Equalizing the Educational Experience in a Digital Classroom

The transition to online learning was a bumpy one. In the rush to move from in-person instruction to virtual classrooms, a lot was lost. For students with learning and cultural differences, that loss was even more stark.

School is hard enough when you’re disabled or disenfranchised. Take away the in-school supports you’ve grown accustomed to and substitute them with slap dash digital lessons, and coursework can go from challenging to inaccessible.

Thankfully, instructors and curriculum creators are now prioritizing the learners who were inadvertently left behind at the beginning of the pandemic. With an eye towards more accessible, inclusive practices, many instructional materials and processes are getting a necessary revamp.

This is a look at how your institution can ensure students of all abilities and backgrounds get an equitable educational experience.


 

Accessibility is Crucial for Effective Distance + Hybrid Learning

Take it from Insider Ed, “In the frenzy to move face-to-face courses online — a frenzy experienced both by institutions supporting the infrastructure and instructors adapting course content — accessibility was not top of mind, as is too often the case with underrepresented populations.”

More troubling, nearly half of the 67 countries surveyed by UNICEF have below-average remote learning readiness, much less fully accessible online ed.

 

 

More troubling, nearly half of the 67 countries surveyed by UNICEF have below-average remote learning readiness, much less fully accessible online ed.

 

As distance learning and hybrid classrooms solidify their place in an ongoing pandemic, administrators must give accessibility requirements their full focus. That means evaluating their content, as well as online delivery platforms to make sure they’re both inclusive and student-centered.

But barebones compliance with local disability standards is just the beginning. Anticipating students’ needs, engaging them for feedback, making proactive accommodations to coursework, and supplying ongoing teacher training are all an essential part of evolved, accessible e-learning.

 

 

The Role of Assistive Tech and Accommodations

Focusing on a student’s disability is extremely limiting. By contrast, making an accommodation is empowering. The process is different on a student-by-student basis but usually involves making an adjustment to one’s environment or providing a new product to help the learner engage with the material.

Some examples include:

  • Screen readers and magnification software
  • Refreshable braille devices
  • Graphics and images with alt-text
  • Text-to-speech technologies
  • Transcriptions for audio content
  • Close-captioned video conferencing
  • Extra time on assignments or tests

 

Prioritizing Inclusive Design in the Virtual Classroom

Content design is a huge part of any inclusive classroom. When done well, materials are not only compatible with assistive tech, they’re optimized for it. In turn, it can reduce the need for additional accommodations when learning online and ensures anyone can use and benefit from them, regardless of ability.

“The “social model” of disability and other integrated approaches within the field of disability studies consider variations in abilities—like those with respect to gender, race, and ethnicity—a natural part of the human experience. This view suggests that more attention should be devoted to designing products and environments—including courses, technology, and student services—that are welcoming and accessible to everyone,” explains Washington Edu.

Utilizing the basic principles of Universal and Inclusive Design, educational opportunities are maximized as they:

  • Promote diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Refuse to lower standards
  • Prioritize practice and incremental implementation

Educational gaps existed long before COVID-19 swept through schools. The pandemic only put a spotlight on them. Now, educators and administrators have the opportunity to provide more accessible and inclusive education for all. Though it will take some investment, the returns on our collective future will be invaluable.