Remote learning renews calls to make classes more accessible

The transition to remote learning has challenged students and instructors alike, but the online space has offered both breakthroughs and barriers to making classes more accessible.

Online course material and instructor flexibility have provided some leeway for all students, including those with disabilities. Meeting the needs of each student, however, still proves a challenging task.

Policy LR7 outlines how staff and faculty should accommodate the needs of disabled students. But accessibility in the classroom entails a wide range of issues, and new circumstances call for new approaches.

“It just feels like everybody wants to do the right thing, and we’re just trying to figure out what that is,” said Janet Mee, director of the Centre for Accessibility.

The Centre emphasizes that despite an increased caseload, it is streamlining registration for students needing new adaptive technology or mental health accommodations, regardless of whether they have documentation on hand.

“We don’t want students attempting to go to a medical clinic to get documentation and put themselves at risk,” said Mee. “We’d rather work with the information they give us and deal with the formalities later.”

Adapting to remote learning

Remote learning can inhibit students with disabilities from engaging in discussions, collaborating in groups or performing well on tests, according to Nicole Leung, who is hard of hearing and a member of CiTR’s Accessibility Collective.

Providing course materials online offers both solutions and challenges for disabled students. As some rely on lip reading in their day-to-day classes, recorded lectures with captions and the ability to replay save those students both time and stress. But other testable materials provided by instructors still prove problematic.

“When new video content is shared, time is needed to transcribe the content, and therefore there is less time to study the content if other students already have access to it,” said Leung. “YouTube [captions] and other automatic transcribing services aren’t always accurate.”

“It just feels like everybody wants to do the right thing, and we’re just trying to figure out what that is.”

— Janet Mee, director of the Centre of Accessibility

The learning environment of online classes also requires students with disabilities to key in to certain modes of communication more, due to the lack of visual and behavioural cues that are normally found in face-to-face discussion.

“Although everyone is experiencing Zoom fatigue, hearing fatigue is something that is commonly experienced by [hard-of-hearing] people from straining so hard to understand speech and noises throughout their day,” said Leung. “With online classes, the fatigue is even higher, and with social distance measures impacting mental health, it becomes even harder to self-regulate stress.”

The digital disconnect also makes it more difficult for fellow students to welcome their disabled peers into class discussions.

“I’ve definitely cut into people [speaking] in group discussions before and felt terrible about it,” said Abbie Abe, a fourth-year science student and Accessibility Collective member. “And for people with diverse abilities, it could be an added struggle.”

For instructors and disabled students alike, most issues in the transition to remote learning surround online exams.

Mee acknowledged in an email to the Associate Deans that platforms, such as Canvas or Proctorio, proved incompatible with adaptive technologies or other accommodations. While instructors could manage accommodations related to extra time allowance, the Centre for Accessibility invigilated over 4,000 exams over Zoom to handle more complex cases.

The Centre also worked with instructors to ensure that exams did not create disadvantages as they moved online. For example, as practical hands-on exams in various medicine and health sciences programs became response videos, instructors were reminded that low vision individuals may need an alternate form of testing and that the exam should be approachable for students who hadn’t made a video before.

In addition, many students who were considering taking accommodations couldn’t anticipate the disruptive effect of home circumstances or routine changes on their ability to study. Last-minute changes in exam formatting, such as turning essay questions into multiple choice questions, also weighed on students’ ability to present their knowledge.

“Add in adaptive technologies to that combination, and what seems like a simple fix for an online environment can become very complicated,” said Mee.

Finding solutions for today, and tomorrow

The Centre for Accessibility continues to work with instructors, faculties and the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) to provide guidance on accommodating students in a remote learning environment.

CTLT’s Keep Learning and Keep Teaching sites lay out universal strategies for adapting to online classes. A learning strategist from the Centre for Accessibility also works directly with students to find helpful learning strategies, apps and other technologies.

Recorded lectures are one solution that instructors have implemented to varying degrees. They have helped students who tune in from various time zones, and their ability to include captions and replay have helped students with material absorption.

“This makes folks with diverse abilities [feel] included, not excluded, because at the end, it’s [their] future on the line.”

— Deepi Leihl, coordinator of the CiTR Accessibility Collective

“One of the students in [my] class was in need of a transcription service to accommodate her deafness and it happened to be of benefit for the others as well,” said Chris Erickson, political science lecturer, who implemented captioned lectures last term.

“We do anticipate that there will be many innovations resulting from the current circumstances that will become permanent practices or resources,” added Mee. “It is hard to say whether recorded lectures with captioning would be applied universally but, technology allowing, there may be some interesting benefits to exploring these opportunities.”

While the Centre for Accessibility is looking into technologies to augment its base of professional transcribers, some argue that there’s a mutually beneficial fix. Students, who already use their knowledge and familiarity with specific courses as note takers, might also prove useful in transcribing lectures and other resources.

“You’d be providing part-time income for students, and you’d also be lowering the costs of transcribing services,” noted Abe.

Mee said that the Centre is “testing the quality and feasibility of all options.”

Continuing the conversation

Ultimately, students, instructors, advocacy groups and university administration are teaming up to promote course accessibility, for current remote learning circumstances and beyond.

“I think that the best way to go about it is to have a unified approach campus wide and that we’re engaging with all these stakeholders to create a great learning environment,” said AMS President Cole Evans.

But given the findings of the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Diversity and Inclusion May 27 final report, there is room for improvement in making students, staff and faculty with disabilities feel like they are heard and belong on campus. Evans noted that groups, such as the UBC Equity and Inclusion Office and the new AMS Neurodiverse and Disabled Alliance resource group as well as individual advocates, continue advocacy.

“People with diverse abilities should be included in conversations and test trials to see if online materials work for them and what changes need to be made,” said Accessibility Collective coordinator Deepi Leihl. “This makes folks with diverse abilities [feel] included, not excluded, because at the end, it’s [their] future on the line.”