Designing for All Learners
At Class, we believe changing the way the world learns means ensuring equal opportunities for all learners to succeed. And that’s why we’re dedicated to making virtual education accessible and inclusive for all.
While online learning grows in demand–with more students learning online than ever–ensuring virtual classrooms meet standards of accessible education is essential to the future of learning globally.
In this blog post, read about accessibility in traditional and online education. Understand the challenges of in-person educational systems and best practices for online instruction to support students with diverse needs. And learn how Class’s online learning platform promotes inclusivity for all students, no matter their learning style, disabilities, or challenges.
What is Accessibility in Education?
Accessibility in education refers to the ability of learners with disabilities to access and participate in learning activities, services, and resources equally. That includes individuals with visual, auditory, motor, cognitive, and physical disabilities and impairments.
Students with learning disabilities comprise sizable enrollments of both K-12 and Higher Education. As of May 2022, the National Center for Education (NCE) reports 7.2 million, or roughly 15% of all K-12 students enrolled in public schools, receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). And of these students, 33% of them have “specific learning disabilities” or a disorder where processes involved with spoken or written language interfere with learning. Other research from NCE suggests that 19% of all enrolled undergraduates and 12% of all enrolled graduate students report having disabilities. And the National Center for Learning Disabilities suggests that 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning and attention issues.
Accessibility in education is essential to ensure that every learner can achieve their full potential and receive a quality education. As such, institutions and educators must prioritize accessibility in their planning, design, and delivery of educational programs and services to guarantee they are truly inclusive and accessible to all.
Why is Accessibility Important to Online Learning?
By making time and place flexible, online learning reaches wider audiences than in-person classrooms. And while demand for distance learning grows, it must be designed to accommodate every learner.
The rapid shift to learning online produced mixed results for students with disabilities. While the pandemic forced schools to retool online learning offerings, students with disabilities faced more strenuous challenges. This was partly because special education students had limited home access to the internet and experienced interruptions to services due to governmental policies.
Yet despite difficulties, online learning offers key advantages. A national survey from September of 2022 indicated that students with learning disabilities saw increased benefits from online classrooms, like the ability to watch lectures repeatedly, live transcriptions, and recorded notes, among other things.
Challenges of In-Person Education to Students with Disabilities
Traditional in-person education has not fully supported students with disabilities. Worldwide, students with disabilities are less likely to complete primary or secondary education and are less likely to achieve basic literacy skills. Major challenges include:
Physical barriers are a significant issue for many learners, particularly those with mobility impairments or other disabilities. Educational institutions–especially K-12 schools–may not have the resources or infrastructure to accommodate mobile disabilities. Classroom layouts may not sufficiently facilitate mobility aid, where only 65% of students with disabilities aged 6-21 spend 80% or more of their school day in the general education setting.
Another limitation of in-person education is communication barriers. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may have difficulty following lectures or participating in discussions. And students with visual impairments may have difficulty accessing visual learning content.
According to the World Health Organization, over 430 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, while over 1 billion people have moderate to severe distance vision impairment or blindness. Estimates suggest that over 300,000 school-age students in the United States alone are hearing impaired. Without accommodations such as sign language interpretation, captioning, or audio description, these students may struggle to engage with learning material.
Limited Time Schedules
Traditional in-person education often follows rigid schedules, which can be challenging for students with disabilities to attend classes regularly, especially those with attention deficit disorders. Rigid schedules can also limit the availability of support services and resources outside of class time.
Inaccessibility of Materials
Traditional textbooks or other course materials can be a significant issue for learners with disabilities or language barriers. For example, textbooks may not be available in accessible formats, such as Braille or audio versions. Materials may also not be available in languages other than the language of primary instruction.
Benefits of Online Learning for Students with Disabilities
Online learning offers a range of benefits for individuals with learning disabilities. And recent research at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels indicates that disabled students find online courses more appealing. These benefits include flexible schedules, customized learning environments, self-paced and self-directed learning, and a wider range of resources and support services, including increased access to mental health professionals. Other benefits include digital content remediation, and accessibility features of online classrooms, such as support for interpreters, closed captions, and recorded playback.
