Remote learning during a pandemic: A quick shift to universal design

No one can argue that life during a global pandemic is stressful and challenging. For college faculty and students, it has meant an abrupt transition from face-to-face learning to the remote learning environment with all of the difficulties that arise from learning new technology and different teaching methods. While it’s true that there are additional challenges faced by students with disabilities, as the Coordinator of Accessibility, Alternate Testing and Counseling at FMCC, I have seen that the online environment can also be one that offers new opportunity and improved independence.

With an increased number of classes offered online, students who struggle with attendance due to anxiety, chronic illness such as Crohn’s disease, and other disability related issues, can now access their courses from the comfort of their home. Professors are relying less on timed assessments based on rote memorization and instead are asking open ended critical thinking test questions that students can answer within an expanded window of time. Students are able to choose the best time for them to access their tests and coursework in consideration with times of their therapy, side effects of their medication, or the episodic nature of possible chronic pain. A distraction-free home environment that allows freedom of movement and frequent breaks can be an advantage for people with ADD/ADHD or chronic fatigue. Students with vocal tics, repetitive movements or sensory sensitivities sometimes associated with Tourette’s or ASD, may feel more comfortable participating in a class when they are able to hit the mute button or momentarily disable the video in their synchronous classes. Asynchronous classes offer students the chance to replay lectures as many times as a student with learning disabilities may need.

Like most college campuses, at FM we have seen a steady increase in the number of students who identify as having a disability each year. The unexpected move to remote learning required a change in accommodation plans for many of these students but, surprisingly, the majority required less services rather than more. Although we continue to offer on-campus testing, notetaking services, and adaptive technology, most remote learners have declined because they feel recorded lectures, expanded availability of digital textbooks, and the use of screen readers meet their needs. The Accessibility Services office has been instructing students on how to use their own computers accessibility features such as Narrative and Screen Enlargers.

While online and remote coursework are not the preferred mode of learning for every student, if offered in keeping with the principles of Universal Design, it can benefit both students with and without disabilities. Some professors have surprised themselves with the technological skills they’ve acquired out of necessity due to COVID-19. Thanks to our rapidly advancing world of technology, FM’s commitment to Electronic Information Technology (EIT) Accessibility, and the rethinking of traditional methods of education, the future delivery of education could be as diverse as our students learning styles, abilities and interests.

This article was written by Robin DeVito, CRC. She serves as the Coordinator of Accessibility, Alternate Testing and Counseling at Fulton-Montgomery Community College.

By Patricia Older