those living in these communities do not and it is an especially problem for indigenous peoples living on reserve. Even when they do have access to broadband it is not always of such a high quality in terms of speed and bandwidth – only 41% of rural Canada has access to broadband which permits effective streaming.

    Students with sight, hearing and other disabilities have also been challenged, as this timely recent report from HEQCO observes. While ZOOM, Google Meet and Adobe Connect have “saved the day” for some instructors, they present some accessibility challenges. Colleagues have learned, some the hard way, to connect with their local Teaching and Learning Centres (e.g. Teaching & Learning Consultants, Curriculum Development Specialists, Educational Technology Specialists) as well as offices for students with disabilities and local expertise. Becoming familiar with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a pre-requisite for designing a course for the fall. Getting to know your students is at the heart of this work.

    More generally, what remote instruction has revealed is that excellent teachers can teach excellently online. They have focused not on the simple task of sharing content and offering basic assessment, but on engaging their learners in meaningful ways despite the constraints under which we are all operating in. They have found highly interactive and engaging tasks, re-imagined their teaching through the use of short videos to carry key instructional messages and used their “connection time” to engage, explore, challenge and connect with their students. They have made the learning experience about the students, their learning and their experience. This strong pedagogical focus has saved the day for many courses, something another report HEQCO’s report “Revisiting the research What does good online learning look like?” captures.

    A particular challenge has been with assessment. Many have changed not simply what they assess, but how. Shifting from the high stakes mid-term / end of term examination to continuous assessment, making more use of quizzes and tests done through the learning management system and using the results to help shape instruction and student support have all been part of the “discovery” experience for many faculty.

    What has also emerged is an emphasis on collaboration. Whether this is focused on the development of open education resources, on course creation or sharing experiences through webinars, there has been a real desire to learn to improve through sharing and collaboration.

    This has also shown itself in some of the remote teaching – more collaborative projects, more group work done remotely, more use of the group features of Zoom or Adobe Connect to enable teams to work of projects. One university is even using an AI enabled co-operative experience for a team of students on a business course (created through a public:private partnership).

    It has been challenging – not all has gone according to plan – but it has gone relatively well. Let’s make sure the fall semester does too.

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