Improving online learning for students with disabilities

Students with disabilities make up just under 20% of the student body. But how can we improve online learning to suit their needs? Learn more in our article.

3 min readPublished: 4 Dec 2020

Students with disabilities make up just under 20% of the student body.

Yet the learning needs of the 20% are as diverse as the students themselves. In a traditional classroom setting, institutions provide a range of accommodations to provide equitable experiences, from increased testing time to note taking tools. So what’s changed with online learning? And what does successful online learning for students with disabilities look like?

Online access

Does every student have equal access to the online classroom? This is the question you should answer first. After all, any improvements you make in student support will be limited without the needed technology or internet access.

A recent AHEAD (Association on Higher Education and Disability) survey found that 79% of students with disabilities had difficulty accessing needed devices and equipment. Though this finding reflects data from Spring, it should still give college admins pause.

Auditing students’ tech needs, coordinating with IT and other departments, and getting needed devices in the hands of students is a logical first step. From here, you can focus on learning. ;

Beware of accessibility hurdles

Blackboard ally, an LMS provider, recently discovered over 50% of PDFs provided for online courses have accessibility problems. This could create real problems for students if unaddressed.

We’ve created a guide to online accessibility that you can browse for tips on best practice, as well as advice on testing existing materials. This should equip you with the fundamentals to assess where you are with accessibility.

It’s a pretty obvious point, but if there’s something blocking students from accessing course materials or platforms, there’s little chance of improving online learning outcomes.

Online learning models

Not all online models are created equal for students with disabilities. Asynchronous (or recorded) classes, live classes over Zoom… there’s plenty of variation, all with their own advantages and drawbacks.

Asynchronous classes offer students flexibility and the ability to better dictate the pace of their learning. But they lack the opportunity for interaction or live questions.

Live classes over Zoom give students a learning routine and the chance for discussion, but can create access issues and lead to ‘Zoom fatigue’.

Ultimately, improving online learning for students with disabilities will require slightly different strategies for each model.

For asynchronous classes, advising your students to treat them as ‘live’ at a time that suits them should help create greater engagement and bolster routines.

With Zoom classes, understanding that it might be a challenge to stay focused should place more emphasis on follow up work. Which is where learning skills come in...

Rebuilding social learning

One thing students are really missing with online learning is the social interaction and community atmosphere of campus.

Beyond the reduced opportunities to make new friends, there are also impediments to informal social learning. Think of a typical campus library. While there might be many students studying individually, you’re also bound to spot tables of students working cooperatively. Students with disabilities might be feeling the isolation of online or blended learning more than most. That’s why it’s important to encourage and facilitate as many touch points between students as possible.

Learning skills

With online learning, students with disabilities are having to self-advocate and study independently like never before.

Not everyone was ready for this when the Covid transition came in Spring. Some study skills, such as independent note taking, can take time to master. This is where you can start to improve learning experiences. Understanding that students need to learn independently, and that you’re well-placed to help them, your plan could look like this...

  • Link up with student success departments. This way, you can work together on helping students develop their skills.
  • Take a look at your note taking accommodations. Will a peer note taker or smart pen really help students with their online learning? It’s time to consider alternatives that work with the grain
  • Post-class work is key. With Zoom and recorded classes taking up a large portion of students’ learning time, what students do after class will be just as important as what they do during. If attention wanders or distractions in the home environment prove an obstacle, having the tools and skills to consolidate learning independently will be a huge boost.
  • Are your students planning their days effectively? It’s important to stress the importance of routines away from campus. To give the best chance of success, encourage students to work daily, breaking their tasks into manageable chunks.

A tool built to improve learning, online or in-person

Since the transition to online learning began, we’ve been helping institutions across the US improve learning for students with disabilities.

Glean, our brand new app, has been designed to help students take great notes independently, without the need for lengthy training sessions, making students more confident and improving grades.

Here’s what students have been saying about Glean:

Watch now

Time for a simpler, smarter note taking accommodation?

Glean’s worked wonders already at institutions like the University of Memphis. And thanks to a flexible free trial, you could soon reap the benefits at your institution, too.