Two sides of a balanced coin: How pandemic education has impacted faculty and students with disabilities

Students have developed new ways to structure their learning for successful outcomes. (Courtesy of Bhabna Banerjee)

There are positive and negative effects that the virtual learning environment has had on the engagement and interaction of students and faculty with disabilities alike. Although many struggled with the rapid and sudden transition to virtual learning, others prefer it to in-person learning. We heard directly from students, faculty, and the Student Accessibility Services about the impacts the pandemic had on them and their methods.

“We have a better picture of how students now work across multiple environments. We know what the in-person looks like and now we have a better sense of what remote learning looks like, so we do have some customized accommodation support around the remote environment,” says Maureen Elizabeth Barnes, the director of Student Accessibility Services. 

Barnes and her team are central facilitators of education as they interact directly with both faculty and students with disabilities. Their main goal is to ensure education is accessible and universal. Every student’s successful experience with the unexpected pandemic learning environment is their concern. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) seminars were held with “over 200 faculty members” attending and attendants “responded very positively.” 

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) organization describes UDL as “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” They suggest flexibility in assessments, learning goals, regular assessment of engagement with course content, as well as eliminating any unnecessary barriers to access. 

Professor of Mathematics Andrew Skelton was able to offer some insight on changes he has seen through eLearning in his classroom. 

“When it comes to the access students have gotten, I think that’s actually increased. I’ve noticed more people in office hours, asking me questions, accessing services, watching recordings or videos, and more people engaging with the content. What’s missing now is the ability to engage with other students,” says Skelton. 

The overall reaction to virtual education has been pleasant due to the flexibility it offers, reduced stress from outside stimuli, eliminated need for transportation, as well as anonymity in the classroom. Students with anxieties including social, performance, and general anxiety have reported positively towards virtual learning. 

“I enjoy that I feel a little more confident in participating in class, but it does have its drawbacks as well. I feel more overwhelmed typing everything and seeing it on a screen rather than interacting physically on paper,” says third-year mathematics for education student Monica Rando. 

Although some have had a pleasant experience with the transition to virtual learning during this pandemic, it is not all rainbows and sunshine. One of the biggest concerns is assessment. 

“Most faculty and students will agree that assessment is a weakness to virtual learning. While accessibility is a major strength to eLearning, being able to accurately assess students is where we fall short. Instances like breakout rooms can be tough because students often don’t speak up much,” says Skelton. 

Another major concern with online learning is that cognitive behavioural techniques and coping mechanisms that students with disabilities have developed over their twenty-something years must now be abandoned and redeveloped for the pandemic learning environment. 

To address these concerns with the rapid change of structure and the learning environment, the flexible  UDL instructional techniques provide students with the support they need to grow.

Many course instructors have adopted more flexible assessment structures. Mathematics professor Amenda Chow states that assessments in her classes now have flexibility when it comes to time constraints. 

“In my class, students have about two weeks to complete each assessment. We no longer have tests with a specific time constraint.”

Researchers have shown that virtual education provides students with the flexibility to develop their own learning mechanisms and challenge themselves while increasing their engagement with the content. The Research Institute of America showed that eLearning increased retention rates from 25 per cent to 60 per cent. 

Reflecting on a year of online learning allows us to see all the strengths and weaknesses the experience presented. As a whole, faculty and students should feel proud of themselves for adjusting to an entirely new system of learning.

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By Hala Hassan

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