Online learning benefits higher education students with disability
A report funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) has found access to technology and flexible teaching methods, along with how the disclosure of student disability is managed, can help students with disability to gain higher education qualifications.
Dr Mike Kent, a researcher from Curtin University’s Department of Internet Studies, said students with disability were under-represented in tertiary education.
“We surveyed 356 Open Universities Australia students and classified them into eight categories of impairment – mental illness, medical impairment, mobility impairment, hearing impairment, learning disability, vision impairment, acquired brain impairment, and intellectual disability,” Dr Kent said.
“44.9 per cent of survey respondents reported a mental illness (an unexpectedly high incidence), 39.2 per cent of survey respondents cited medical impairments and 25.3 per cent of survey respondents had mobility impairments.”
“We asked the students to examine their experiences of studying online and found an overwhelming majority of them recommended online learning as an effective way of participating in higher education.”
“For many students with disability, studying online made the experience of higher education more fulfilling and less difficult. For others, completing coursework online was the only way they could access higher education.”
The research highlighted the need for flexibility from teaching staff in regard to teaching methods and assessment design.
“Teaching staff have to understand that not all students will be able to participate on the same level, in all occasions,” Dr Kent said.
“This acceptance of disabilities needs to be promoted widely among teaching and professional staff and accessibility guidelines need to be developed according to the needs of students, based upon their real-life experiences.”
“Universities and other higher education institutions should not treat disabilities as an individual problem for students to solve, instead they must use tools, teaching methods and design standards that make content accessible to all.”
NCSEHE Director, Professor Sue Trinidad, said the findings supported the future planning of online programs to gain a higher education qualification.
“Dr Kent’s research identifies an opportunity for Australian universities to promote themselves as accessible for online study to students with disability, potentially increasing the participation of this under-represented cohort,” Professor Trinidad said.
In Australia, 2014 Australian Government Department of Education and Training data estimates that students with disability make up 5.8 per cent of undergraduate enrolments. Open Universities Australia reports 6.4 per cent of its students have disability.