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How online learning contributes to a more inclusive HE experience

Students with special educational needs and/or disabilities are often overlooked in the grand scheme of education. However, they are part of the student population, on college campuses, taking courses with their peers, mostly online lately. One thing that I’ve been thrilled about is that technology and online learning have really supported these students to continue their education, even though the pandemic disrupted many systems and processes.

As an educator and Executive Director at the Inclusive Higher Education Certificate Program (IHECP), I can honestly say that my students have experienced a smooth transition to the online learning environment. I attribute this success to our pre-pandemic strategy — we already had a blended learning system in place that helped us accommodate remote education.

As schools and universities reopen their gates, there’s great hope that there will soon be more in-person learning. However, I strongly believe that there will be a component of online learning for every student, whether in-person, remote, or blended.

Here are a few reasons why I think online learning improves access to Higher Education for students with all sorts of disabilities:

Accessible learning environment

Accessible design, whether in the physical world or the virtual one, simply means good design. People with disabilities benefit from it the most, and those who don’t particularly need it also have an enhanced experience.

For example, in an accessible online learning environment, you can add subtitles to all educational videos you present to students, including your pre-recorded lectures. Students with auditory disabilities will still be able to follow your presentation by reading the subtitles, which are of great importance in those moments when they can’t see your face and read your lips. Furthermore, students with no disabilities will still find those subtitles useful if they happen to be in a loud environment when studying or simply focus better on written words than on spoken ones.

Besides subtitles, the learning platform that we use has other accessibility features such as:

  • Compatibility with various screen readers — which are especially useful for students with low vision;
  • Integration with speech-to-text software — for those with underdeveloped fine motor skills who have a hard time typing;
  • A graphical user interface — that everyone can fine-tune to avoid strained eyes after staying on the platform for more than five minutes (and even avoid seizures).

Read more: How to create accessible e-learning design

Differentiated instruction

Every educator knows that no two students are the same. They have different learning needs, and they can only reach their full potential if those needs are met. This is true for all students, but it’s even more true (if you’ll allow me to pull an Orwell) for students with disabilities. Differentiated instruction is a must for them.

Read more: Top edtech tools for digital differentiation

In the typical classroom environment, this is an enormous and often insurmountable challenge. Luckily, technology makes it possible for teachers like me to differentiate the content I’m offering to my students, the delivery of said content, and also the way I evaluate each student’s demonstration of learning.

I make it a point to get to know my students first and then adapt as many aspects of their learning experience as possible because, after a while, I learn their preferences and what they respond to best. For instance, students can submit written, video or audio assignments, and I always try to give them feedback in the same format. Instead of writing short notes or paragraphs, I sometimes have short conversations through our learning platform on the assignment. This personalized feedback can make a world of difference in my students’ progress.

Read more: The 5 Bs of online feedback teachers need to master

Competency-based learning

If you ask me, the credit-hour system many HE institutions employ is one of the worst ways of evaluating students, even those without special needs! Yet, it’s so prevalent that few people question it. At IHECP, we don’t tie student achievement to credit hours. How much time they spend at a desk is not a valid indicator of their progress. Instead, we focus on their involvement in learning activities and their competency building.

For this purpose, we try to make the most of our learning platform, which allows us to hide or unlock learning modules based on each student’s unique progress in a lesson or course. Each module has a quiz or some other type of assessment at the end, and students can only move to the next module if they demonstrate mastery of the previous one. Teachers can see where each student is at, adapt the instruction, and guide them if they struggle with something — and they can do this in real-time!

NEO Guide: Competency-based learning


I am a special educator, but I do believe that education is special for everyone. We need individualized education for everyone, and it’s almost impossible to do this live — we need educational technology. If we could put the thinking in and front load our intention to educate everyone, then we would be much more successful than one-on-one or in-person in the classroom.

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