How Class Supports Students with Disabilities
Class’s virtual classroom is committed to making virtual education accessible for all. Our team combines inclusive design practices with global accessibility principles to create a learner experience that is engaging and functional for all students and instructors.
Here’s a rundown of our online classroom’s most notable accessibility features.
Class provides real-time text transcriptions of all conversations in the classroom, making it possible for students to engage without missing information. Instructors can choose to generate captions automatically or manually create them.
All participants in a session have the option to show captions, ensuring students with hearing loss can still engage with the material. Captions are also helpful for those with temporary hearing impairments, such as ear infections, or learning in distracting or noisy environments.
Class takes live transcription to the next level with Class Notes. Students can highlight specific transcript pieces and add notes or comments, creating more interactive learning experiences. This is especially useful for students with difficulty remembering, paying attention, or processing spoken information. After the session, students can view and export their supported notes easily. Class notes will be released in 2023.
Support for Interpreters
Class offers several features that help interpreters and their audience. We’ve added a unique role for interpreters called “Sign Language Cam,” which gives them a colored border and label for easy identification. Users can pin their video feed to ensure the interpreter’s video is always visible. Instructors can add the interpreter to the podium or to the front of the room for better visibility. This feature meets the standards of ASL interpreting for learners who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Screen Reader Compatibility
Class is tested for screen reader compatibility, allowing people with visual impairments to navigate the app and access content using speech on their keyboard. Screen readers can also:
- Read the on-screen text: allows visually impaired users to understand and navigate the app
- Provide audio feedback: helps ensure users know when they’re interactive with actionable elements, like buttons and links, and when their actions have been successful
- Identify images: provides an understanding of what is being shown through alt text
Many students and instructors may have difficulty using a mouse or touchpad, so we aim to make Class fully keyboard-navigable. Keyboard navigation allows users to control the app using only the keyboard. Proper ARIA labels and a meaningful sequence make this method easier and more accessible. We’ve also implemented keyboard shortcuts where appropriate, which help speed up the navigation of major functions, like moving between activities.
Best Instructional Practices for Students with Disabilities in Online Classrooms
Beyond technology tools, the right instructional strategies matter–especially for students with diverse needs.
In addition to ensuring learning technology meets accessibility standards for online education, educators must also design instruction to support learners with disabilities. For example, while communication and language are integral to cognitive development and learning, learners with diverse needs require different instructional strategies.
The International Journal of Multicultural Education published a 2021 review of the literature and recommends the following best practices for instructional pedagogy online for learners with disabilities.
Collaboration supports students with disabilities and is important in online classrooms to develop interactions with empathy, interaction, and quality. Whether in face-to-face synchronous or asynchronous learning settings, active collaboration from educators can establish connected learning communities. Research demonstrates that collaborative quality and perceived connectedness of teacher-student interactions are key factors in engagement and success for learners with disabilities.
Personalization in online classrooms means customizing the teaching environment, instruction, and tools to allow learners to interact with materials and lessons however suits them best.
This is especially important for learners with diverse needs, who require individualized support, services, attention, and professionals for their learning impairments. It also includes exercise agency on what devices–from smartphones and tablets to laptops–suit them best.
In a social-constructivist framework, authenticity means materials and lessons are culturally relevant to learners’ socio-cultural backgrounds, aspirations, and goals. When designing instructions online, consider your students’ unique backgrounds and individual learning contexts or spaces. Relatedly, research suggests authenticity was a natural aspect of distance learning environments during the COVID-19 pandemic because it placed learning in each student’s home.
Designing an Accessible Future of Learning Online
Accessibility is crucial to online education. Improving it ensures that students with disabilities have equal access to education.
By incorporating accessibility into technology and instructional design, and providing training and resources, educators and administrators can ensure that students with learning disabilities get the most out of online classrooms.