Opinionista Marcia Lyner-Cleophas 18 June 2020

Online learning during lockdown helps us find ways to teach differently abled students

For too long, we have been teaching and assessing with the average student in mind, without considering students with disabilities and students from less-resourced environments.

As higher education practitioners, we find ourselves catapulted into this Covid-19 online space with our diverse range of students with varying abilities. Also part of this diversity, and lying on the continuum of abilities, are students with disabilities. The reality of these students, and the support needed, has always run parallel to the support that all students need to study successfully.

Understandably, there is much concern around how students and staff will cope in the online environment, given the South African reality where people have varying technological abilities and resources. Given the global experience, we will also need to grapple with our own realities. For too long we have been teaching and assessing with the average student in mind, without considering, among others, students with disabilities and students from less-resourced environments. The average student is the one viewed according to average abilities and functionalities, has average to good eyesight and hearing, a range of movement that is unaided, comes from a fairly well-resourced environment and processes information very quickly.

Students are usually assessed in specific ways during a specific period, such as two or three hours answering memorised questions. Given the current online reality, we are now forced to consider and to work with students with varying abilities who do not fit into the average mould described above. More importantly, we must think of all students and the type of teaching, learning and assessment that would work best for all students.

The use of assistive technology has always been part of the support needed for many students with disabilities, but its availability was mixed.  Assistive technologies were often needed because study material was not designed to accommodate all students. For example, if all reading material were in a format that would make it easy to enlarge fonts from the start, or to make it readable for screen readers or be captioned, then there would be no need to format a text. Now we are forced to think deeper about our online material: is the material uploaded and sent to the student in an accessible format? Is the student able to engage with the material, given data and bandwidth realities? How will the student be able to respond in the online space? These questions are relevant to all students.

Our Constitution and the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997 note the importance of addressing inequalities and diversity in education, and call for flexibility and redress in transforming our society. Discrimination against people based on class, race, gender and disability is outlawed. In 2018, the Department of Higher Education and Training released a strategic framework for disability in the tertiary sector to specifically address disability inclusion as part of diversity.

As a sector, we are constantly challenged by how best to be inclusive.  However, we easily fall into the default mode of teaching, learning and assessment practices for the average student. In a sense, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to relook our curriculum and its design and outcomes and to focus on what needs to be learned and the various ways in which to do this. We are again reminded that our students have diverse home contexts with “no-to-low-to-high tech” availability to give their feedback and engage with reading material.

Large portions of our disabled student population are already reliant on assistive technologies to access teaching, learning and assessment material. Going forward, it will be worthwhile to consider Universal Design (UD) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), as well as blended learning and massive open online courses (moocs), as ways to engage a diverse group of students.

UD and UDL have been discussed, written about and researched extensively in the past 10 to 15 years by organisations such as the center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST). In an article for the African Journal of Disability (2019), Elizabeth Dalton and her co-authors discuss how using the three principles in UDL can help promote equity and flexibility for diverse groups of students.

The first is the multiple ways of representing information. This is presenting multimedia formats, such as digital means, pictures, music, captioning, audio and pre-recordings. Second, allowing for multiple ways in which students can engage with learning material to engage their interests, such as voice notes, SMS, WhatsApp, blogs, group work, service learning and vlogs (from low to high tech). Third, multiple means of action and expression, where students can demonstrate their knowledge in various ways, such as essays, verbal inputs, web design, and tasks submitted via email, SMS, WhatsApp, blogs, vlogs, and PowerPoint presentations.

Robert Black, Lois Weinberg and Martin Brodwin from California State University also espouse the value of using UD principles with specific reference to students with disabilities. Incorporating such principles in design in all course and assessment practices would be valuable to all students, given their natural diversity.

In a 2019article on the role of the Higher Education Disability Services Association in South Africa (HEDSA), I also drew attention to electronic lists or contact lists of people as a specific interest group and emails as common ways to share information. The use of low technologies is possible as a means to engage with UDL, given the prolific use of smartphones, as Willie Chinyamurindi from the University of Fort Hare recently pointed out in a piece for The Conversation. Echoing similar sentiments, Michael Rowe from the University of the Western Cape highlights the value of cell phones and exploring simple and low-cost universal modes of information sharing.

Despite our students’ technological and contextual challenges, there are pockets of experience to draw from where low-cost and low-tech solutions have been used to engage students. Drawing on UD and UDL, it is possible to be flexible and explore various means that can add to this. Everybody is challenged and possibly rendered “disabled” in the online space, and drawing on existing expertise does not have to be daunting.

Being truly inclusive means we acknowledge that we cannot treat all students in the same way when there is so much diversity. Presenting material in various ways, such as a text of your talk and a recording of your presentation, already caters to many students as some might be stronger in reading and others better at listening. This benefits students with specific disabilities too, such as those with reading or writing disorders. Providing students with alternative ways to present their knowledge also allows for a student’s particular strengths to emerge, as one might prefer to send an audio/voice note as a response, while another might send a text or Word document.

Incorporating the three core principles of UDL in our educational environments will open the space for an engaged student population, with flexible teaching, learning and assessment options. Low-tech resources such as voice notes, WhatsApp documents, video calls, and emails can then easily be incorporated. Basic messaging can be used for interaction and feedback.

Education policymakers have acknowledged the need for flexible curricula given our diverse student populations and the need for equity redress. Improving technologies in education has also been encouraged. More needs to be done regarding assistive technologies and designing accessible courses from the start for our students who have varying abilities and resources. DM

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